Zhong Zhong peeks around a stuffed toy. (Credit: Qiang Sun and Mu-ming Poo / Chinese Academy of Sciences)
The world recently welcomed a pair of monkeys that were created using the same method used to clone Dolly the sheep.
In a study published Wednesday in Cell, researchers successfully produced two genetically identical, long-tailed crab-eating macaques. Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were born eight and six weeks ago, respectively, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai. It’s a technical benchmark that could have future applications in clinical research.
Species closer to humans, such as these old-world monkeys, are more helpful when it comes to studying primate physiological functions. These crab-eating macaques are the most commonly used non-human primate because they are widespread and not endangered, according to Dr. Muming Poo, an author of the study. The ability to create and tailor various populations of genetically uniform monkeys with which to conduct research can be useful in testing out new therapeutic treatments or studying disease progression in real models with minimal individual variation.
“In principle, it can be applied to humans, “ says Poo.
However, he and his fellow researchers are focused on producing animal models that are useful for medicine and human health, especially with genetic-based diseases. Plenty of neurodegenerative diseases have a genetic basis, and Poo is currently using his animal models to target Huntington’s disease. His approach could be further applied in autism or immunodeficiency research.
Although Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua aren’t the first monkey clones ever, they are the first ones to be made using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which has been successfully applied in 23 mammalian species including mice, cats and dogs. In this process, the nucleus is removed from a healthy egg cell and replaced with one from another cell. In the end, the newly developed animal is an exact genetic copy of the animal that donated the cell nucleus.
And here’s Hua Hua. (Credit: Qiang Sun and Mu-ming Poo / Chinese Academy of Sciences)
“It’s possible that even though the DNA sequences are the same between the clones, from different mother surrogates, they may produce different epigenetic modulations, especially after birth,” says Poo.
In Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua’s cases, fetal fibroblast nuclei were transplanted into the egg cell. The egg cell was then implanted into a surrogate mother, who then live birthed the newborn.
In addition to Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, another pair of monkey clones was borne from an adult body cell nuclei transfer, but they did not live long after birth. Poo suspects that adult body cells are harder to reprogram, or perhaps it was simply a numbers issue—if there were a greater sample size, there would be more healthy newborns.
Right now, it takes nine months to produce one generation of clones, said study co-author Qiang Sun, who claims that they can now receive two live offspring from six starter monkeys. They have not yet exhausted different modulation possibilities to yield the highest reproduction efficiency, but their goal is to make it so that as few as possible monkeys need to be used in the process.
Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua are living together in an incubator designed for human babies. Their behaviors and health are monitored daily, and when they are old enough they’ll be subjected to brain scans to check if their neurological developments are also similar.
“They live in the same environment, eat the same food, and are taken care of by the same person,” says Sun.
The Aftermath of Michael Jackson’s Antigravity Lean
The infamous lean.
In Michael Jackson’s 1987 music video “Smooth Criminal,” the legendary performer leans forward 45 degrees from a straight-up position — and comes back. It’s a feat that seemingly defies both physics and physiology, and the move has become another element of MJ’s aura of mystery.
Some type of cinematic or mechanical trick must be responsible, since most people can manage only a 20-degree forward tilt before toppling headlong. Yet Jackson performed the move live on tours around the world for years.
In a study published this week in the Journal of Neurosurgery, three scientists examine the so-called Antigravity Lean, not from a physics but from a physiological perspective. The three neurosurgeons, all at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, combine in the article their knowledge of Jackson with data on spine biomechanics.
It’s been known for years how Jackson defied gravity. His shoes had a slot that slid onto a bolt in the floor, allowing him to perform the dramatic lean.
Bending forward is limited by the erector spinae muscles, which act like cables to support forward bends up to 20 degrees, though some dancers can achieve 30 degrees, the paper says. When near the max of a bend, you can feel the strain on the Achilles’ heel as the ankles become the fulcrum for balance. People soon return to vertical or catch themselves from falling headlong.
Though Jackson’s 45-degree bend is not physically possible without trickery, the King of Pop still needed incredible core strength and leg muscles to pull it off, the authors write. Not just anyone can lock their shoes into the floor and become Michael Jackson, it seems.
“Several MJ fans, including the authors, have tried to copy this move and failed, often injuring themselves in their endeavors,” the researchers write.
Figure A shows the Antigravity Tilt (a 45-degree forward bend) and the normal limit that most people can bend forward. Jackson used shoes with a slot that slid onto a bolt in the floor. Figure B shows the shift when the body’s fulcrum is the hip and when it’s the Achilles’ tendon. (Illustration courtesy of Manjul Tripathi)
Tough Act to Follow
Jackson’s sleight of foot inspired generations of dancers who push the limits physically. This has resulted in spinal stresses not previously seen by neurosurgeons.
This is not to point the finger at Jackson. But it does suggest the reality that injuries can occur that might require implant spinal surgery, the article says, something potentially devastating to a dancer.
But it’s not all bad news — neurosurgeons have gained a lot of new information on how to treat spinal cord injuries in recent years, something that could be in part thanks to MJ’s envelope-pushing dance moves.
“The King of Pop has not only been an inspiration but a challenge to the medical fraternity,” Tripathi says.
Your Emergency Contact Does More Than You Think
You know when you’re filling out your medical paperwork and it asks for your emergency contact? Sure, the process might be annoying, but that emergency contact could actually be put to good use by researchers.
Since many of us use a family member, those contacts can help scientists create family trees. And they can also be used for genetics and disease research, according to a study released Thursday in Cell. Discovering what diseases are inheritable can be a laborious and expensive process — patients must be recruited and researchers must clearly determine patients’ phenotypes (physical traits that include eye color, height, and overall health and are often influenced by your genes).
To make that process easier researchers from three major New York medical centers generated family trees from millions of electronic medical records to create a database.This is the first time electronic health records have been used to trace ancestry and it’s the largest study of heritability using such records.
The More You Know
The researchers identified 7.4 million relatives with an algorithm that matched names, addresses and phone numbers from three medical centers. They found 500 inheritable phenotypes in the data just by looking at test results and observations in health records. The traits included diseases affecting skin, blood and mental health.
The data can help determine the heritability level of many common diseases. For example, researchers found that having an increase of HDL (good) cholesterol is 50 percent heritable, while LDL (bad) cholesterol is only 25 percent heritable. The study’s findings were consistent across the participating medical centers and published studies.
Previous heritability research primarily documented Caucasians of northern European descent, according to the study’s first author Fernanda Polubriaginof, but this research is much broader.
“This dataset will allow us for the first time to compute whether there are differences in other races and ethnicities,” said Polubriaginof in a news release.
Future studies could look at medical records for the hereditary contribution of any trait. Due to privacy issues, patient identifiers were removed for the data, which can only be used for research at the moment. Though, with patient consent, emergency contacts could be put to important use in the future.
Mosquito Bites Leave A Lasting Impression On Our Immune System
Mosquito bites are like a gross form of French kissing — the insects swap your blood with their saliva, and leave a trail of salivary secretions behind like mosquito cooties. Some of those compounds prevent clotting as the insects slurp up your blood. Now researchers find mosquito spit aggravates your immune system for days afterward. The findings could help scientists develop vaccines for mosquito-born diseases like Zika.
Rebecca Rico-Hesse, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, wanted to know how mosquitoes exploit our immune systems with their drool. So, she and her team exposed mice with human-like immune systems to live mosquitoes. Then, they sized up the mice’s immune response as it reacted to the mosquito spittle.
The bug’s saliva toyed with their immune systems in both bone marrow and skin cells with effects that lasted up to seven days after biting, the team reports today in PLoS: Neglected Tropical Diseases. The researchers say their discovery could explain how these tissues might act as virus incubators and help spread disease.
In 2012, Rico-Hesse was looking to untangle how Dengue virus causes Dengue hemorrhagic fever — an illness that affects 400 million people each year and can lead to death — when she came across a strange occurrence. Mice infected with the virus from mosquito bites fared far worse than mice that had received an injection of the virus but hadn’t been served as a mosquito meal. The result made Rico-Hesse take a step back.
It seems that mosquito bites caused the immune system to behave differently, and in ways that could potentially give infectious diseases a leg up.
To find out, Rico-Hesse and her team set starving Aedes aegypti mosquitoes on mice that had received a dose of human stem cells to make their immune systems look more like a human’s. Each mouse endured eight mosquito bites total. Then the team checked out different parts of the immune system — blood, bone marrow, spleen, and skin cells — six and 24 hours after biting, as well as seven days later. By then, the immune system should have returned to normal.
Instead, the team discovered immune cells that had disappeared from the skin at least six hours post-bite came back seven days later after maturing in bone marrow, something that shouldn’t have happened. If those cells harbored a virus, they could then pass it on to new mosquitoes, who could infect others.
The research is pointing out new ways in which mosquito bites affect our immune systems, and it goes beyond simple itching and scratching.
“Mosquito saliva has evolved to modify our immune system,” Rico-Hesse said. And as their new research shows, viruses and parasites could be hijacking that activity to get to the cells they reproduce in, like bone marrow cells, faster, according to her.
Essentially, viruses might be taking advantage of the immune system’s response to travel from their point of entry — the skin — to a place they can multiply in that’s away from attacks by the immune system.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Rico-Hesse said. “No one has ever seen this before.”
Ultimately, the work could lead to infection-blocking vaccines, said Duane Gubler, an international health expert who was not involved in the research.
That’s what Rico-Hesse hopes, too. “If we can make a vaccine that would protect us against the effects of the [mosquito] saliva, or blocking our immune reaction … then we could stop global vector-born diseases,” she said.
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