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

December 21, 2023

ChatGPT: Your new lab partner

As generative AI tools like ChatGPT threaded their way into our lives this past year, researchers trotted out large language models to fields as far flung as oncology and ornithology. But few results have been as impressive as the one reported this week by chemists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. They developed a new tool they call “Coscientist” based on ChatGPT, and they showed it could autonomously carry out benchtop chemistry, including replicating the work recognized with the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry—a complex chemical reaction known as palladium-catalyzed cross coupling. “This is the first time that a non-organic intelligence planned, designed, and executed this complex reaction that was invented by humans,” one of the researchers said in a statement to the press. Nature

Drones deliver lifesaving gifts in sub-Saharan Africa

A new report from San Francisco-based logistics company Zipline International details the lifesaving impact of their on-demand drone deliveries. The hundreds of thousands of units of blood, emergency food rations, countless medical supplies, and millions of vaccine doses they have delivered inside seven sub-Saharan African countries over the past few years have saved thousands of lives—an estimated 9,000 people in 2022 alone. Using an army of autonomous drones to deliver routine childhood vaccines for 15,000 children in the remote Western North region of Ghana from 2019–2021, they saved an estimated 727 lives. By delivering blood to remote, rural parts of Rwanda, they reduced maternal mortality from complications of bleeding after giving birth by 51 percent over a single year. “The program’s success led the government of Rwanda to restructure its national blood delivery system,” company researchers write. “Now, approximately 75 percent of the blood delivered in Rwanda, outside of Kigali, is delivered by drone.” Science Robotics

When “LLM” means “looks like me”

Drawing on a rich database of health and work-related data collected over the course of a decade on some six million people, researchers at the Technical University of Denmark and the University of Copenhagen have demonstrated a grand vision for a data-crunching future. They applied natural language processing and large language models to observed data on the collective education, occupation, income, home address, and patterns of working hours of the millions of people in the database. That allowed them to accurately model the complex trajectories and individual outcomes of human lives, predicting things like early deaths and even specific personality traits. This will “open the door to a new and more profound interplay between the social and health sciences,” they predict. Indeed. We’re only slightly freaked out about this. Nature Computational Science

Female tears block male aggression

Not all tears are made equal, and biologists know this. The tears you shed when you peel onions or get a piece of dust in your eye are, chemically speaking, nothing like those you shed during moments of strong empathy, compassion, pain, or overwhelming feeling. The latter are “emotional tears” and contain more stress hormones and natural painkillers—part of the reason why a good cry can feel cathartic. Now researchers at Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have shown the story is even more dramatic. They found in experiments with rodents that female tears contain chemicals that block aggression in men. When male rats sniff those tears, they have reduced aggression-related brain activity and exhibit less aggressive behavior. The researchers hypothesize that the same is true in humans. “We suggest that tears are a mammalian-wide mechanism that provides a chemical blanket protecting against aggression,” they write. PLOS Biology

There should be a Grammy for this!

Music therapy has clinically proven its ability to help people heal—not just as some sort of adjuvant to therapy but as a bona fide medicine in its own right. A number of studies have shown music therapy effective at reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, but with musical genres and preferences so varied in society, how should health workers select the most healing music for any one person or indication? Doctors at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine have now identified the distinct acoustic features of healing music. Based on a “healing music dataset” of 165 pieces of music recommended by experts, they extracted 370 consistent acoustic features of healing music that transcend genre, and they validated their ability to positively shape emotional states. The work has “implications for the development of artificial intelligence models for identifying therapeutic music, particularly in contexts where access to professional expertise may be limited,” they write. General Psychiatry

Clinical trial of a microbiome intervention for autism

In a double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study, researchers at the Policlinico Tor Vergata Foundation Hospital in Rome, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and Stanford University in Palo Alto, have shown the potential for microbiome interventions to improve social behavior. The study tested the impact of giving 43 children with autism either a placebo or pills containing live cultures of the good “commensal” gut bacteria Limosilactobacillus reuteri for six months. The work showed the probiotic pills significantly reduced social deficits and improved adaptive social functioning in standardized measures. “This safe microbial manipulation has the potential for improving social deficits associated with [autism] in children,” the researchers write. Cell Host & Microbe

All I want for Christmas is “Who”

Since 1963, one cherished holiday tradition has been watching the cult classic British TV series Doctor Who, considered the most successful and longest-running sci-fi series ever by the Guinness Book of World Records. New episodes have premiered 31 times during the holidays over the past 60 years. That frequency inspired a real-life doctor at the University of Birmingham to model the effect of those airings on human health. He performed a non-linear, time-series analysis to estimate how Doctor Who episodes broadcast between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day impact death rates in Britain. It turns out the show lowers mortality—in particular, whenever a new episode airs on Christmas day, as has happened 14 times since 1963, there are 0.60 fewer deaths per 1,000 person years in England and Wales. It’s basically a bona fide public health intervention, the researcher writes, and the BBC and Disney+ should drop new episodes every holiday season, “ideally on Christmas Day.” BMJ