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

June 17, 2021

What biology could learn from weather prediction

A group of Stanford biologists are drawing inspiration this week from math-heavy meteorology for the quantitative modeling of whole human cells. Numerical weather prediction relies on collecting boatloads of daily data from sea buoys to satellites in low-Earth orbit to model air and ocean circulation, and then using supercomputers to crunch equations and model weather fronts as they move forward into the future. Biologists could do the same thing with cells, which like Earth’s atmosphere are multiscale, complex, nonlinear systems, but they offer an even greater wealth of data: genomic sequences, tissue expression patterns, epigenetic post-translational modifications, clinical outcomes across human and animal disease states, etc. Holistically making sense of it all in computational models is still far off, but the lesson of weather prediction suggests it’s doable. Cell Systems

First benchtop enzymatic nucleic acid printer promises speed, mobility

San Francisco-based company DNA Script has launched their new SYNTAX System this week, which they describe as the first benchtop nucleic acid printer based on enzymatic synthesis rather than traditional chemical approaches for producing DNA oligomers. The printer promises 96 DNA strands of up to 60 base pairs each synthesized in parallel and on-site, cutting down wait times from days or weeks to six hours or so. They also recently announced a partnership with Moderna to create a rapidly deployable version that could fit on the back of a truck or plane and produce vaccines rapidly on-site during future outbreaks. DNA Script announcement

All the news that’s fit to print—unless you say “mice”

We admit it—even we sometimes get carried away by research done in mice, even though we know full well translating that mouse science to humans is a long shot. However, it’s a disservice when news outlets fail to specify that fact, since clearly research in mice is still closer to benchtop than to bedside. Turns out it’s not just news outlets obscuring that detail. Researchers with Humane Society International analyzed 623 papers published from 2018–2019 that reported results from Alzheimer’s disease research in mice, and they found that what drives media headlines most often are the study titles themselves. When scientists don’t mention mice in their titles, media headlines typically don’t do so either, which means those sans-mouse-mention papers are covered more often in the press and tweeted almost twice as often. For the record, 99.6 percent of experimental Alzheimer’s drugs tested in animals turned out to be either ineffective or too toxic when given to people. PLOS Biology

Sleep deprivation enhances memory—in older mice

As we age, our often fragmented sleep can trigger impaired memory recall because it disrupts the consolidation of memories in the hippocampus. A study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the University of Texas at San Antonio found that acute sleep deprivation is bad for young mice: It impaired hippocampus-dependent object and place recognition, as expected. But unexpectedly, the same was not true in the older mice—sleep deprivation actually enhanced their memory performance. Could acute sleep deprivation have the potential to reverse age-related memory deficits in people? An intriguing new hypothesis. Cell Reports

Gender gap deprives us of female-focused inventions

When it comes to commercial patenting, there is a well-established gender disparity. In the United States, women account for just 13 percent of patent holders but make up 35 percent of the STEM community. This inventor gender gap may also be one of the reasons we don’t have more female-focused inventions. Examining data from more than 440,000 biomedical patents awarded from 1976–2010, researchers at Harvard Business School in Boston, University of Navarra in Barcelona, and McGill University in Montreal found that patents with all-female inventor teams were 35 percent more likely to focus on women’s health. They also estimated that if men and women were producing patents equally during those years, there would be about 6,500 more female-focused inventions today. Science

The share of inventions by female-majority teams rises from 6.3% in 1976 to 16.2% in 2010, still accounting for fewer than 1 in 5 U.S. biomedical patents. Koning et al., Science (2021)

What your gut says about health inequity

A team of researchers at Northwestern University and other institutions are calling for integrating studies of the gut microbiome into future investigations of health inequities. Accounting for microbe–host interactions in the human gut would help us understand the many ways a person’s social and physical environs influence their health. This could account for some of the mechanisms through which discrimination on the basis of race, sexual identity, gender, and socioeconomic status can impact biological pathways and drive health inequities. PNAS

Unlabeled chemicals found in lipstick, makeup, and common US cosmetics

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a collection of at least 4,700 hydrophobic chemical compounds found in countless U.S. products, from firefighting foam to nonstick skillets to the lipstick, foundation, and mascara you might be using. Unfortunately, some PFAS are toxic, and some have been called “forever chemicals” because they don’t readily degrade over time. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame sampled 231 name-brand cosmetics purchased at retail stores in the United States and Canada between 2016–2020. They found fluoro-chemicals in more than half of them, and at higher levels in foundation and mascaras labeled “wear-resistant” or “long-lasting.” Only 8 percent of those products listed any type of PFAS on their label, prompting new legislation in the Senate this week. Environmental Science & Technology Letters