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

June 8, 2023

Taurine supplementation increases lifespan and healthspan in lab animals

One of the most abundant amino acids found in the bloodstream of many animals is a small chemical called taurine. But taurine blood levels tend to decline over a creature’s lifetime. Now that deficiency has been shown to be a driver of aging in mice, worms, and monkeys thanks to a large collaboration of researchers at Columbia University, the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University in Bundoora, Australia, the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute in Heidelberg, Australia, Technical University of Munich, Germany, Integral University in Lucknow, India, and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California. They showed reversing taurine loss improves the lifespans of mice and the healthspans of monkeys. What does this mean for humans? Our blood levels also decline as we age, dropping about 80 percent over our lifetimes. Could taurine supplementation lengthen lives or improve health? Only well-controlled clinical trials could answer that, they write. Science

Will mushrooms save the planet?

Could fungi be an important wedge for driving down global warming? That’s the implication of a paper from researchers at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and the University of Sheffield in England, which explores how much carbon is sunk into underground mycelium stores. Providing the first estimates of total global carbon allocation to mycorrhizal fungi, the researchers estimate some 13.12 billion tons of carbon dioxide are fixed by terrestrial plants and allocated to mycorrhizal mycelium every year. That equates to 36 percent of current annual carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, an amount greater than the total yearly greenhouse gas emissions of China, the world’s largest emitter. Based on this analysis, the researchers are calling for fungi to be considered a key tool for conservation, and they are investigating whether we can increase how much carbon the soil can be coaxed to hold and how to foster the growth of more fungi. Current Biology

Fungi image courtesy of the University of Sheffield

Precious cardio: Replacement heart valves that expand as a child grows

Some 44,000 U.S. babies are born each year with congenital heart disease, many of whom require lifesaving open-heart surgery to replace defective valves. But the replacement valves do not grow with the child, and they often have to be themselves replaced with additional repeated high-risk surgeries. Now researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Wyss Translational Center at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich in Switzerland have designed an implantable technology called FibraValves that can fabricate a replacement valve in just minutes in a rotary jet printer that can expand and grow with a child throughout their life, potentially eliminating the need for additional replacement surgeries. Matter

A tour-de-force for synthetic biology

Anyone who has any lingering doubts about the promise of synthetic biology should look at the new report from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Yunnan Agricultural University in Kunming, China. Researchers there have deciphered the synthetic pathway of the antidepressant orcinol glucoside, a natural product and traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine derived from the plant Curculigo orchioides, an Indian herb also known as “kali musli.” But this plant is endangered, so the Chinese researchers engineered the biosynthetic pathways the plant uses to produce the antidepressant into the more easily grown yeast Yarrowia lipolytica, achieving yields over 6,400-fold higher than what could normally be extracted from the natural plant. PLOS Biology

Pituitary tissue grown from stem cells

Doctors at Nagoya University in Aichi, Japan, have developed a way to produce purified pituitary cells and hormone-secreting pituitary organoids from human pluripotent stem cells. When the tissues were transplanted into mice with hypopituitarism, the animals showed long-lasting improvement in adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) levels, a key part of the endocrine system and your body’s response to stress. The pituitary gland produces and secretes ACTH in response to stress, which triggers downstream release of cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone,” as well as the production and release of androgen sex hormone from adrenal glands. “Our strategy provides a new method to produce high-quality pituitary cells suitable for transplantation therapy,” the researchers write. Stem Cell Reports

Treatment, comorbidity, and clinical trials

In what may be both a triumph and a failure of modern medicine, investigators at the University of Glasgow in Scotland analyzed 120 randomized, controlled clinical trials that included 128,331 people testing treatments for two dozen chronic diseases. Surprisingly, the study found no evidence that treatment efficacy is affected by “comorbidities” or other long-term health issues. That’s a triumph for reductionist medicine because it shows a drug’s effectiveness can be unchanged by other illnesses. But the study also reveals a stark failure of modern medicine, uncovering how people with comorbidities are underrepresented in clinical trials—and those with the worst comorbidities are often excluded entirely. PLOS Medicine

Moral decline: It’s all in your mind!

A Gallup poll last year found that more than half of all Americans rate the overall state of moral values in the United States as “poor,” our worst, most dismal self-assessment ever. What accounts for this moral decline? According to researchers at Columbia and Harvard, nothing. They say it’s a pervasive, enduring, yet unfounded illusion that people in dozens of countries have subscribed to for several decades. Perhaps it’s a psychological coping mechanism—if you think the world is going to hell anyway, getting old and facing your own mortality is that much easier. But illusions can be dangerous when they inform public policy, such as in Uganda. Their president last week signed into law one of the world’s most restrictive anti-gay bills, which was strongly informed by irrational fears of moral decline. Uganda joins a small group of repressive regimes, led by Iran, where prosecutors can now seek life imprisonment, even the death penalty, for homosexual men and women. Nature