Science & Technology


Research shows histones play an important role in epigenetic inheritance

© doble.d / Fotolia
Researchers show that there is something apart from DNA that plays an important role in inheritance in general, and could determine whether a father's children and grandchildren will be healthy or not.
If you have diabetes, or cancer or even heart problems, maybe you should blame it on your dad's behaviour or environment. Or even your grandfather's. That's because, in recent years, scientists have shown that, before his offspring are even conceived, a father's life experiences involving food, drugs, exposure to toxic products and even stress can affect the development and health not only of his children, but even of his grandchildren.

But, despite a decade of work in the area, scientists haven't been able to understand much about how this transmission of environmental memories over several generations takes place. McGill researchers and their Swiss collaborators think that they have now found a key part of the molecular puzzle. They have discovered that proteins known as histones, which have attracted relatively little attention until now, may play a crucial role in the process.

They believe that this finding, which they describe in a paper just published in Science, has the potential to profoundly change our understanding of how we inherit things. That's because the researchers show that there is something apart from DNA that plays an important role in inheritance in general, and could determine whether a father's children and grandchildren will be healthy or not.


Evidence mounting that Ebola virus hides in body long after leaving the bloodstream

© Reuters/Misha Hussain
A member of the French Red Cross disinfects the area around a motionless person suspected of carrying the Ebola virus as a crowd gathers in Forecariah January 30, 2015.
A growing awareness of how the Ebola virus can hide in parts of the body such as eyes, breasts and testicles long after leaving the bloodstream raises questions about whether the disease can ever be beaten.

Virologists said Friday's case of a Scottish nurse, Pauline Cafferkey, who had recovered from Ebola but is now suffering complications adds to signs that the virus is a long-term health risk and can lead to a "post-Ebola syndrome".

"Over the past few years there has been mounting evidence of mental and physical health problems in Ebola survivors that can last for years after the virus is cleared from the bloodstream," said Ben Neuman, an Ebola expert and lecturer in virology at Britain's University of Reading.

"The newly discovered twist on this post-Ebola syndrome is that in some cases the health problems - often including damage to the eyes and joints - are caused by live Ebola virus growing in fluids in some of the less accessible compartments of the body."


Arrow Up

Landmark Australian High Court ruling on gene patent as pensioner wins legal case

© Peter Rae
Yvonne D'Arcy, who fought to have the breast cancer gene patent overturned, outside the Federal Court after it first ruled that mutations in the BRCA1 gene could be patented.
A 69 year-old pensioner from Queensland has succeeded in a David-and-Goliath battle against a multinational corporation that claimed a patent over the "breast cancer" gene.

Australia's highest court has unanimously ruled that a mutated gene that causes cancer cannot be subject to a patent, or the right to control use of the gene.
After all these years of being involved and thinking this was the commonsense ethical thing to do, it really gives you faith in the judicial system

Krystal Barter, Pink Hope
The decision has been hailed as a "revolution in intellectual property" and a victory for public health and medical research.

The case is a massive win for cancer survivor and grandmother Yvonne D'Arcy and the law firm that represented her, Maurice Blackburn, which took the case all the way to the High Court after repeated losses in the Federal Court. It argued that mutations in the so-called "breast cancer gene" BRCA1 were naturally occurring component of the human body that had been discovered, rather than an invention that could be patented.

But Medicines Australia and some intellectual property lawyers say the decision could slow access to new drugs.

Ms D'Arcy said she was extremely excited and relieved.

"I have had breast cancer twice, and although mine's not genetic, I've always been of the view that you can't own a part of me, or anyone else," she said.

BRCA1 mutations put a woman at far higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Many carriers, such as actress Angelina Jolie, choose to test for it so they can have preventative surgery if they are a carrier. The patent was held by US company Myriad Genetics, which had licensed it for use in Australia by a company called Genetic Technologies.


NASA announces giant asteroid to pass Earth this weekend

© Getty Images
Just days after an asteroid was prophesied to collide with Earth and usher in the end of civilisation, NASA has announced a giant rock that has the potential to end life on the planet will speed past at 64,374km per hour on the weekend.

NASA experts believe Asteroid 86666 (2000 FL10), which could be up to 2.6km wide, will miss Earth when it passes by this weekend at 65.7LD (lunar distance) or a distance of 25,228,800km.

For reference, the distance from earth to the Mars is 54.6 million km.

If an asteroid the size of 86666 was to collide with Earth it would undoubtedly destroy the ozone layer, alter the climate and create tsunamis at least 91 metres high that would decimate coastal communities.

NASA has confirmed the asteroid was first spotted 16 years ago (5925 days), and is similar to the 1862 Apollo asteroid which was classified as a potentially hazardous object

Comment: US religious leaders say the end of the world is coming, again


Brain study shows 4% of people hear music in a completely different way

Imagine stepping into a friend's car, her favorite playlist pumping, only to be immersed in the sounds of hundreds of clanging pots and pans. To an estimated 4% of the world, that's what the stuff we call music sounds like.

These people are tone-deaf, a disorder known as congenital amusia. People who are really tone-deaf aren't just bad at karaoke: They can't pick out differences in pitch, the quality of music we're referring to when we say something is "low" or "high."

Say you're listening to your neighbor practice the piano, for example. In general, you could probably say whether the note you just heard was higher or lower than the one you heard before that.

People who are tone-deaf lack that ability. They still hear a difference, but they don't process it the same way as someone who isn't tone-deaf.

A world that sounds completely different

We talked to Marion Cousineau, a researcher at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research at the University of Montreal who spent years working with people with amusia (or "amusics") in the lab to get a sense of what the world sounds like to them.

Each person she's talked to, Cousineau said, describes their amusia a little bit differently.

While some people hear clanging pots and pans, for example, others might hear sounds they find beautiful. In the lab, they find out if participants have amusia using a version of this test, which you can try online right now.

"We had a journalist once who came to the lab to do a piece on it once. He was crazy about music and was constantly going to shows and concerts. Then he took the test and found out he was amusic."

In other words, while some tone-deaf people might experience sound one way, others might experience it in a vastly different way.
© International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research
A. Brain activity in someone who's not tone-deaf; B. Brain activity in someone who's tone-deaf


Epigenetic 'tags' linked to homosexuality in men

© Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/Getty
The biological influences on sexual orientation may extend to DNA 'tags' that affect gene expression.
The biology of sexual orientation has been one of the most vexing — and politically charged — questions in human genetics. For the first time, researchers have found associations between homosexuality and markers attached to DNA that can be influenced by environmental factors.

Twin studies and family trees provide strong evidence that sexual orientation is at least partly genetic. When one identical twin is gay, there is about a 20% chance that the other will be as well1. But because this rate is not 100%, it is thought that environmental factors play a role as well.

One of the best characterized is the 'older brother effect': the chance of a man being gay increases by 33% for each older brother he has2. The reason is not clear, although one hypothesis holds that the mother's immune system begins to react against male antigens and alter the fetus's development.

To search for factors that could mediate a link between environment and genes, geneticist Eric Vilain at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and his colleagues looked at epigenetic markers — chemical changes to DNA that affect how genes are expressed, but not the information they contain. These 'epi-marks' can be inherited, but can also be altered by environmental factors such as smoking, and are not always shared by identical twins.

The researchers collected DNA samples in saliva from 37 pairs of identical twins in which only one twin was gay, and 10 pairs in which both were gay. By scanning the twins' epigenomes, the researchers found five epi-marks that were more common among the gay men than in their genetically identical straight brothers. An algorithm they developed based on the five epi-marks could correctly predict the sexual orientation of men in the study 67% of the time. UCLA computational geneticist Tuck Ngun will present the work on 8 October at the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.

Vilain is not surprised to find that epigenetics is associated with sexual orientation, although he says it is too early to try to directly link the epi-marks to any particular environmental exposure or the expression of a specific gene. Ngun says that the researchers want to replicate the study in a different group of twins and also determine whether the same marks are more common in gay men than in straight men in a large and diverse population. Associations found in small studies are prone to evaporate when tested in larger groups.


Pluto: Water ice and blue skies - NASA releases latest photos

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has revealed the first colorized photos of the hazy sky enveloping the planet Pluto, along with bright red water ice patches.
Water ice on Pluto
"Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt? It's gorgeous," remarked Alan Stern, NASA New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

"The striking blue tint tells us about the size and composition of the haze particles," said New Horizons team researcher Carly Howett. "A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. On Earth, those particles are very tiny nitrogen molecules. On Pluto they appear to be larger — but still relatively small — soot-like particles we call tholins."
Pluto's hazy blue sky
The NASA team thinks the tholin particles form high in the Plutonian atmosphere, where what ultraviolet sunlight from over three billion miles away that washes the planet, breaks down and ionizes nitrogen and methane molecules. Recombination of the broken down molecules creates complex macromolecules. The more complex molecules grow until volatile gases condense, then coat surfaces with frost. This process is believed to be what contributes to the frosty red hues on the Plutonian surface.


New discovery shows why elephants rarely get cancer

© Agence France-Press/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi
As elephants evolved, their bodies made many extra copies of a gene that prevents tumors from forming
Despite their big size, elephants rarely get cancer, and scientists said Thursday they have discovered the secret to the creatures' special protection. It's in the genes.

Elephants have 38 additional modified copies of a gene that encodes p53, a compound that suppresses tumor formation.

Humans, on the other hand, have only two, according to the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

This means that as elephants evolved, their bodies made many extra copies of a gene that prevents tumors from forming.

Elephants have been considered an enigma for years because they have far more cells than people, which would presumably place them at higher risk of cancer over their lifespans which can last 50-70 years.

And yet, the analysis of a large database of elephant deaths showed that less than five percent of elephants die of cancer, compared to 11 to 25 percent in people.

Comment: Besides the genetic endowment, could it also be that elephants still eat the diet they evolved to, plus they don't dose their bodies with toxic chemicals or surround themselves with EMF radiation? They also (as much as they are allowed to) maintain close social bonds, which has a strengthening effect on the immune system of all mammals.


Fetal cells permeate blood brain barrier of mother lasting a lifetime

© Prevent
A mother may literally have her children on her mind at all times. Findings reveal that cells from fetuses migrate into the brains of their mothers, and can last a lifetime.

Few would argue that the mother-baby bond during pregnancy is the strongest human connection possible. During pregnancy, a mother is so connected physically and psychologically to her child, that her baby depends on her for everything from nutrition, to blood flow to warmth and more. But baby also provides mother with some special.

Recent findings showed that during pregnancy, mothers and fetuses often exchange cells that can apparently survive in bodies for years, a phenomenon known as microchimerism. Scientists had found that in mice, fetal cells could even migrate into the brains of mothers. Now researchers have the first evidence fetal cells do so in humans as well.

Fetomaternal transfer probably occurs in all pregnancies and in humans the fetal cells can persist for decades or lifetime. Microchimeric fetal cells are found in various maternal tissues and organs including blood, bone marrow, skin and liver.

In mice, fetal cells have also been found in the brain. The fetal cells also appear to target sites of injury. Fetomaternal microchimerism may have important implications for the immune status of women, influencing autoimmunity and tolerance to transplants.

A fetal microchimeric cell from a pregnancy is recognized by the mother's immune system partly as belonging to the mother, since the fetus is genetically half identical to the mother, but partly foreign, due to the father's genetic contribution. This may "prime" the immune system to be alert for cells that are similar to the self, but with some genetic differences.

Cancer cells which arise due to genetic mutations are just such cells, and there are studies which suggest that microchimeric cells may stimulate the immune system to stem the growth of tumors. Many more microchimeric cells are found in the blood of healthy women compared to those with breast cancer, for example, suggesting that microchimeric cells can somehow prevent tumor formation.


The Nobel Prize goes to...the neutrino flip

© Kamioka Observatory, ICCR, University of Tokyo
Crucial measurements were made at the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector in Japan.
The discovery that neutrinos switch between different "flavours" has won the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics.

Neutrinos are ubiquitous subatomic particles with almost no mass and which rarely interact with anything else, making them very difficult to study.

Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald led two teams which made key observations of the particles inside big underground instruments in Japan and Canada.

They were named on Tuesday morning at a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

Goran Hansson, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which decides on the award, declared: "This year's prize is about changes of identity among some of the most abundant inhabitants of the Universe."