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

June 9, 2022

Eating fish and skin cancer risk

The U.S. commercial fishing industry is a multi-billion-dollar behemoth that netted more than nine billion pounds of seafood in 2019 alone, according to NOAA. That same year, recreational fishing trips hauled in another 350 million pounds of fresh catch, benefitting restaurants, tackle shops, grocery stores, and dinner plates everywhere. But now a new study following 491,367 people for nine years has found an association between higher fish consumption, including tuna, and increased risk of melanoma. The cause is not clear, according to the researchers at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Could it be elevated toxins like mercury or dioxins in the fish—or the fact that people who eat a lot of fish somehow spend more time in the sun? Cancer Causes & Control

Autism and the female protective effect

Autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed 3–4 times more often in boys than in girls, and one of the proposed reasons for this is some mysterious, unknown “female protective effect” that somehow staves off the disorder in girls. This idea has been around for some time, but nobody has ever been able to prove it. This week, researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard announced they explored a large Danish database containing medical records and genetic information on children born in the country between 1981–2005 and their families. They showed that mothers of children with autism carry more common, inherited genetic risk factors than the fathers of those same children. And they found siblings of girls with autism were more likely to have autism themselves than siblings of boys with the disorder. What this demonstrates is that females are more tolerant of genetic risk factors for autism—though it’s still not clear how. Cell Genomics

Longevity in the eye of the fruit fly

We wrote about work at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging just last week, and now a new paper from the same institute shows that the eyes of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster are sensitive to diet and modulate the insect’s lifespan. Fruit flies are an important species for studying longevity in the laboratory because their small size and relatively short lifespans make experiments much easier to do—and they share many gene families with humans. Caloric restriction was known to extend the lives of fruit flies, and now the researchers have shown this effect is tied to protective circadian “clock” genes in their eyes. Altering these genes accelerated eye aging, induced systemic immune responses, and shortened the flies’ lifespans. This is a tantalizing result because vision loss is both a well-known consequence of human aging and a risk factor for things like age-related dementia. It may also explain why cave-dwelling fish and naked mole rats tend to live longer than their daylight cousins. Nature Communications

A finger in the uncanny valley

When it comes to creepy robots, nothing seems more sinister than a mechanical drone dressed up in human skin, like some character from a Philip K. Dick novel. Now researchers at the University of Tokyo have shown such skin jobs may not be so far out of reach. They fabricated a three-joint robotic finger covered with living human skin that achieves a realistic tone and texture. Not only that, but wounds to the finger can be healed by grafting on hydrogel patches, “resembling the process of skin graft surgery of human beings,” the researchers write. Matter

A robotic finger covered with living human skin self heals after researchers covered its wound with a collagen sheet. Shoji Takeuchi

Major CRISPR study predicts function of thousands of genes

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York have taken a big leap across the genotype/phenotype divide—that intellectual gulf that measures our lack of understanding between the tens of thousands of genes identified by human genome mapping and the far lower number of known physiological functions they control. Using CRISPR tools, they perturbed gene expression in more than 2.5 million human cells to predict the function of poorly characterized genes, and they are reporting numerous new discoveries of gene function this week—including genes that appear to regulate aspects of basic cell functions like transcription, translation, and mitochondrial respiration. Cell

The human kidney atlas

A new atlas called the Kidney Precision Medicine Project, constructed by researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Princeton University, the Flatiron Institute in New York, and the University of Michigan School of Medicine in Ann Arbor just dropped this week. Built from the biopsies from 56 adults, the reference reveals single cells, shared pathways, and culprit genes for the classification of kidney disease. Science Advances

Is justice an evolutionary adaptation?

The human need to seek justice is fundamental and universal. It crosses cultures throughout the world and is a cornerstone principle of laws in governments both ancient and modern. Scientists have shown in recent years that people can become so outraged at unjust behavior that they often accept personal risk or forego financial rewards just to punish perceived transgressors—even when they themselves are not wronged. Now researchers at Japan’s Osaka University have shown that even infants have the desire to punish unjust, antisocial behavior. Tracking selective eye gazes of 120 eight-month-old infants who were shown videos of objects or agents being caressed or crushed, they found the babies preferentially fixed their attention on the crushers over the caressors or the crushees—not measure of the infant’s desire for self-preservation but a previously determined proxy for punishment-related decision-making. “This behavioral tendency [among infants] may be a human trait acquired over the course of evolution,” the researchers write. Nature Human Behavior