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

July 15, 2021

Real-time decoding of thought-to-speech in Facebook-funded clinical trial

People who suffer “anarthria” and lose their ability to speak because of a brain stem stroke or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis often retain their cognitive language skills, and brain–computer interfaces (BCIs) have emerged as promising technologies for translating cerebral activity into computerized speech. Now neurosurgeons at the University of California, San Francisco are reporting promising results in a Facebook-funded clinical trial involving a single person implanted with electrodes that decoded their cortical activity in real time. The device detected cognitive attempts to form words 98 percent of the time and accurately predicted those words almost half the time. It did even better decoding sentences, translating them at about 15 words per minute with an error rate of around 25 percent. New England Journal of Medicine

Lab-grown ovarian follicles grow mature oocytes—and live mice

Researchers at Kyushu University and several other biomedical institutions in Japan are reporting a breakthrough this week that could have huge implications for assisted reproductive technologies and human fertility treatments. They took pluripotent embryonic stem cells from mice and grew ovarian follicle structures from them—reconstituting those specialized fluid-filled sacs in which oocyte eggs mature in fertile females. They used those follicle structures to mature primordial germ cells into fully functional mature oocytes in the laboratory, which they then fertilized in vitro and ultimately produced viable mouse offspring. Science

Military to test anti-aging pill in FY 2022

A news report out this week reveals that a multi-million dollar project spearheaded by U.S. Special Operations Command will move into clinical trials by next year. In collaboration with the company Metro International Biotech, the project is developing small-molecule drugs containing nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide oxidized state (NAD+) enhancers. Enhancing NAD+ metabolism could help the body adapt to challenges like injuries, infections, toxic exposures, and sleep loss, and it could ultimately help slow the aging process. Sounds promising, but leading anti-aging expert Aubrey de Grey is quoted in the same article predicting the pill is doomed to failure. “This is better than nothing, but not much better,” de Grey says. Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

New age clock based on inflammatory markers in the blood

Systemic, age-related inflammation, or “inflamm-aging,” as it is sometimes called, is implicated in a wide range of physiologies and diseases, and aging clocks are based on various biomarkers for tracking our lifespan and healthspan and our rate of aging over time. A group of researchers at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and Stanford University have developed a new aging clock called “iAge” that predicts things like heart health, immune senescence, age-related comorbidities, and frailty. The work is based on a larger project called the Stanford 1,000 Immunomes project, which is analyzing the blood components of 1,001 people, young and old. Nature Aging

Protein folding: Google’s DeepMind AI finally gets some competition

Since the early 1970s, computational biologists have dreamed of solving the “protein folding problem”—that essential translational puzzle where given nothing but the amino acid sequence of a protein or peptide, you accurately predict its three-dimensional structure. Solving it would dramatically speed drug and vaccine discovery, and last year, Google DeepMind’s AlphaFold2 came closer than ever, blowing away competition in a friendly contest and leading many to declare the problem finally solved. It’s not. But we are now seeing the impact of Google’s influence on the field. A group led by researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design in Seattle is reporting their open-source “RoseTTAFold” deep-learning algorithm comes close to AlphaFold2 and can accurately predict the folds of protein–protein complexes, including immune system proteins relevant to aging. Science

Protein design researchers used artificial intelligence to generate hundreds of new protein structures, including this 3D view of human interleukin-12 bound to its receptor. Ian Haydon, UW Medicine Institute for Protein Design

Could “borg” DNA shrink our carbon footprint?

Microbes living in the Earth’s soil called “methanotrophs” hold a key to mitigating climate change because they naturally oxidize methane, that abundant greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Now methanotrophs just got a whole lot more interesting. While studying samples taken from riverbeds and abandoned mines in Colorado and California, researchers at UC Berkeley discovered the existence of extrachromosomal DNA capable of independent replication, large pieces of DNA they are calling “borgs,” which they describe in a preprint this week. While the work is not yet peer reviewed, the discovery suggests while these borgs are found inside methane-oxidizing single-celled archea known as Methanoperedens, they are evolutionarily distinct and likely assimilated from other organisms. They may play a previously unrecognized natural role in augmenting methane breakdown—and could suggest new tools for future synthetic biology projects aimed at carbon mitigation. bioRxiv

Using the gut microbiome to predict celiac disease in infants

Although we have long known that gluten is the trigger of celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that affects more than 3 million people in the United States, the underlying disease mechanisms have remained incompletely understood, limiting our ability to predict disease onset and develop effective interventions. In a small clinical study, a team led by investigators at Harvard Medical School and the University of Maryland College Park mapped changes to the gut microbiome in 10 infants who developed celiac, and 10 who did not. Tracking compositional and metabolic changes to the gut microbiome from 18 months prior to disease onset, they were able to identify significant differences between the two cohorts, which could advance our clinical ability to anticipate and address the disease early on. PNAS

An interactive metabolomics explorer for the gut microbiome

The challenge of doing accurate, high-throughput analyses of the gut microbiome has thwarted efforts to uncover the mechanistic connections between gut microbes and human physiologies. But now scientists at Stanford University have developed a mass-spectrometry tool for analyzing metabolic activities and regulation in the gut, which they debuted by working out the metabolic profiles for 178 gut microorganisms. This resource can be used in the future to explore how these organisms and others interact with and influence their hosts. Nature

Smart fabrics that cool the body

Researchers at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, have developed a new type of fabric that cools the human body down by 4.8°C compared to comparable cotton clothing. The fabric has randomly dispersed fibers in it that help to radiate heat away, and it also reflects incident sunlight, adding to the cooling effect. The researchers say it would be a breathable, waterproof, durable, and cost-effective solution for future smart-fabric wearables. Science

Google bridges the quantum computing error gap

In quantum computing, as in life, it’s often not what you get right that counts toward your performance, but minimizing how often you’re wrong. Current state-of-the-art quantum computing platforms make errors about once out of every thousand or so logical operations—but experts predict that operational systems will need to achieve error rates as much as a trillion times lower. To bridge this gap, Google’s Quantum AI team has designed a way to detect and correct errors by redundantly distributing information across multiple “quibit” logical elements. Doing so lowered error rates by two orders of magnitude. While there’s still a long way to go, “These experimental demonstrations provide a foundation for building a scalable fault-tolerant quantum computer with superconducting qubits,” the authors report. Nature