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

October 5, 2023

Endangered species biobank seeks to protect America’s natural history

The biodiversity sentinels at the nonprofit wildlife organization Revive & Restore, which promotes the use of biotechnology in conservation, is spearheading a new collaboration with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to establish a biobank for endangered species. Partnering with the Cedar Park, Texas, pet cloning company ViaGen Pets & Equine, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, the partnership is aiming to collect and cryopreserve cells, tissue, and DNA from the more than 1,700 U.S. species currently threatened or endangered—starting with the so-called “lobo” Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), the pug-faced Florida bonneted bat (Eumops floridanus), and the elegant Sonoran pronghorn (Antilocapra americana sonoriensis). “This is about creating a legacy of America’s natural history before it is lost and provides an important resource to enhance species recovery efforts now and in the future,” said a Revive & Restore spokesman in a press statement.

A small skin sample was collected from this endangered Preble’s meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius preblei) prior to release as part of the new biobanking program. Kika Tuff, Revive & Restore

Largest proteomics studies ever conducted

Three papers in Nature this week achieved a stunning milestone, together comprising the largest proteomics studies ever conducted—a field that looks at how DNA becomes proteins in the body, with special attention to things like how genetic variations alter protein levels in tissues or the bloodstream and how those alterations contribute to human diseases. The first study, led by AstraZeneca in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Biogen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looked at nearly 3,000 circulating proteins in blood plasma samples taken from 49,736 volunteers in the UK Biobank. It found 2,923 rare genetic variants associated with protein levels in the blood. The second study, led by deCODE Genetics/Amgen in Reykjavik, Iceland, compared the British data to that of 36,000 Icelandic people.

The third study is the crowning achievement of a public-private partnership called the Pharma Proteomics Project, which bills itself as a “precompetitive biopharma consortium.” Led by Biogen, Pfizer, Novo Nordisk, Genentech, Amgen, GlaxoSmithKline, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, this work unveils a massive public resource. They characterized blood plasma profiles from 54,219 UK Biobank participants, mapped 2,923 proteins to clinical traits, and identified 14,287 primary genetic associations, 81 percent of which were previously unknown. The consortium is making all the data freely available worldwide. Nature

Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act at 25

Should we be concerned that the vast majority of people in Oregon who opt for assisted suicide today are Medicare/Medicaid recipients—or that more than half say their fear of financial distress drove their decision? How worrisome is it that the average relationship between the lethal-drug-prescribing physician and their final exit client has dropped from 18 weeks to just five since 2012—or that only 1 in 100 people are referred for psychiatric assessment? Those are the questions raised by a new survey of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which legalized physician-assisted suicide in the 1990s and survived two statewide ballot measures as well as a U.S. Supreme Court challenge. The survey was conducted by researchers at St. Oswald’s Hospice in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom, who identified critical data gaps and say prospective studies are needed to determine how socioeconomic factors like poverty influence someone’s wish for an assisted death. BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care

Biased AI begets biased people

One of the well-known shortcomings of artificial intelligence is the propensity toward bias. Algorithms trained on skewed data sets will, not surprisingly, output equally skewed results. That raises major health concerns as we contemplate AI assistance in medical decision making: Simply put, will biased AI systems make patient outcomes worse? Now psychologists at Deusto University in Bilbao, Spain, have shown bias can work in reverse, since people tend to perceive algorithms as objective and impartial. They conducted experiments with 169 psychology students that mimicked clinical decision-making tasks, some aided by AI, some not. They showed that the students tended to reproduce the AI model’s bias in their own decisions, even when they no longer had the support of the AI assistant. Scientific Reports

Telehealth could be here to stay

The early days of COVID-19 were a double whammy for children with mental health needs. The pandemic caused many in-person pediatric psychiatry appointments to be canceled even as widespread deaths, lockdowns, school closures, and social distancing piled on distress. In swept telehealth. Surveying pediatric mental health utilization from January 2019 to August 2022, researchers at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, found that in-person mental health services declined by 42 percent during the early phase of the pandemic, while telehealth services increased by a whopping 3,027 percent. By August 2022, in-person services had climbed back up to 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels while telehealth remained high—2,300 percent above 2019 levels. Overall the pandemic increased mental health visits by children 18 and younger by 21.7 percent (and increased mental health spending by 26.1 percent). JAMA Network Open

Our physical response to live classical music

Does music move the ephemeral soul? Such a question seems almost silly in light of a new study from the University of Bern in Switzerland, which shows just how much it moves an audience physically. The study analyzed the physiological and motor responses of 132 people listening to classical concerts featuring various chamber music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Brett Dean, and Johannes Brahms. It found “clear evidence” that the music induced strongly synchronized heart beats, physical movements, and skin conductance. Moreover, the audience members were given before-and-after questionnaires to discern how this synchronization was linked to the aesthetic tastes and personality of the audience members. The more a person felt emotionally moved by a piece, and the more they allowed themselves to become immersed in the music, the more their heart beats were synchronized. Scientific Reports

Virtual spaces and their emotional impact

The overwhelming weight of architecture on the brain is a fascinating modern topic—and it’s not some pseudo psychobabble pastiche dreamed up by an overpriced design firm. Physical spaces actually do exert a heavy gravitational pull on our minds. They impact our cognition, mood, and behavior, and this connection is fundamental. Why? One theory is that it’s because the brain’s motor system contains overlapping machinery for both spatial awareness and social cognition. Now researchers at the National Research Council of Italy and the University of Parma have teased apart this machinery and shown how it can be manipulated. Using eye-tracking and EEG to monitor the brain activity of 24 people in virtual environments, they showed that the way their brains processed different virtual architectures influenced their judgment of the body language of the virtual human avatars that appeared in those spaces. “This study demonstrates that the manipulation of mere architectural space is sufficient to influence human social cognition,” the authors write. PNAS

Shedding new light on the hygiene hypothesis

Decades ago scientists observed that people growing up in spic-and-span Scandinavian countries suffered from allergies more often than people raised in countries where environmental sanitation may be sorely lacking. But when people moved from one of those latter countries to a cleaner spot in Northern Europe, their children were more likely to suffer allergies as well. That led to the still-controversial hygiene hypothesis, which claims that people who receive more environmental germ exposure in early life are less likely to develop allergic diseases because their immune systems tolerate the allergens (it’s sometimes called the “old friends” hypothesis for that reason). But a study at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and Friedrich Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany, calls that mechanism into question. Observing “wildling” mice, which are the genetically identical but pigpen versions of standard, pathogen–free laboratory mice, they found the wildlings do mount strong immune responses to allergens after all. But the responses may be better regulated. Science Immunology