Biology and Biotech

Suicide prevention is an inexact intervention. People who have attempted suicide previously, make plans to commit suicide, or talk about committing suicide are often considered high-risk. Some people who kill themselves, however, display none of these behavioral traits. Therefore, it would be tremendously helpful if a biological marker could identify those patients at an elevated risk of suicide.

Though they only compose 8.5% of the U.S. population, veterans make up 18% of all suicides. Complicating matters is that research into this phenomenon often compares veterans who complete suicide to healthy veterans. However, the latter may not be an appropriate control group, since people who commit suicide often have an underlying mental health issue. Instead, it may be better to...

Spend enough time with another person, and you begin to pick up their mannerisms. Such behavioral "synchronization" is a mechanism by which we build social cohesion. It operates as a positive feedback loop: the more you know somebody, the more synchronized you will be and vice versa.

Synchronization occurs to be a general phenomenon among all social creatures. People tend to walk in step and sway together in separate rocking chairs. Even dolphins have been observed to breathe in sync.

This raises the question of whether synchronization occurs across species. And what better interspecific relationship to test than that between man and his best friend, the pooch? So a team of researchers did just that, examining behavioral synchronization between 48 dogs and their owners....

Should you be unfortunate enough to suffer from asthma, things are looking up. There are new biological therapies out there that "attack" asthma in novel ways. They are effective and are badly needed. The impact of the disease on people afflicted with it is probably more severe than you think. It's not as simple as carrying an inhaler around.

People with moderate-to-severe asthma have to endure far more than that. I know this. I am one of them.

The following statistics (annual, US only) may be eye-opening.  

  • 4,000 deaths 
  • 11 million attacks
  • 2 million emergency room visits (more than 25% of all ER visits)
  • 365 thousand hospital admissions
  • The annual cost of asthma is $18...

While there are legions of plant researchers dedicated to the idea of using GMOs to maximize food production, there's a lesser-known syndicate of scientists trying to cultivate a different outcome: increasing plant output of biofuels. 

By altering sugar levels in leaves through gene manipulation, researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory have shown that by making leaves fatter, oil production can be increased. 

"Combining genetic mutations that decrease the transport of sugar out of leaves and the conversion of sugars to starch increases sugar levels in leaves," explains biochemist John Shanklin, who's leading the research, in a statement from Brookhaven Lab. "That excess sugar drives increased oil production by stabilizing the oil on-switch, and also by supplying...

Someday, everybody will be wearing smart clothes -- not just clothes that look dapper, but are able to sense the environment and the body's vital signs, perhaps then pinging the data to your wrist watch or doctor. To get there, we will need functional fabrics, and nothing beats the touch and feel of cotton1.

Natural cotton fibers, which are made of cellulose, must be chemically modified if they are to be engineered into smart fabrics. This could be done after the cotton has been harvested (like when clothing is dyed), but the drawback is that this sort of modification wears out. A better way would be to modify the cotton as it is being synthesized by the plant, so that the new properties are physically built into the cotton fibers. Now an international team of...

Ancient documents decay over time. Understanding the underlying cause of the deterioration is obviously necessary to prevent or reverse it.

Many ancient documents were created on parchment, which is derived from animal skin. Over time, parchments can be covered in purple spots, making the documents unreadable. (See upper left image.) For the past 40 years, scientists have tried to figure out what was responsible for the splotches, but little progress was made. But now, a team of mainly Italian researchers believes it has identified a potential cause.

The authors obtained a nearly 800-year-old, 5-meter-long parchment from the Vatican Secret Archives that details the story of a young soldier who accidentally killed a man and went into a self-imposed exile for 34 years. The...

In the late 90's, Michael J. Fox starred in a television comedy called Spin City. As its name implies, the job of Fox's character was to "spin" the truth to make his boss (the mayor of New York City) look good.

We've come to expect this sort of behavior from politicians and their sycophants on cable news, but we don't expect it from scientists. Yet, a new paper published in PLoS Biology suggests that some scientists do just that.

Sensationalizing Science

The biggest purveyors of sensationalism are university press offices and the scientifically ignorant dupes in the media who eagerly reprint press releases, sometimes nearly verbatim. Environmentalists and other activists have also perfected the art of spin.

But this paper...

Being tan has a slimming effect and makes people look and feel great.  Well, turning fat brown can actually make people thin.

We have long known that there are two types of fat – white and brown.  The white fat stores energy in the form of triglycerides whereas brown fat actually takes energy and turns it into heat.  It is present in abundance in infants (to keep them warm) and decreases in prevalence as we age.  Brown fat is richly supplied with capillaries and gets its color from the iron-laden mitochondria, providing oxygen and nutrients to surrounding tissues. 

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and University of North Carolina have developed a ...

Medicare and Medicaid cannot negotiate the cost of drugs – meaning they have to pay whatever a pharmaceutical company charges for their drugs.  This means that the potential for getting fleeced can be pretty high, including on the generic drugs which the public believes are cheaper. Some companies have been re-branding cheap medications that have been around for a while and then hiking up the price.  These sudden, sharp spikes in drug prices have led to a special Senate committee that deals with just this issue. 

Researchers from Oregon Health and Science University and School of Medicine analyzed one rather obscure drug, adrenocorticotropin, ACTH for short. The...

Unlike animals, bacteria can readily share genetic information with other bacteria, even those of entirely different species. Because of this, one clever microbiologist likened bacteria to smartphones and genes to apps. When bacteria share "apps" that encode antibiotic resistance, it poses trouble for humanity.

As individual bacterial strains are exposed to antibiotics, natural selection favors the survival of those that have mutated to become resistant. That hard-earned resistance can then be given to other bacteria. Microbiologists have long known of three major mechanisms by which this occurs: Transformation, transduction, and conjugation.