The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

March 24, 2022

Preimplantation genetic testing for IVF—protector or pariah?

It’s rare you see an ethical point-counterpoint play out in real time in the pages of a major journal, but that’s what we find this week accompanying the announcement by researchers at MyOme in Menlo Park, California, who sequenced the genomes of 110 embryos and used statistical techniques to model susceptibility for 12 common inherited conditions. DNA testing is already used to detect rare genetic disorders and select the “best” embryos before in vitro fertilization (IVF) implantation, and some experts advocate for its wider use, to detect predispositions to common diseases such as heart disease and cancer. The new research demonstrates the feasibility of that while an accompanying commentary warns about overstating the potential of such testing, racial and economic disparities, and the potential unintended consequences of “hyper-parenting” by selecting embryos based on gender or height. Nature Medicine

Blood biomarker links exercise with cognitive resilience

Paving the way for future population-based studies looking at the cognitive benefit of exercise and other lifestyle interventions, researchers at Rush University Medical Center have characterized a blood biomarker called plasma neurofilament light chain (NfL) and have shown how it could be used to study the effect of exercise on cognitive function over time. Looking at 1,158 older adults in the Chicago Health and Aging Project with varying concentrations of serum NfL, they found that medium and high physical activity were both associated with slower cognitive decline among older adults. JAMA Network Open

Long-term antibiotic use in middle age may increase mental aging

Analyzing medical records and neuropsychological tests taken by 14,542 women in the Nurses’ Health Study II, doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have found a connection between chronic, long-term antibiotic use by women in their 50s and lower mean cognitive scores seven years later. Taking at least a two-month course of antibiotics was associated with small but significant mental declines—roughly equivalent to 3–4 years of aging. The effect may be due to the impact of the drugs on the gut microbiome, the authors say, and it highlights, “the importance of antibiotic stewardship, especially among aging populations.” PLOS ONE

Clinical music goes off the charts

After a proto.life feature appeared last week arguing that music itself is a form of medicine, our writer did not have to wait long for a triumphant I told you so. A new meta-analysis of 26 studies involving 779 people variously testing music therapy shows it works—though the studies were too varied to be prescriptive. Some studies had people listening to live gospel singers, and others to recorded music. Some had people singing or playing instruments. Others tested adding music to standard treatments. All forms of musical interventions were associated with statistical and clinically significant improvements to well-being and health-related quality of life, say the authors from Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media in Germany. They conclude more research is needed to clarify optimal music interventions and doses. We say: Rock on! JAMA Network Open

Regenerative medicine: New targets for COPD identified in mice

Researchers announce a potential new way of targeting lung cells to regenerate tissue and save people from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a set of deadly disorders that block airflows, cause breathing problems for at least 16 million people in the United States, and claim 15 American lives every hour. There is no cure for COPD, but new research from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands is looking to change that. The researchers screened mice exposed to secondhand smoke, identified gene signatures associated with chronic smoking, and used that data to derive druggable molecular targets expressed in progenitor cells that give rise to epithelial cells lining the lung’s “alveolar” air sacs. Most therapeutically promising are molecules known as EP and IP prostanoid receptors. Targeting them could potentially repair COPD-injured lungs, the authors say. Science Advances

Spirulina: It’s not just health food anymore

Once consumed by the Aztecs, the blue-green algae cyanobacterium Arthrospira platensis—better known as spirulina—is rich in proteins and antioxidants. It was developed by NASA as a dietary supplement for astronauts in the 1960s, and it’s been a favorite of hippies, hipsters, and health nuts ever since. Now researchers at Lumen Bioscience in Seattle have found a way to genetically modify spirulina to express large amounts of bioactive proteins—up to 15 percent of their total biomass. At that concentration, they say, protein-based biopharmaceuticals may not need to be further purified and could potentially be prepared in a powder form that would not need refrigeration. As a proof-of-principle, they engineered a form of spirulina to express antibodies targeting Campylobacter bacteria, a major cause of diarrheal disease and infant deaths worldwide. Feeding it to mice prevented infections, and a phase 1 clinical trial showed it was safe in humans. Nature Biotechnology

Driverless tractors to appear this fall

Associated Press is reporting that giant, green, 14-ton driverless tractors will begin rolling off the assembly line of the John Deere factory in Waterloo, Iowa, this fall, “harkening the age of autonomous farming,” they report. AP says the tractors have been in development for a decade, are expected to cost at least $500,000, and will be able to plow the fields all day and night. Finally there’s a driverless vehicle we no longer have to fear malfunctioning on a city street. AP

Compassion for clams

We tend to look with disdain at the callous cruelty of the tens of thousands of curious 17th century onlookers who toured London’s famed Bedlam asylum every year to gawk at the sick residents and sometimes mercilessly bait the unfortunate “lunaticks.” A better understanding of mental illness has given us more compassion today, even if psychiatric treatments are still imperfect and mental illness remains stigmatized. What cruel practices of the early 21st century will future generations of humans deplore? A new perspective by researchers at Emory University in Atlanta and York University in Toronto suggests one could be our indifference to animal suffering, particularly boiling crustaceans alive. Reviewing the latest behavioral tools to evaluate sentience and emotional responses in animals, the researchers suggest compassion for the experience of invertebrates like lobsters, clams, and crabs may become part of the human moral landscape. Science