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

November 10, 2022

Recovering mobility after a spinal cord injury

Neurons that were never required for walking originally were discovered to be essential for restoring that ability in nine people who suffered spinal cord injuries as they underwent an experimental treatment to recover their ability to walk again. The discovery, from researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, shines light on a mystery that has persisted in the field for several years that started with a few isolated cases of people with spinal cord injuries who were treated with a technique called spatiotemporal epidural electrical stimulation (EES) of the lumbar spinal cord and recovered the ability to walk again. The technique has since been shown to enhance neurorehabilitation, but until now, nobody knew how. The discovery of these “recovery-organizing neurons” could help improve the clinical deployment of this therapy. Nature

Nine people learning to walk again after spinal cord injuries. NeuroRestore/Jimmy Ravier

Breast cancer GWAS study uncovers potential new genetic targets for therapies

A massive genome-wide association study (GWAS) from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, looked at the DNA of 160,500 women with breast cancer and compared it to the DNA of 226,196 women without breast cancer. The comparison allowed the researchers to identify 137 genes associated with breast cancer risk, some of which could be potential new targets for therapies. Significantly, this is the first large GWAS study of the sort to look at DNA drawn from large groups of women of both Asian and European ancestry. Past studies have mainly focused on the latter. “Our study provides a comprehensive understanding of and new biological insights into the genetics of this common malignancy,” say the researchers. American Journal of Human Genetics

Perennial rice: Coming to a paddy near you?

Most of the food crops grown in the world, some 80 percent in fact, are annuals—sown from seed and harvested every year. This is certainly true of rice, but there would be huge advantages in having a perennial rice strain that could be planted once and harvested season after season, saving precious labor and seed. Now researchers from Yunnan University in Kunming, China, have developed a perennial breed by hybridizing Asian Oryza sativa rice with its African relative Oryza longistaminata. In an experiment in 2021, some 44,752 smallholder farmers in southern China grew 15,333 hectares of the rice. Yields were almost exactly the same as normal rice strains but the new breed saved farmers 58.1 percent of labor cost and 49.2 percent of seed cost with each season. Revolution anyone? Nature Sustainability

This is your brain on drugs

Researchers at the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica are reporting atomic-level structures of morphine and fentanyl showing the drugs bound to their primary targets in the human body: a complex of human macromolecules known as G proteins and µ-opioid receptors that sit on the surface of neurons and other cells in the brain and other parts of the body. The structures uncover key differences in how the two drugs bind to these receptors. Understanding how they bind to their natural targets is important, the researchers say, because it provides a roadmap for designing better and potentially safer painkillers. Cell

What politicians can learn from pigs

When two pigs are fighting, a third bystander pig can intervene and calm the attacker or support the animal being attacked. Researchers at the University of Torino in Turin, Italy, showed that this week in a small study involving 104 semi-free-roaming pigs living on the Parva Domus ethical farm in Cavagnolo, Italy. When two pigs came into conflict, so-called bystander pigs, usually close relatives, often intervened. When they did, they successfully reduced the number of aggressor attacks or alleviated the anxiety of the victim pigs. The work reveals the complex social groups that pigs form and how they may resolve conflict, the researchers write. Animal Cognition

Pigs that took part in the study. Giada Cordoni and Ivan Norscia