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

September 28, 2023

Potential biomarkers of long COVID

Despite the rapidly rolled-out good antiviral therapies and effective vaccines for COVID-19 during the initial phase of the coronavirus pandemic, at least two lingering problems have persisted: Why do so many people develop the post-acute infection syndrome known as long COVID, and what can we do about it? Marked by unremitting chronic fatigue, feelings of sickness after any exertion, brain fog, and a variety of other symptoms, the prospect of long COVID is often scarier than coronavirus itself. Now doctors with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and Yale School of Medicine in New Haven have found they can use machine learning to analyze blood tests and patient histories and detect long COVID with 96 percent accuracy. The telltale signs of the syndrome are complicated—subtle and individualized changes in the immune system and hormone dysfunction—but they are detectable. And if proven reliable, they could become the first reliable biomarkers of long COVID. Nature

On your mark, get set, DRESS!

In the never-ending quest for ways to make ourselves better, faster, and stronger, roboticists at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, South Korea, have developed a soft exoskeleton suit with powered actuators that can shave almost an entire second off your 200-meter sprint time. They claim it’s the first device shown to reduce sprint time in the real world for non-elite runners. “We hope that our results will serve as a starting point for research focused on exceeding the limits of human capabilities through wearable robots,” they write. It’s not clear whether this technology would improve times for elite runners—or what governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) think. But if they haven’t considered what enhanced athletes might look like, maybe it’s time. Science Robotics

New warning for elite athletes

This week a committee convened by the IOC and led by sports medicine experts at McMaster University in Waterloo, Ontario, has released an updated consensus statement this week on “Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport” (REDs). This phenomenon is driven by the extremely high expectations coaches, teams, and fans place on elite athletes to do the impossible (not to mention the intense pressure they put on themselves to always achieve optimal performance). That performance pressure can alter energy intake and its expenditure during exercise, leading to conditions of low-energy availability, which could have dramatically negative health and performance implications for the athlete. “Our work aims to stimulate action,” the statement reads, “to protect the health and wellbeing of the many athletes at risk for developing this syndrome.” British Journal of Sports Medicine

Improving plastic destruction with synthetic biology

Environmentalists have been waiting a long time for microbes to prove their worth in breaking down plastic to mitigate pollution. Now researchers at MIT and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have demonstrated a novel approach to boosting the efficiency of engineered microorganisms in doing this. Rather than using one natural or synthetic organism to degrade plastics, they made a microbial “consortium” of two different synthetic engineered strains of Pseudomonas putida bacteria. Working together and dividing the chemical labor between them, the two strains combined more efficiently degraded polyethylene plastic. This “demonstrates engineered consortia as a promising, effective platform that may facilitate polymer upcycling and environmental sustainability,” the researchers write. Nature Communications

State-of-the-art optogenetic brain control

Researchers at Yonsei University and Korea University in Seoul have developed a wireless brain control device that uses a tiny skull cap solar panel to recharge. Freed from wires and the need for stationary recharging, it’s an incremental but important advance in optogenetics, which uses implantable light emitting devices to monitor and alter cellular activity in live animals—triggering neuronal activity in specific parts of the brain, for instance. Many studies have shown that optogenetics can neuromodulate brain activity to achieve things like controlling the behavior of mice. And they hold great promise for treating human neurological diseases. The new device enables solar energy harvesting and wireless charging, a step toward completely free and long-lasting wireless optogenetic devices. “The technology holds potential for significant contributions to the treatment of neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and other related conditions,” the researchers write. Science Advances

Best practices for your next Zoom

And in the news-you-can-use category, psychologists at the U.K.’s Durham University have concluded from a study involving 167 people the best way to impress via Zoom. Looking at issues like video background, facial expression, and gender on another meeting participant’s first impressions of trustworthiness and competence, they found some intriguing tips. Plants and books behind the speaker bestow confidence while other backgrounds, like a living room or a novel setting (like an arctic seascape with a giant walrus), do not. Happy faces were perceived as more trustworthy and competent than neutral faces, and women were rated as more trustworthy regardless of the background they were using. PLOS One