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

October 7, 2021

How big scientific prizes push research forward

Awash in the still-new gush of excitement surrounding this week’s Nobel prize announcements, it may be too soon to ask what impact the prizes will be on the fields of somatosensation (medicine prize), complexity research (physics prize), and synthetic chemistry (chemistry prize), but a new study this week suggests it will be profound. Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago examined the 11,000 research topics in 19 scientific disciplines and identified topics linked to major prizes like the Lasker, Wolf, Fields, Turing, and Nobel, and they found that winning prizes was a strong driver of the subsequent growth of the field. In the 5–10 years after a major prize was given, there were 40 percent more papers, 33 percent more citations, and 37 percent growth in new scientists entering the field on those topics as compared to the growth of research on topics that did not win prizes. Nature Communications

Massive cell atlas of brain’s motor cortex

A collection of 17 papers that push our understanding of neurophysiology dropped this week from the BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network, an NIH-funded program that brings together a consortium of labs, including the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. By cataloging the molecular, functional, and physical diversity of cells within the primary motor cortex of the brains of mice, non-human primates, and humans, the papers lay bare what experts are calling an “atlas” or “census” of cells within this brain region. It’s a massive body of work that’s likely to stand as a major milestone in neuroscience—and one that should help uncover many of the ways the different interconnects between diverse cells in the brain translate into cognitive function and behavior. Nature

The neurobiology of anxiety, uncovered in mice

About a third of all people who suffer persistent, disruptive, and overwhelming forms of anxiety are unable to find sustained relief for their debilitating mental disorder in modern pharmaceuticals. But now researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health have uncovered the cellular mechanism underlying chronic psychosocial stress, a strong contributor to anxiety disorders. They found that psychosocial stress activates the PINK1-Parkin protein signaling pathway in the brains of mice, which leads to mitochondrial deficiency in their amygdala brain regions, weakened synaptic transmission, and increased anxiety. They could reverse those effects by knocking out the proteins or re-activating the synapses with optogenetics, which demonstrates that anxiety disorders in people could possibly be treated by targeting these same mechanisms. Neuron

Mechanically massaged mouse muscles heal faster

Harvard researchers developed a robotic device that can gently rub a soft, silicone-tipped probe along damaged muscles of mice. Using this contraption, they explored how massage can heal tissues by quantifying cytokines, chemokines, and other inflammatory factors over time as mouse muscles were rubbed. Their findings suggest that massage leads to faster healing by clearing neutrophils, immune cells that play an early role in tissue repair by clearing debris—but can impede healing by releasing reactive chemicals at sites of injury. The new work suggests massage promotes healing by physically clearing neutrophils from tissues when they are not needed. Science Translational Medicine

Tumors infected with synthetic bacteria more susceptible to cancer drugs

Infecting a tumor cell with bacteria might seem like an awful way to make a bad health problem worse, but synthetic biology sometimes makes for strange bedfellows. A group of researchers at University of Lugano in Switzerland has shown that colonizing tumors with a synthetic form of Escherichia coli bacteria, designed to continuously produce the amino acid L-arginine, renders them more susceptible to drugs based on PD-L1 antibodies, an immune checkpoint inhibitor. It works because L-arginine increases the effectiveness of the drugs, but it is typically found only in low concentrations in tumor cells. Nature

The secret sauce of sticky mussels

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have uncovered the mechanism whereby sea mussels produce the extremely strong bioadhesives that lock them onto the hulls of ships, buoys, and other slimy seashore surfaces. Mussels produce adhesive fibers to attach to these surfaces, and apparently when they do, they also pipe in proteins from channels in their body alongside a separately piped in mixture of pre-stored metal particles containing metallic vanadium—much like a tube of double-barreled A/B epoxy glue from the hardware store. The proteins and the vanadium form a complex that reinforces the bonds, and this discovery may hold the key to developing next-generation mussel-inspired metallopolymers and adhesives. Science

Photograph of mussels in New Hampshire. Courtesy of Jonathan Wilker/Purdue University.

AI suggests convergent evolution in olfaction

In a fascinating example of an AI imitating life, a group of researchers at Columbia University in New York City developed an artificial neural network designed to perform olfactory tasks, such as classifying odors. They wanted to test for convergent evolution (when different organisms independently evolve similar traits) and explore the question of why the olfactory systems of flies and mice are so similar, despite their evolutionary divergence some 500 million years ago. Their neural network successfully recapitulated the “remarkably similar” anatomical organization and neural connectivity of both animals, and they think this convergent evolution could reflect some underlying logic of olfaction we haven’t understood yet. Neuron

Skateboarding robot achieves a delicate balance

In a sure sign that the next generation of automatons are going to be way cooler than you or me, scientists at Caltech in Pasadena, California, have designed a robot that can skateboard around cones and walk on a slackline. While the robot “LEONARDO” can’t cut loose on a half-pipe just yet, it achieves a delicate balance normally difficult for a bipedal robot by combining electric propeller-like thrusters with a pair of synchronized, multi-joint legs. The researchers envision future iterations taking on dangerous jobs like inspecting high-voltage power lines or painting tall bridges, but we want to know: When will little LEO learn to ollie? Science Robotics