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

November 11, 2021

Long-lived rockfish spill their secrets of longevity

Pacific rougheye rockfish can live more than 200 years, meaning some of those alive today were born before Napoleon Bonaparte died. Other rockfish barely live past 10 years, and among the 120 different known rockfish species, their average lifespans fall evenly distributed in between. That’s why a new study of the genomes of 88 different rockfish species is so exciting. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have discovered some of the secrets of rockfish longevity, including several tantalizing finds like improved DNA repair mechanisms as well as the expansion of immune regulatory genes known as the butyrophilins, some of which are associated with human inflammatory diseases. The more copies of these genes a rockfish species has, the longer they live. Science

Sebastes mystinus, also known as the blue rockfish. Tyson Rininger

Air pollution increases genetic risk of depression

From the fires of California to the factories of China, breathing air polluted with small, noxious chemicals known as “PM2.5” puts billions of people at higher risk of respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, and cancer because of their effects on the lungs. Studies in recent years have also shown that air pollution can affect the brain, putting people at higher risk of depression and cognitive defects, even though nobody has understood exactly how. Researchers at Peking University in Beijing and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore imaged the brains of 352 healthy adults living in Beijing and correlated greater depression-related connectivity changes in the brain’s prefrontal cortex with more pollution in their home neighborhoods. People who carry genes associated with depression risk were especially vulnerable. PNAS

Could the Tooth Fairy screen for mental health risk?

Examining baby teeth collected from 70 English schoolchildren in the 1990s, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital discovered a variable-width line in the tooth enamel that’s fatter in children whose mothers have a history of severe depression or who suffered severe psychosocial stress when they were 32 weeks pregnant—but thinner in the children of mothers who received enhanced social support while pregnant. Maternal mental illness can predispose children to developing their own disorders, nearly doubling their lifetime risk. And since children begin losing their baby teeth around age six, several years before the typical onset of mental illness, the researchers say baby teeth could help identify at-risk children for early intervention. JAMA Network Open

Massive study finds causes of rare diseases

A bold investment launched by the British government in 2013 called the 100,000 Genomes Project, which aims to tease out DNA markers of rare diseases, infections, and cancers, is starting to pay dividends according to a new pilot study. Project researchers looked at 2,183 people (along with 2,477 of their family members) who were suffering from a mysterious illness of unknown cause. Thanks to genomic sequencing, the researchers were able to use the genetic markers to definitively diagnose 161 different rare diseases in 579 of these people, finally giving them answers to their multiyear health mysteries. For a quarter of them, it provided immediate treatment implications. New England Journal of Medicine

Mobile app boosts obesity intervention in China

Childhood obesity has increased dramatically in Europe, China, and particularly in America, where rates have tripled since the late 1970s. Yet standard school-based educational interventions, mostly tested in high-income settings, have not demonstrated clear effectiveness. Now researchers at Peking University in China are reporting successful results from an obesity prevention trial involving 1,392 school children aged 8 to 10 years from 24 schools across three socioeconomically distinct regions. The intervention combined standard school-based education with an app parents could download to monitor their children’s activity and eating. The results showed that the prevalence of obesity in the children who had the extra individualized attention was reduced by 27 percent compared to 5.6 percent in the children whose parents did not have access to the app. Could this work in the US? It’s hard to imagine American parents going along with the privacy intrusions. JAMA Pediatrics

Experimental HIV “cure” passes clinical milestone

An early-stage clinical trial of a cell-based therapy seeking to functionally cure HIV/AIDS passed a clinical milestone this week according to American Gene Technologies, the Maryland-based company developing the therapy. Two people in the last decade have been separately cured of HIV in Europe after receiving bone marrow transplants from donors carrying a rare gene that renders their cells HIV-resistant. The new therapy seeks to achieve the same result by removing people’s CD4 T cells, a primary target of the virus, genetically modifying them to be HIV-resistant, and then infusing them back. So far, three people in the Washington, D.C. area have received the experimental therapy, and the company just announced its independent Data Safety and Monitoring Board (DSMB) found no serious adverse events, allowing the phase 1 safety trial to proceed apace. ACT Press Release

Boys, girls, bacteria, and behavior

Hoping to understand the connection between the development of the gut microbiome in infants and their later brain function, researchers at Dartmouth College sequenced bacterial genes taken from stool samples of 144 boys and 116 girls in infancy and early childhood and compared them to the results of a standard social behavior assessment test given at age three—a test used to inform clinical diagnoses of anxiety, depression, ADHD, and autism in preschoolers. What they found suggests the diversity, composition, and development of the microbiome in early life is indeed relevant to later behavioral outcomes and that gender can modify this relationship, even during early childhood when differences in sex hormone production do not occur. Boys, for instance, were more sensitive to certain early-life differences in their microbiomes. Pediatric Research