The worm has turned
Schistosomes belong to the class Trematoda. They are parasitic flatworms with complex life cycles that involve infecting at least two hosts. The primary host, where the flatworms or flukes sexually reproduce, are vertebrates, including humans. The intermediate host, which is employed to disperse the parasite, is usually a snail.
In the image above by Bo Wang and Phillip A. Newmark of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (which won a 2013 BioArt award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology), developing Schistosoma mansoni larvae (center) are shown developing inside the muscular, fibrous tentacle of a snail host.
Eventually these larvae are released into water. If the contaminated water comes into contact with human skin, the larvae penetrate and ultimately develop into adult worms residing in veins of the urinary tract and intestines, causing a condition known as schistosomiasis, which affects almost 240 million people worldwide.
The infection is prevalent in tropical and sub-tropical regions, in poor communities without potable water and adequate sanitation. There are many potential complications of schistosomiasis, including gastrointestinal bleeding, renal failure, infertility, pulmonary hypertension and sepsis. Typical treatment involves the drug Praziquantel, an anthelmintic that causes the flukes to be expelled from the body. The disease can become chronic, and in some regions, acute schistosomiasis is associated with a mortality rate of up to 25 percent.

The worm has turned

Schistosomes belong to the class Trematoda. They are parasitic flatworms with complex life cycles that involve infecting at least two hosts. The primary host, where the flatworms or flukes sexually reproduce, are vertebrates, including humans. The intermediate host, which is employed to disperse the parasite, is usually a snail.

In the image above by Bo Wang and Phillip A. Newmark of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (which won a 2013 BioArt award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology), developing Schistosoma mansoni larvae (center) are shown developing inside the muscular, fibrous tentacle of a snail host.

Eventually these larvae are released into water. If the contaminated water comes into contact with human skin, the larvae penetrate and ultimately develop into adult worms residing in veins of the urinary tract and intestines, causing a condition known as schistosomiasis, which affects almost 240 million people worldwide.

The infection is prevalent in tropical and sub-tropical regions, in poor communities without potable water and adequate sanitation. There are many potential complications of schistosomiasis, including gastrointestinal bleeding, renal failure, infertility, pulmonary hypertension and sepsis. Typical treatment involves the drug Praziquantel, an anthelmintic that causes the flukes to be expelled from the body. The disease can become chronic, and in some regions, acute schistosomiasis is associated with a mortality rate of up to 25 percent.

With luck, no pox redux
The world has held its collective breath since October 26, 1977 when the last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed, according to the World Health Organization.
The infectious disease has a long human history, much of it horrifying. It’s believed to have first emerged in humans roughly 12,000 years ago and has killed by the millions. It’s estimated that smallpox alone (there are two types: Variola major and Variola minor) is responsible for the deaths of 300-500 million people worldwide in the 20th century.
Robust and extensive vaccination programs in the 19th and 20th centuries eventually led to the virus’ official eradication in 1979. It’s one of just two infectious diseases to be eliminated by modern medicine. The other is rinderpest, a viral disease of cattle and other even-toed ungulates that was officially declared eradicated in 2011.
Given its deadly virulence – and its horrifying use as an occasional biological weapon – smallpox is broadly viewed as an extreme threat to human health, one to be avoided at all cost. The only known remaining stocks of smallpox virus exist in secret labs in the United States and Russia. They are controversial, to say the least, with many health experts urging the stocks’ destruction though some scientists counter that the virus should be preserved for study and potential use in the development of other vaccines and medicines. The debate is heated and ongoing.
But even as authorities fret about smallpox, nature has a way of introducing new concerns. Recently, two herdsmen in the country of Georgia were found to be infected with a previously unknown cousin of the variola virus, the cause of smallpox. Like variola, the new virus (which doesn’t yet have name) produces the multitudinous, painful blisters, a fever, swollen lymph nodes and weakness. Both men, fortunately, have recovered, but health officials worry that the emergence of this new virus may be evidence that smallpox like viruses – known as orthopoxviruses – are making a comeback as worldwide efforts to vaccinate against them have flagged and waned.

With luck, no pox redux

The world has held its collective breath since October 26, 1977 when the last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed, according to the World Health Organization.

The infectious disease has a long human history, much of it horrifying. It’s believed to have first emerged in humans roughly 12,000 years ago and has killed by the millions. It’s estimated that smallpox alone (there are two types: Variola major and Variola minor) is responsible for the deaths of 300-500 million people worldwide in the 20th century.

Robust and extensive vaccination programs in the 19th and 20th centuries eventually led to the virus’ official eradication in 1979. It’s one of just two infectious diseases to be eliminated by modern medicine. The other is rinderpest, a viral disease of cattle and other even-toed ungulates that was officially declared eradicated in 2011.

Given its deadly virulence – and its horrifying use as an occasional biological weapon – smallpox is broadly viewed as an extreme threat to human health, one to be avoided at all cost. The only known remaining stocks of smallpox virus exist in secret labs in the United States and Russia. They are controversial, to say the least, with many health experts urging the stocks’ destruction though some scientists counter that the virus should be preserved for study and potential use in the development of other vaccines and medicines. The debate is heated and ongoing.

But even as authorities fret about smallpox, nature has a way of introducing new concerns. Recently, two herdsmen in the country of Georgia were found to be infected with a previously unknown cousin of the variola virus, the cause of smallpox. Like variola, the new virus (which doesn’t yet have name) produces the multitudinous, painful blisters, a fever, swollen lymph nodes and weakness. Both men, fortunately, have recovered, but health officials worry that the emergence of this new virus may be evidence that smallpox like viruses – known as orthopoxviruses – are making a comeback as worldwide efforts to vaccinate against them have flagged and waned.

Y you can stop worrying
For quite some time, researchers, media and possibly some misandrists have pondered the shrinking Y chromosome and the fate of men.
The Y chromosome, of course, is the chromosome that carries the directions for forming testes and making sperm, traits that sort of fundamentally define the male of the species and ensure continued reproduction.
But the Y chromosome has been getting smaller over the last several hundred million years as it has mysteriously shed genes. It now boasts just 19 compared to the roughly 600 genes it once boasted alongside the now-much-larger X chromosome. In a 2004 series, Joe Palca at NPR wondered if the incredibly shrinking Y was a harbinger for the eventual end of men.
Palca was not alone.
Relax, fellows. According to new research published in Nature, the dispiriting diminution of Y has ceased. Sure, it’s the undisputed runt of the chromosome family but it hasn’t gotten any runty-er for the past 25 million years, which is something.
The reason may be that the Y has nothing left to lose. Or at least nothing to lose that wouldn’t result in catastrophic consequences for all humanity. All of the remaining Y genes, biologist David Page told Scientific American, are crucial to human survival. They do important, basic jobs like directing the construction of proteins or how to splice RNA together. “These are powerful players in the central command room of cells,” Page said.
So heave a sigh for the Y, guys. Small but mighty is a whole lot better than being an ex-chromosome.

Y you can stop worrying

For quite some time, researchers, media and possibly some misandrists have pondered the shrinking Y chromosome and the fate of men.

The Y chromosome, of course, is the chromosome that carries the directions for forming testes and making sperm, traits that sort of fundamentally define the male of the species and ensure continued reproduction.

But the Y chromosome has been getting smaller over the last several hundred million years as it has mysteriously shed genes. It now boasts just 19 compared to the roughly 600 genes it once boasted alongside the now-much-larger X chromosome. In a 2004 series, Joe Palca at NPR wondered if the incredibly shrinking Y was a harbinger for the eventual end of men.

Palca was not alone.

Relax, fellows. According to new research published in Nature, the dispiriting diminution of Y has ceased. Sure, it’s the undisputed runt of the chromosome family but it hasn’t gotten any runty-er for the past 25 million years, which is something.

The reason may be that the Y has nothing left to lose. Or at least nothing to lose that wouldn’t result in catastrophic consequences for all humanity. All of the remaining Y genes, biologist David Page told Scientific American, are crucial to human survival. They do important, basic jobs like directing the construction of proteins or how to splice RNA together. “These are powerful players in the central command room of cells,” Page said.

So heave a sigh for the Y, guys. Small but mighty is a whole lot better than being an ex-chromosome.

The awe of similars
Cilia are typically tiny, even microscopic, protruberances. They are hairlike – derived in fact from the Latin word for eyelash – but far more complicated, found abundantly throughout nature doing many kinds of jobs.
There are two types: motile and non-motile. The former are employed as a form of locomotion, with groups of cilia undulating in coordinated waves as a method of transportation. Non-motile or primary cilia behave as sensory organelles. Humans feature both types.
Motile cilia, for example, are found in the lining of the trachea, where they sweep mucus and dirt out of the lungs and in the Fallopian tubes, where their rhythmic beating moves the egg from the ovum to the uterus.
Virtually every cell in the human body sports at least one primary cilium, used by the cell to take measure of its surroundings. For some cilia, such as those in the ear or lining the nasal cavity, this job is particularly notable. They are essential elements of our sensory processes.
The images above: Top left, a false-colored scanning electron micrograph of cilia in a human Fallopian tube, courtesy of Steven Gschmeissner; top right, nasal cilia, courtesy of Susumu Nishinaga; lower left, an immature hair bundle of cells in the cochlea of the human ear, courtesy of David Furness, Wellcome Images; and lower right, cilia lining the trachea, courtesy again of Gschmeissner.

The awe of similars

Cilia are typically tiny, even microscopic, protruberances. They are hairlike – derived in fact from the Latin word for eyelash – but far more complicated, found abundantly throughout nature doing many kinds of jobs.

There are two types: motile and non-motile. The former are employed as a form of locomotion, with groups of cilia undulating in coordinated waves as a method of transportation. Non-motile or primary cilia behave as sensory organelles. Humans feature both types.

Motile cilia, for example, are found in the lining of the trachea, where they sweep mucus and dirt out of the lungs and in the Fallopian tubes, where their rhythmic beating moves the egg from the ovum to the uterus.

Virtually every cell in the human body sports at least one primary cilium, used by the cell to take measure of its surroundings. For some cilia, such as those in the ear or lining the nasal cavity, this job is particularly notable. They are essential elements of our sensory processes.

The images above: Top left, a false-colored scanning electron micrograph of cilia in a human Fallopian tube, courtesy of Steven Gschmeissner; top right, nasal cilia, courtesy of Susumu Nishinaga; lower left, an immature hair bundle of cells in the cochlea of the human ear, courtesy of David Furness, Wellcome Images; and lower right, cilia lining the trachea, courtesy again of Gschmeissner.

Intestinal mortitude
For Entamoeba histolytica, that’s dinner up above, otherwise known as the human intestine. Cousin to the brain-munching Naegleria fowleri, E. histolytica resides in your gut, where it can cause a long-lasting and severe case of “food poisoning.” Millions of cases of dysentery and colitis are attributed each year to this common single-celled animal.
Recently, scientists figured out how exactly the pathogen wreaks havoc and, well, it’s gross: It bites off little bits of intestine, chews them up and spits them out. The process is called trogocytosis, derived in part from the Greek word trogo, which means “to nibble.”
E. histolytica’s lifestyle is a bit confusing. Other gut-churning pathogens, like Escherichia coli, do their worst by secreting toxins. N. fowleri triggers a harmful inflammatory response, one that can result in deadly encephalitis. E. histolytica’s approach seems a bit over-dramatic, but some researchers suggest chewing out chunks of the intestinal wall might be useful in creating more room to grow and reproduce.
Pictured: A biopsy of the human small intestine as seen through a confocal laser scanning microscope. Intestinal epithelium has been stained blue, with cell nuclei in red.

Intestinal mortitude

For Entamoeba histolytica, that’s dinner up above, otherwise known as the human intestine. Cousin to the brain-munching Naegleria fowleri, E. histolytica resides in your gut, where it can cause a long-lasting and severe case of “food poisoning.” Millions of cases of dysentery and colitis are attributed each year to this common single-celled animal.

Recently, scientists figured out how exactly the pathogen wreaks havoc and, well, it’s gross: It bites off little bits of intestine, chews them up and spits them out. The process is called trogocytosis, derived in part from the Greek word trogo, which means “to nibble.”

E. histolytica’s lifestyle is a bit confusing. Other gut-churning pathogens, like Escherichia coli, do their worst by secreting toxins. N. fowleri triggers a harmful inflammatory response, one that can result in deadly encephalitis. E. histolytica’s approach seems a bit over-dramatic, but some researchers suggest chewing out chunks of the intestinal wall might be useful in creating more room to grow and reproduce.

Pictured: A biopsy of the human small intestine as seen through a confocal laser scanning microscope. Intestinal epithelium has been stained blue, with cell nuclei in red.

Drool fuel
Is that just about the most adorable, little power plant you’ve ever seen?
OK, he’s just a baby now, but if researchers at Penn State are ultimately successful, someday we might all be able to tap into a new – and in the case of babies, seemingly inexhaustible – supply of energy from saliva.
Penn State engineers recently reported creating a tiny microbial fuel cell capable of producing enough power from human spit to run on-chip applications. The fuel cell creates energy when bacteria break down organic matter in saliva, generating a charge that is transferred to the anode.The microbial fuel cell produced almost 1 microwatt (one millionth of a watt) of power. That’s not a lot by most measures – the human brain’s daily electrical output is 20 watts, enough to illuminate a small refrigerator – but it could be sufficient for future applications, like a proposed ovulation predictor based on the electrical conductivity of a woman’s saliva, which changes five days before ovulation. The predictor would send a signal to a nearby cell phone, alerting the woman.

Drool fuel

Is that just about the most adorable, little power plant you’ve ever seen?

OK, he’s just a baby now, but if researchers at Penn State are ultimately successful, someday we might all be able to tap into a new – and in the case of babies, seemingly inexhaustible – supply of energy from saliva.

Penn State engineers recently reported creating a tiny microbial fuel cell capable of producing enough power from human spit to run on-chip applications. The fuel cell creates energy when bacteria break down organic matter in saliva, generating a charge that is transferred to the anode.

The microbial fuel cell produced almost 1 microwatt (one millionth of a watt) of power. That’s not a lot by most measures – the human brain’s daily electrical output is 20 watts, enough to illuminate a small refrigerator – but it could be sufficient for future applications, like a proposed ovulation predictor based on the electrical conductivity of a woman’s saliva, which changes five days before ovulation. The predictor would send a signal to a nearby cell phone, alerting the woman.

Yeast of our problems
Scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Institute for Systems Genetics reported last week that  they had synthesized one of the 16 chromosomes in Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
“We have a yeast that looks, smells and behaves like a regular yeast, but this yeast is endowed with properties normal yeast don’t have,” lead study scientist Jef Boeke told The Los Angeles Times.
The larger goal, however, is to create a yeast cell that contains an entirely human-designed genome that could be manipulated to do new and better things in the service of mankind.
S. cerevisiae is already something of an industrial workhorse. It’s widely used in baking, brewing, winemaking and the manufacture of everything from vaccines to biofuels. And it’s a reliable scientific model, long employed by researchers to parse the mysteries of genetics.
Above, a colored X-ray micrograph by Carolyn Larabell of UC San Francisco and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows a fast-frozen yeast cell in the process of dividing into two copies, called budding. 

Yeast of our problems

Scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Institute for Systems Genetics reported last week that  they had synthesized one of the 16 chromosomes in Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

“We have a yeast that looks, smells and behaves like a regular yeast, but this yeast is endowed with properties normal yeast don’t have,” lead study scientist Jef Boeke told The Los Angeles Times.

The larger goal, however, is to create a yeast cell that contains an entirely human-designed genome that could be manipulated to do new and better things in the service of mankind.

S. cerevisiae is already something of an industrial workhorse. It’s widely used in baking, brewing, winemaking and the manufacture of everything from vaccines to biofuels. And it’s a reliable scientific model, long employed by researchers to parse the mysteries of genetics.

Above, a colored X-ray micrograph by Carolyn Larabell of UC San Francisco and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows a fast-frozen yeast cell in the process of dividing into two copies, called budding

Tight as a tick
A tick burrows into dinner, which in this case happens to be the leg of Ashley Prytherch, a medical photographer based at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford, England. This image brought Prytherch a 2014 Wellcome Image award but, fortunately, nothing more.
Ticks are notorious disease carriers. They feed on the blood of other animals and if one of those animals is infected, the tick may transmit that infection to the next animal it takes a meal from.
Among the transmissible diseases to humans: babesiosis, ehrilichosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and, of course, Lyme disease, which some experts say is much more prevalent than some statistics suggest.
Tick bites have also been linked to severe red meat allergies and a newly discovered viral disease.

Tight as a tick

A tick burrows into dinner, which in this case happens to be the leg of Ashley Prytherch, a medical photographer based at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford, England. This image brought Prytherch a 2014 Wellcome Image award but, fortunately, nothing more.

Ticks are notorious disease carriers. They feed on the blood of other animals and if one of those animals is infected, the tick may transmit that infection to the next animal it takes a meal from.

Among the transmissible diseases to humans: babesiosis, ehrilichosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and, of course, Lyme disease, which some experts say is much more prevalent than some statistics suggest.

Tick bites have also been linked to severe red meat allergies and a newly discovered viral disease.

There goes the neighborhood
The human body contains 10 times more microbial cells than human cells, though the total combined weight of the latter is estimated to range from a mere 7 ounces and three pounds. (No blaming those extra pounds on unwanted bacteria.)
In fact, most of the microbes that make up you are very much wanted. They do good work or at least take up space and prevent nasty bugs from doing bad work. The vast majority of these beneficial microbes reside in your gut. Think intestinal tract homes.
They make your gut a busy and crowded place – and a good place as long as all of the neighbors get along. Throw in a few bad residents, however, and things can become quite unsettled, perhaps even diseased.
A new paper in the journal Cell, Host and Microbe by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and elsewhere makes that point. The scientists looked at the numbers and varieties of microbes living in the digestive tracts of healthy people and in people with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition that afflicts more than 1 million Americans.
They found that the intestines of Crohn’s patients had fewer microbial numbers and less diversity. Of the various bacteria in residence, a greater proportion of species were associated with increased inflammation.
The findings could eventually prompt doctors to rethink how Crohn’s disease is treated. Some patients are prescribed antibiotics which, it may turn out, are killing as many or more good intestinal bacteria as bad, knocking the neighborhood’s microbial mix out of whack.
Photo: Scanning electron micrograph of intestinal bacteria, false colored. Image courtesy of Martin Oggerli

There goes the neighborhood

The human body contains 10 times more microbial cells than human cells, though the total combined weight of the latter is estimated to range from a mere 7 ounces and three pounds. (No blaming those extra pounds on unwanted bacteria.)

In fact, most of the microbes that make up you are very much wanted. They do good work or at least take up space and prevent nasty bugs from doing bad work. The vast majority of these beneficial microbes reside in your gut. Think intestinal tract homes.

They make your gut a busy and crowded place – and a good place as long as all of the neighbors get along. Throw in a few bad residents, however, and things can become quite unsettled, perhaps even diseased.

A new paper in the journal Cell, Host and Microbe by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and elsewhere makes that point. The scientists looked at the numbers and varieties of microbes living in the digestive tracts of healthy people and in people with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition that afflicts more than 1 million Americans.

They found that the intestines of Crohn’s patients had fewer microbial numbers and less diversity. Of the various bacteria in residence, a greater proportion of species were associated with increased inflammation.

The findings could eventually prompt doctors to rethink how Crohn’s disease is treated. Some patients are prescribed antibiotics which, it may turn out, are killing as many or more good intestinal bacteria as bad, knocking the neighborhood’s microbial mix out of whack.

Photo: Scanning electron micrograph of intestinal bacteria, false colored. Image courtesy of Martin Oggerli

Thread lightly
Fractures and broken bones are no fun and the worst are those that require surgical screws. Sure, it’s a chance for some twisted braggadocio – “I’ve got precision-machined, surgical-grade titanium inside me!” – but these injuries are almost always very serious, painful and long-to- heal. The screws may be essential to holding things together in the right places during the healing process, but they present particular problems of their own.
To wit: They eventually must be removed, requiring more surgery and leaving behind a hole in bone that also must heal.
Much better would be a surgical screw strong enough to do its job and then go away. In a recent Nature Communications paper, scientists described just such a candidate. The screws are made of silk fibers. In experiments with rats, the screws successfully pinned bones together for eight weeks but behaved more like bone than metal. They are less stiff (reducing stress problems with surrounding bone), less sensitive to temperature changes, produce minimal inflammatory response and promote bone healing as they biodegrade.
The silk screws aren’t the first on the market. There are already screws made from polylactic acid, which is derived from corn starch, tapioca root and sugarcane. In 2010, a German company debuted a biodegradable screw made of polylactic acid and hydroxylapatite, a naturally occurring mineral that is also a primary component of natural bone and used in prosthetic devices. These screws are hollow to further encourage bone growth into them and reportedly completely disappear in two years.
And there is fracture putty, which in some cases could theoretically do away with screws altogether. It’s an experimental compound being developed by DARPA that is packed in and around compound bone fractures, where it quickly hardens to provide loadbearing capabilities while the bone heals. The putty is resorbed as the bone regenerates and grows into it.

Thread lightly

Fractures and broken bones are no fun and the worst are those that require surgical screws. Sure, it’s a chance for some twisted braggadocio – “I’ve got precision-machined, surgical-grade titanium inside me!” – but these injuries are almost always very serious, painful and long-to- heal. The screws may be essential to holding things together in the right places during the healing process, but they present particular problems of their own.

To wit: They eventually must be removed, requiring more surgery and leaving behind a hole in bone that also must heal.

Much better would be a surgical screw strong enough to do its job and then go away. In a recent Nature Communications paper, scientists described just such a candidate. The screws are made of silk fibers. In experiments with rats, the screws successfully pinned bones together for eight weeks but behaved more like bone than metal. They are less stiff (reducing stress problems with surrounding bone), less sensitive to temperature changes, produce minimal inflammatory response and promote bone healing as they biodegrade.

The silk screws aren’t the first on the market. There are already screws made from polylactic acid, which is derived from corn starch, tapioca root and sugarcane. In 2010, a German company debuted a biodegradable screw made of polylactic acid and hydroxylapatite, a naturally occurring mineral that is also a primary component of natural bone and used in prosthetic devices. These screws are hollow to further encourage bone growth into them and reportedly completely disappear in two years.

And there is fracture putty, which in some cases could theoretically do away with screws altogether. It’s an experimental compound being developed by DARPA that is packed in and around compound bone fractures, where it quickly hardens to provide loadbearing capabilities while the bone heals. The putty is resorbed as the bone regenerates and grows into it.

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