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

Journal: Nature


Highly pathogenic avian H5N1 influenza A viruses occasionally infect humans, but currently do not transmit efficiently among humans. The viral haemagglutinin (HA) protein is a known host-range determinant as it mediates virus binding to host-specific cellular receptors. Here we assess the molecular changes in HA that would allow a virus possessing subtype H5 HA to be transmissible among mammals. We identified a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus-comprising H5 HA (from an H5N1 virus) with four mutations and the remaining seven gene segments from a 2009 pandemic H1N1 virus-that was capable of droplet transmission in a ferret model. The transmissible H5 reassortant virus preferentially recognized human-type receptors, replicated efficiently in ferrets, caused lung lesions and weight loss, but was not highly pathogenic and did not cause mortality. These results indicate that H5 HA can convert to an HA that supports efficient viral transmission in mammals; however, we do not know whether the four mutations in the H5 HA identified here would render a wholly avian H5N1 virus transmissible. The genetic origin of the remaining seven viral gene segments may also critically contribute to transmissibility in mammals. Nevertheless, as H5N1 viruses continue to evolve and infect humans, receptor-binding variants of H5N1 viruses with pandemic potential, including avian-human reassortant viruses as tested here, may emerge. Our findings emphasize the need to prepare for potential pandemics caused by influenza viruses possessing H5 HA, and will help individuals conducting surveillance in regions with circulating H5N1 viruses to recognize key residues that predict the pandemic potential of isolates, which will inform the development, production and distribution of effective countermeasures.

Concepts: Virus, Influenza, Avian influenza, Influenza pandemic, Transmission and infection of H5N1, Pandemic, 2009 flu pandemic, Influenza A virus subtype H5N1


A specific memory is thought to be encoded by a sparse population of neurons. These neurons can be tagged during learning for subsequent identification and manipulation. Moreover, their ablation or inactivation results in reduced memory expression, suggesting their necessity in mnemonic processes. However, the question of sufficiency remains: it is unclear whether it is possible to elicit the behavioural output of a specific memory by directly activating a population of neurons that was active during learning. Here we show in mice that optogenetic reactivation of hippocampal neurons activated during fear conditioning is sufficient to induce freezing behaviour. We labelled a population of hippocampal dentate gyrus neurons activated during fear learning with channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2) and later optically reactivated these neurons in a different context. The mice showed increased freezing only upon light stimulation, indicating light-induced fear memory recall. This freezing was not detected in non-fear-conditioned mice expressing ChR2 in a similar proportion of cells, nor in fear-conditioned mice with cells labelled by enhanced yellow fluorescent protein instead of ChR2. Finally, activation of cells labelled in a context not associated with fear did not evoke freezing in mice that were previously fear conditioned in a different context, suggesting that light-induced fear memory recall is context specific. Together, our findings indicate that activating a sparse but specific ensemble of hippocampal neurons that contribute to a memory engram is sufficient for the recall of that memory. Moreover, our experimental approach offers a general method of mapping cellular populations bearing memory engrams.

Concepts: Psychology, Memory, Hippocampus, Dentate gyrus, Neurogenesis, Granule cell, Entorhinal cortex, Channelrhodopsin


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


Recent advances in whole-genome sequencing have brought the vision of personal genomics and genomic medicine closer to reality. However, current methods lack clinical accuracy and the ability to describe the context (haplotypes) in which genome variants co-occur in a cost-effective manner. Here we describe a low-cost DNA sequencing and haplotyping process, long fragment read (LFR) technology, which is similar to sequencing long single DNA molecules without cloning or separation of metaphase chromosomes. In this study, ten LFR libraries were made using only ∼100 picograms of human DNA per sample. Up to 97% of the heterozygous single nucleotide variants were assembled into long haplotype contigs. Removal of false positive single nucleotide variants not phased by multiple LFR haplotypes resulted in a final genome error rate of 1 in 10 megabases. Cost-effective and accurate genome sequencing and haplotyping from 10-20 human cells, as demonstrated here, will enable comprehensive genetic studies and diverse clinical applications.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Bioinformatics, Molecular biology, Genomics, Chromosome, Personal genomics


Evolutionary novelties have been important in the history of life, but their origins are usually difficult to examine in detail. We previously described the evolution of a novel trait, aerobic citrate utilization (Cit(+)), in an experimental population of Escherichia coli. Here we analyse genome sequences to investigate the history and genetic basis of this trait. At least three distinct clades coexisted for more than 10,000 generations before its emergence. The Cit(+) trait originated in one clade by a tandem duplication that captured an aerobically expressed promoter for the expression of a previously silent citrate transporter. The clades varied in their propensity to evolve this novel trait, although genotypes able to do so existed in all three clades, implying that multiple potentiating mutations arose during the population’s history. Our findings illustrate the importance of promoter capture and altered gene regulation in mediating the exaptation events that often underlie evolutionary innovations.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Gene expression, Evolution, Biology, Genome, Escherichia coli


Patients with spinal cord injury lack the connections between brain and spinal cord circuits that are essential for voluntary movement. Clinical systems that achieve muscle contraction through functional electrical stimulation (FES) have proven to be effective in allowing patients with tetraplegia to regain control of hand movements and to achieve a greater measure of independence in daily activities. In existing clinical systems, the patient uses residual proximal limb movements to trigger pre-programmed stimulation that causes the paralysed muscles to contract, allowing use of one or two basic grasps. Instead, we have developed an FES system in primates that is controlled by recordings made from microelectrodes permanently implanted in the brain. We simulated some of the effects of the paralysis caused by C5 or C6 spinal cord injury by injecting rhesus monkeys with a local anaesthetic to block the median and ulnar nerves at the elbow. Then, using recordings from approximately 100 neurons in the motor cortex, we predicted the intended activity of several of the paralysed muscles, and used these predictions to control the intensity of stimulation of the same muscles. This process essentially bypassed the spinal cord, restoring to the monkeys voluntary control of their paralysed muscles. This achievement is a major advance towards similar restoration of hand function in human patients through brain-controlled FES. We anticipate that in human patients, this neuroprosthesis would allow much more flexible and dexterous use of the hand than is possible with existing FES systems.

Concepts: Nervous system, Neuron, Spinal cord, Muscle, Primate, Paralysis, Hand, Ulnar nerve


Chromatin modifiers regulate lifespan in several organisms, raising the question of whether changes in chromatin states in the parental generation could be incompletely reprogrammed in the next generation and thereby affect the lifespan of descendants. The histone H3 lysine 4 trimethylation (H3K4me3) complex, composed of ASH-2, WDR-5 and the histone methyltransferase SET-2, regulates Caenorhabditis elegans lifespan. Here we show that deficiencies in the H3K4me3 chromatin modifiers ASH-2, WDR-5 or SET-2 in the parental generation extend the lifespan of descendants up until the third generation. The transgenerational inheritance of lifespan extension by members of the ASH-2 complex is dependent on the H3K4me3 demethylase RBR-2, and requires the presence of a functioning germline in the descendants. Transgenerational inheritance of lifespan is specific for the H3K4me3 methylation complex and is associated with epigenetic changes in gene expression. Thus, manipulation of specific chromatin modifiers only in parents can induce an epigenetic memory of longevity in descendants.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Gene expression, Histone, Epigenetics, DNA methylation, Methylation, Nucleosome


The human X and Y chromosomes evolved from an ordinary pair of autosomes during the past 200-300 million years. The human MSY (male-specific region of Y chromosome) retains only three percent of the ancestral autosomes' genes owing to genetic decay. This evolutionary decay was driven by a series of five ‘stratification’ events. Each event suppressed X-Y crossing over within a chromosome segment or ‘stratum’, incorporated that segment into the MSY and subjected its genes to the erosive forces that attend the absence of crossing over. The last of these events occurred 30 million years ago, 5 million years before the human and Old World monkey lineages diverged. Although speculation abounds regarding ongoing decay and looming extinction of the human Y chromosome, remarkably little is known about how many MSY genes were lost in the human lineage in the 25 million years that have followed its separation from the Old World monkey lineage. To investigate this question, we sequenced the MSY of the rhesus macaque, an Old World monkey, and compared it to the human MSY. We discovered that during the last 25 million years MSY gene loss in the human lineage was limited to the youngest stratum (stratum 5), which comprises three percent of the human MSY. In the older strata, which collectively comprise the bulk of the human MSY, gene loss evidently ceased more than 25 million years ago. Likewise, the rhesus MSY has not lost any older genes (from strata 1-4) during the past 25 million years, despite its major structural differences to the human MSY. The rhesus MSY is simpler, with few amplified gene families or palindromes that might enable intrachromosomal recombination and repair. We present an empirical reconstruction of human MSY evolution in which each stratum transitioned from rapid, exponential loss of ancestral genes to strict conservation through purifying selection.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Cell, Evolution, Species, Chromosome, Primate, Y chromosome


Social networks show striking structural regularities, and both theory and evidence suggest that networks may have facilitated the development of large-scale cooperation in humans. Here, we characterize the social networks of the Hadza, a population of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. We show that Hadza networks have important properties also seen in modernized social networks, including a skewed degree distribution, degree assortativity, transitivity, reciprocity, geographic decay and homophily. We demonstrate that Hadza camps exhibit high between-group and low within-group variation in public goods game donations. Network ties are also more likely between people who give the same amount, and the similarity in cooperative behaviour extends up to two degrees of separation. Social distance appears to be as important as genetic relatedness and physical proximity in explaining assortativity in cooperation. Our results suggest that certain elements of social network structure may have been present at an early point in human history. Also, early humans may have formed ties with both kin and non-kin, based in part on their tendency to cooperate. Social networks may thus have contributed to the emergence of cooperation.

Concepts: Sociology, Networks, Social psychology, Social network, Human evolution, Network theory, Complex network, Six degrees of separation


Sudden cardiac death exhibits diurnal variation in both acquired and hereditary forms of heart disease, but the molecular basis of this variation is unknown. A common mechanism that underlies susceptibility to ventricular arrhythmias is abnormalities in the duration (for example, short or long QT syndromes and heart failure) or pattern (for example, Brugada’s syndrome) of myocardial repolarization. Here we provide molecular evidence that links circadian rhythms to vulnerability in ventricular arrhythmias in mice. Specifically, we show that cardiac ion-channel expression and QT-interval duration (an index of myocardial repolarization) exhibit endogenous circadian rhythmicity under the control of a clock-dependent oscillator, krüppel-like factor 15 (Klf15). Klf15 transcriptionally controls rhythmic expression of Kv channel-interacting protein 2 (KChIP2), a critical subunit required for generating the transient outward potassium current. Deficiency or excess of Klf15 causes loss of rhythmic QT variation, abnormal repolarization and enhanced susceptibility to ventricular arrhythmias. These findings identify circadian transcription of ion channels as a mechanism for cardiac arrhythmogenesis.

Concepts: Cardiology, Heart, Sleep, Cardiac arrest, Cardiac electrophysiology, Long QT syndrome, Circadian rhythm, Sudden cardiac death