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

October 21, 2021

Massive data effort uncovers new genetic drivers of human health

One big goal of modern genetics is to close the “phenotype gap” by mapping how specific DNA sequences account for differences in human health. Researchers at Regeneron Genetics Center, part of the Tarrytown, NY-based pharmaceutical company, announced a milestone in that effort this week. They looked at exome sequences (the parts of genomes that get transcribed into mRNA) from 454,787 people in the UK Biobank, a database containing both genomic and clinical health data, and discovered 564 new gene variations associated with known health traits, including several linked to liver disease, eye disease, cancer, and hypertension risk. Nature

Body, brain, breath… anxiety?!

Focusing on your breathing is one of the most basic techniques in mindful meditation, and new research shows it works in part by tapping into “interoception,” your brain’s natural ability to perceive your own body. This cerebral function is crucial for maintaining your body’s healthy homeostasis, but it can become impaired in psychiatric illnesses like anxiety and panic disorder—where physical sensations are often misinterpreted and trouble breathing is a classic symptom. Now researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland used high-field fMRI to monitor brain activity in people with varying levels of anxiety as they were subjected to manipulated breathing resistance. That allowed them to uncover the link between breathing perception and anxiety and map it to the anterior insula region of the brain. Neuron

13 genes that could impact your workout results

A meta-analysis from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, has found that genes play a determining role in how the body responds to exercise. Researchers examined data from 24 existing studies and compared results from over 3,000 people aged 18–55 to understand how genes affect different types of exercise and their outcomes. They found that genetics accounted for 72 percent of the variance observed in strength training, 44 percent of the variance in aerobic training, and 10 percent of the variation in anaerobic power training results. They traced these differential outcomes to 13 specific genes, which could help inform personalized training regimens, allowing people to follow optimized, individually tailored exercise programs based on their genetic predispositions. PLOS One

Bad news for getting high at work: fast THC test

Testing for marijuana-induced impairment in drivers is what you might call an application in search of a technology—several methods exist, but the gold standard method of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry requires heavy-duty equipment, specialized laboratories, samples of urine or blood, and often several days’ lead time. Now doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a rapid test for THC in saliva they say can sensitively detect evidence of recent cannabis consumption. They designed an optical probe docked to a smart phone and tested spit swabs from 43 people who had recently eaten cannabis edibles or smoked weed and 43 who had not. The results showed precisely who had THC in their system and who did not, and the detection half-life was six hours, which suggests their device could discriminate recent cannabis users from habitual users who are not impaired. Science Translational Medicine

Can infrared light improve cognitive function?

Doctors at Durham University and the company Maculume, both in the United Kingdom, have completed a small pilot study involving 14 healthy people over the age of 45 who underwent transcranial photobiomodulation therapy—basically wearing a large white helmet for six minutes twice a day that contained a dozen small LED panels inside emitting (nonvisible) infrared light. After a month wearing the helmet, the subjects showed significant improvements in standardized measures of motor function, memory performance, and processing speed compared to 13 control subjects who wore fake helmets. The promising results suggest photobiomodulation therapy could improve memory in healthy adults, and they raise the possibility that it could also help people suffering from dementia—though that would need to be demonstrated in the clinic. Photobiomodulation, Photomedicine, and Laser Surgery

Gordon Dougal holds the infrared light therapy treatment helmet. Courtesy Durham University.

New CAD software for designing synthetic genomes

Genome Project-write (GP-write), an international research consortium formed in 2015 as a sort of sequel to the Human Genome Project, announced the launch of its new computer-aided design (CAD) package at its annual conference today. Think of it as you would any other CAD platform—3D design software for professions like architecture and automotive design—only instead of large spaces or big cars, this new platform will help life scientists design tiny, biological ones. Dubbed GPW CAD, the software will enable the de novo, whole-genome design of new cells from any species, and it moves the project closer toward its goal of reducing the cost of engineering whole genomes by 1,000-fold within 10 years. GP-write

Intergenerational inheritance of immunity in mice

Researchers at the University of Bonn, Germany, and Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands have demonstrated how mice can inherit a form of enhanced innate immunity, known as “trained immunity,” through non-genetic changes to the DNA of their father’s sperm. The sperm of male mice surviving Candida albicans yeast infections acquire epigenetic changes in the form of DNA methylation to their immune system genes, they showed. Those modifications induced developmental alterations in their offspring, giving their pups enhanced immune cell protection against toxins and common E. coli and Listeria infections. Evidence of this intergenerational inherited immunity in mice suggests the same protective mechanisms may exist in other mammals, including humans. Nature Immunology

The long and short of brain fingerprints

In the past few years, scientists have shown how imaging techniques like fMRI could render information on a person’s functional brain connectivity—a unique and reliable biomarker that could identify them with near-perfect precision, just like a fingerprint lifted from a crime scene. But standardizing this application will require better understanding which parts of the brain to scan and for how long. Researchers at EPFL in Geneva, Switzerland, have analyzed fMRIs of 100 people, scanning different brain regions for different lengths of time, and while they found longer scans are better at uncovering one’s unique functional brain connectivity, they also observed short, transient moments of unique neuronal activity, which they call “bursts of identifiability.” Science Advances