Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Organism


Traces of life are nearly ubiquitous on Earth. However, a central unresolved question is whether these traces always indicate an active microbial community or whether, in extreme environments, such as hyperarid deserts, they instead reflect just dormant or dead cells. Although microbial biomass and diversity decrease with increasing aridity in the Atacama Desert, we provide multiple lines of evidence for the presence of an at times metabolically active, microbial community in one of the driest places on Earth. We base this observation on four major lines of evidence: (i) a physico-chemical characterization of the soil habitability after an exceptional rain event, (ii) identified biomolecules indicative of potentially active cells [e.g., presence of ATP, phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs), metabolites, and enzymatic activity], (iii) measurements of in situ replication rates of genomes of uncultivated bacteria reconstructed from selected samples, and (iv) microbial community patterns specific to soil parameters and depths. We infer that the microbial populations have undergone selection and adaptation in response to their specific soil microenvironment and in particular to the degree of aridity. Collectively, our results highlight that even the hyperarid Atacama Desert can provide a habitable environment for microorganisms that allows them to become metabolically active following an episodic increase in moisture and that once it decreases, so does the activity of the microbiota. These results have implications for the prospect of life on other planets such as Mars, which has transitioned from an earlier wetter environment to today’s extreme hyperaridity.

Concepts: Archaea, Bacteria, Metabolism, Organism, Water, Atacama Desert, Desert, Rain shadow


Bacterial phototaxis was first recognized over a century ago, but the method by which such small cells can sense the direction of illumination has remained puzzling. The unicellular cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 moves with Type IV pili and measures light intensity and color with a range of photoreceptors. Here, we show that individual Synechocystis cells do not respond to a spatiotemporal gradient in light intensity, but rather they directly and accurately sense the position of a light source. We show that directional light sensing is possible because Synechocystis cells act as spherical microlenses, allowing the cell to see a light source and move towards it. A high-resolution image of the light source is focused on the edge of the cell opposite to the source, triggering movement away from the focused spot. Spherical cyanobacteria are probably the world’s smallest and oldest example of a camera eye.

Concepts: DNA, Cyanobacteria, Archaea, Bacteria, Organism, Light, Synechocystis, Pilus


We employed an RNA-guided CRISPR/Cas9 DNA editing system to precisely remove the entire HIV-1 genome spanning between 5' and 3' LTRs of integrated HIV-1 proviral DNA copies from latently infected human CD4+ T-cells. Comprehensive assessment of whole-genome sequencing of HIV-1 eradicated cells ruled out any off-target effects by our CRISPR/Cas9 technology that might compromise the integrity of the host genome and further showed no effect on several cell health indices including viability, cell cycle and apoptosis. Persistent co-expression of Cas9 and the specific targeting guide RNAs in HIV-1-eradicated T-cells protected them against new infection by HIV-1. Lentivirus-delivered CRISPR/Cas9 significantly diminished HIV-1 replication in infected primary CD4+ T-cell cultures and drastically reduced viral load in ex vivo culture of CD4+ T-cells obtained from HIV-1 infected patients. Thus, gene editing using CRISPR/Cas9 may provide a new therapeutic path for eliminating HIV-1 DNA from CD4+ T-cells and potentially serve as a novel and effective platform toward curing AIDS.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Cell nucleus, Bacteria, Organism, Virus, Chromosome


Suicides are a leading cause of death in psychiatric patients, and in society at large. Developing more quantitative and objective ways (biomarkers) for predicting and tracking suicidal states would have immediate practical applications and positive societal implications. We undertook such an endeavor. First, building on our previous blood biomarker work in mood disorders and psychosis, we decided to identify blood gene expression biomarkers for suicidality, looking at differential expression of genes in the blood of subjects with a major mood disorder (bipolar disorder), a high-risk population prone to suicidality. We compared no suicidal ideation (SI) states and high SI states using a powerful intrasubject design, as well as an intersubject case-case design, to generate a list of differentially expressed genes. Second, we used a comprehensive Convergent Functional Genomics (CFG) approach to identify and prioritize from the list of differentially expressed gene biomarkers of relevance to suicidality. CFG integrates multiple independent lines of evidence-genetic and functional genomic data-as a Bayesian strategy for identifying and prioritizing findings, reducing the false-positives and false-negatives inherent in each individual approach. Third, we examined whether expression levels of the blood biomarkers identified by us in the live bipolar subject cohort are actually altered in the blood in an age-matched cohort of suicide completers collected from the coroner’s office, and report that 13 out of the 41 top CFG scoring biomarkers (32%) show step-wise significant change from no SI to high SI states, and then to the suicide completers group. Six out of them (15%) remained significant after strict Bonferroni correction for multiple comparisons. Fourth, we show that the blood levels of SAT1 (spermidine/spermine N1-acetyltransferase 1), the top biomarker identified by us, at the time of testing for this study, differentiated future as well as past hospitalizations with suicidality, in a live cohort of bipolar disorder subjects, and exhibited a similar but weaker pattern in a live cohort of psychosis (schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder) subjects. Three other (phosphatase and tensin homolog (PTEN), myristoylated alanine-rich protein kinase C substrate (MARCKS), and mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase kinase 3 (MAP3K3)) of the six biomarkers that survived Bonferroni correction showed similar but weaker effects. Taken together, the prospective and retrospective hospitalization data suggests SAT1, PTEN, MARCKS and MAP3K3 might be not only state biomarkers but trait biomarkers as well. Fifth, we show how a multi-dimensional approach using SAT1 blood expression levels and two simple visual-analog scales for anxiety and mood enhances predictions of future hospitalizations for suicidality in the bipolar cohort (receiver-operating characteristic curve with area under the curve of 0.813). Of note, this simple approach does not directly ask about SI, which some individuals may deny or choose not to share with clinicians. Lastly, we conducted bioinformatic analyses to identify biological pathways, mechanisms and medication targets. Overall, suicidality may be underlined, at least in part, by biological mechanisms related to stress, inflammation and apoptosis.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 20 August 2013; doi:10.1038/mp.2013.95.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Gene expression, Organism, Schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, Suicide


Body size and metabolic rate both fundamentally constrain how species interact with their environment, and hence ultimately affect their niche. While many mechanisms leading to these constraints have been explored, their effects on the resolution at which temporal information is perceived have been largely overlooked. The visual system acts as a gateway to the dynamic environment and the relative resolution at which organisms are able to acquire and process visual information is likely to restrict their ability to interact with events around them. As both smaller size and higher metabolic rates should facilitate rapid behavioural responses, we hypothesized that these traits would favour perception of temporal change over finer timescales. Using critical flicker fusion frequency, the lowest frequency of flashing at which a flickering light source is perceived as constant, as a measure of the maximum rate of temporal information processing in the visual system, we carried out a phylogenetic comparative analysis of a wide range of vertebrates that supported this hypothesis. Our results have implications for the evolution of signalling systems and predator-prey interactions, and, combined with the strong influence that both body mass and metabolism have on a species' ecological niche, suggest that time perception may constitute an important and overlooked dimension of niche differentiation.

Concepts: Psychology, Evolution, Metabolism, Energy, Organism, Ecology, Information, Niche differentiation


Reported values in the literature on the number of cells in the body differ by orders of magnitude and are very seldom supported by any measurements or calculations. Here, we integrate the most up-to-date information on the number of human and bacterial cells in the body. We estimate the total number of bacteria in the 70 kg “reference man” to be 3.8·1013. For human cells, we identify the dominant role of the hematopoietic lineage to the total count (≈90%) and revise past estimates to 3.0·1013 human cells. Our analysis also updates the widely-cited 10:1 ratio, showing that the number of bacteria in the body is actually of the same order as the number of human cells, and their total mass is about 0.2 kg.

Concepts: DNA, Cell, Archaea, Bacteria, Mathematics, Organism, Chromosome, Bacterial cell structure


Many groups, including our own, have proposed the use of DNA methylation profiles as biomarkers for various disease states. While much research has been done identifying DNA methylation signatures in cancer vs. normal etc., we still lack sufficient knowledge of the role that differential methylation plays during normal cellular differentiation and tissue specification. We also need thorough, genome level studies to determine the meaning of methylation of individual CpG dinucleotides in terms of gene expression.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Gene expression, Cancer, Organism, Cellular differentiation, DNA methylation


The healthspan of mice is enhanced by killing senescent cells using a transgenic suicide gene. Achieving the same using small molecules would have a tremendous impact on quality of life and burden of age-related chronic diseases. Here, we describe the rationale for identification and validation of a new class of drugs termed senolytics, which selectively kill senescent cells. By transcript analysis, we discovered increased expression of pro-survival networks in senescent cells, consistent with their established resistance to apoptosis. Using siRNA to silence expression of key nodes of this network, including ephrins (EFNB1 or 3), PI3Kδ, p21, BCL-xL, or plasminogen activated inhibitor-2, killed senescent cells, but not proliferating or quiescent, differentiated cells. Drugs targeting these factors selectively killed senescent cells. Dasatinib eliminated senescent human fat cell progenitors, while quercetin was more effective against senescent human endothelial cells and mouse BM-MSCs. The combination of dasatinib and quercetin was effective in eliminating senescent MEFs. In vivo, this combination reduced senescent cell burden in chronologically aged, radiation-exposed, and progeroid Ercc1(-/Δ) mice. In old mice, cardiac function and carotid vascular reactivity were improved 5 days after a single dose. Following irradiation of one limb in mice, a single dose led to improved exercise capacity for at least 7 months following drug treatment. Periodic drug administration extended healthspan in Ercc1(-/∆) mice, delaying age-related symptoms and pathology, osteoporosis and loss of intervertebral disc proteoglycans. These results demonstrate the feasibility of selectively ablating senescent cells and the efficacy of senolytics for alleviating symptoms of frailty and extending healthspan. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Gene, Gene expression, Atherosclerosis, Organism, Copyright, KILL


Non-caloric artificial sweeteners (NAS) are among the most widely used food additives worldwide, regularly consumed by lean and obese individuals alike. NAS consumption is considered safe and beneficial owing to their low caloric content, yet supporting scientific data remain sparse and controversial. Here we demonstrate that consumption of commonly used NAS formulations drives the development of glucose intolerance through induction of compositional and functional alterations to the intestinal microbiota. These NAS-mediated deleterious metabolic effects are abrogated by antibiotic treatment, and are fully transferrable to germ-free mice upon faecal transplantation of microbiota configurations from NAS-consuming mice, or of microbiota anaerobically incubated in the presence of NAS. We identify NAS-altered microbial metabolic pathways that are linked to host susceptibility to metabolic disease, and demonstrate similar NAS-induced dysbiosis and glucose intolerance in healthy human subjects. Collectively, our results link NAS consumption, dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities, thereby calling for a reassessment of massive NAS usage.

Concepts: Bacteria, Gut flora, Metabolism, Nutrition, Organism, Feces, Food additive, Sugar substitute


Despite renewed interest in the biogeography and evolutionary history of Old World tree frogs (Rhacophoridae), this family still includes enigmatic frogs with ambiguous phylogenetic placement. During fieldwork in four northeastern states of India, we discovered several populations of tree hole breeding frogs with oophagous tadpoles. We used molecular data, consisting of two nuclear and three mitochondrial gene fragments for all known rhacophorid genera, to investigate the phylogenetic position of these new frogs. Our analyses identify a previously overlooked, yet distinct evolutionary lineage of frogs that warrants recognition as a new genus and is here described as Frankixalus gen. nov. This genus, which contains the enigmatic ‘Polypedates’ jerdonii described by Günther in 1876, forms the sister group of a clade containing Kurixalus, Pseudophilautus, Raorchestes, Mercurana and Beddomixalus. The distinctiveness of this evolutionary lineage is also corroborated by the external morphology of adults and tadpoles, adult osteology, breeding ecology, and life history features.

Concepts: DNA, Evolution, Biology, Organism, Species, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Frogs