New coronavirus variants are spreading: the so-called South Africa, U.K., and Brazil variants, as well as newer variants like the ones that have popped up in New York City and California. You might have some questions about what this all means for vaccines, masks (and lack thereof), and our general future. I spoke to four experts, and here’s what they say we know—and what we’re still waiting to find out.
Pregnant and breastfeeding people have not been included in any of the Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials for the U.S. market. Will their exclusion delay rollout for them, or will it affect pregnant people’s trust that the vaccine is safe for them? How comprehensively will their reactions to the vaccines be recorded?
Angela Chen’s new book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex explores what life is like for people who largely don’t experience sexual desire. It uses asexuality as a lens through which we can sharpen our images of what we want and how we arrange our lives; an impetus for everyone, no matter their sexual drive, to better understand their own desires. NEO.LIFE sat down with Chen to discuss attraction, social norms, and what we’d gain from treating our friends more like lovers—and our lovers more like friends.
When I was pregnant, I read four books on pregnancy and two on childbirth. I read no books on what my body would be like during the first year postpartum, because I had never heard of any. During that first year, many people are underinformed about their own bodies, even as they learn vast amounts about their babies. For this piece, I discussed health in the first postpartum year with two ob-gyns, a nurse, two physical therapists who specialize in treating postpartum bodies and two mothers. The experts stressed that you don’t have to live with pain, discomfort or leaking urine, and that your health is as important as your baby’s.
The vast majority of working parents can’t keep their babies with them while they’re working. This means that if they want to keep breastfeeding while they work, they have to pump breastmilk. I talked to three breastfeeding experts and two lactation consultants; as well as five parents who navigated the decision to pump breastmilk when they returned to work as restaurant managers, police, scientists, soldiers and consultants. In researching this article, I heard about women pumping in printer closets, in the back of Humvees, in bathrooms and while driving. The experts I consulted all said that the best approach is to know your rights, make a plan and communicate transparently with your employer. Both experts and parents agreed: above all, be kind to yourself.
On 10 April, astrophysicists announced that they had captured the first ever image of a black hole. This was exhilarating news, but none of the giddy headlines mentioned that the image would have been impossible without open-source software. The image was created using Matplotlib, a Python library for graphing data, as well as other components of the open-source Python ecosystem. Just five days later, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) rejected a grant proposal to support that ecosystem, saying that the software lacked sufficient impact. It’s a familiar problem: open-source software is widely acknowledged as crucially important in science, yet it is funded non-sustainably.
Gene therapy might offer a cure for sickle-cell disease, and clinical trials are already under way. The approach is promising because just a single gene needs correcting: the one for the β-globin subunit of haemoglobin, the body’s oxygen ferry. But Elliott Vichinsky is concerned that the same problems that make current sickle-cell care ineffective will also plague this gene-therapy treatment. He estimates that at least 30% of his adult patients with sickle-cell disease die from preventable causes. As his patients attest, sickle-cell care is often inadequate for reasons that have little to do with scientific advancement and lots to do with economics and racism.
So you’ve just found out you’re pregnant with multiples. It’s O.K. to freak out. It’s a lot to process. Katie Ring panicked when she found out she was pregnant with twins, even though she was not at all surprised. “It felt like too much,” she said. “I felt like I was going to lose my whole identity.” For this guide, I sifted through the science, consulted three obstetricians who specialize in multiples, interviewed a mom of twins, and compiled the information you need to know about being pregnant with multiples, without the scaremongering.
If you’re pregnant and you’ve previously had a cesarean section, you may have a decision to make: Do you try for a vaginal birth after cesarean (otherwise known as a V.B.A.C.) or schedule another cesarean? Deciding whether or not to try for a V.B.A.C. means reckoning with the details of your medical situation in the context of your values, according to the experts. “I think it’s important to know that V.B.A.C. is an option for most women, and their chances of success are actually quite high,” said Dr. Jeanne-Marie Guise, M.D. M.P.H., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine.
Early pregnancy can feel unreal. How do you know the fetus is there when you can’t see it or feel it moving yet? So the first ultrasound picture can feel momentous: Finally, your whirring brain can be placated with direct proof. But other than the visual evidence that you’re not dreaming all this, you may not know what to expect from prenatal ultrasounds. We’re here to walk you through it. For this guide, I interviewed two obstetricians who specialize in ultrasounds — and a radiologist whose observation led to a diagnostic breakthrough — to find out what you need to know about prenatal ultrasounds.
On a cold morning in Minneapolis last December, a man walked into a research centre to venture where only pigs had gone before: into the strongest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine built to scan the human body. First, he changed into a hospital gown, and researchers made sure he had no metal on his body: no piercings, rings, metal implants or pacemakers. Any metal could be ripped out by the immensely powerful, 10.5-tesla magnet — weighing almost 3 times more than a Boeing 737 aeroplane and a full 50% more powerful than the strongest magnets approved for clinical use. “This is a window we’ve just never had in the intact human brain,” says Ravi Menon.
People with glioblastoma multiforme, one of the most common forms of brain cancer, have a median survival of less than 15 months after diagnosis. If researchers could grow numerous small brain-like structures that contained a replica of the person’s tumour and then bathe them in various treatments, in the space of a few weeks, they might learn exactly which ones would have the best chance of fighting brain cancer in that individual. Howard Fine, a neuro-oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, is developing such models, known as cerebral organoids. Organoids are particularly valuable for studying brain cancer because neither human brain tumours transplanted into mice nor human tumour stem cells grown in a culture dish behave in the same way as their counterparts in the body.
Debilitating hand pain is always bad news, but Harold Pimentel’s was especially unwelcome. As a computational-biology PhD student, his work involved constant typing — and he was born with only one arm. “My adviser jokingly said, ‘Can’t you do this by voice?’” he recalls. Three years later, as a computational-genomics postdoc at Stanford University in California, he does just that.
This is shaping up to be the year of DNA for cryptocurrency. One startup after another is offering to pay you in bitcoin-like tokens for sharing your genetic data.
But it’s hard to see how using blockchains and cryptocurrencies will substantially increase demand for genome sequencing. That’s a vexing problem because too few genomes have been sequenced and analyzed to generate as many meaningful insights as scientists had hoped.
The esoteric world of pure math doesn’t usually play much of a role in promoting fairness in the U.S. political system, but Tufts mathematicians Moon Duchin and Mira Bernstein believe that needs to change. It is math, they say, that could help overcome gerrymandering—the practice of drawing legislative districts that favor one party, class or race.
Aviv Regev likes to work at the edge of what is possible. In 2011, the computational biologist was collaborating with molecular geneticist Joshua Levin to test a handful of methods for sequencing RNA. The scientists were aiming to push the technologies to the brink of failure and see which performed the best. They processed samples with degraded RNA or vanishingly small amounts of the molecule. Eventually, Levin pointed out that they were sequencing less RNA than appears in a single cell.
To Regev, that sounded like an opportunity. The cell is the basic unit of life and she had long been looking for ways to explore how complex networks of genes operate in individual cells, how those networks can differ and, ultimately, how diverse cell populations work together. The answers to such questions would reveal, in essence, how complex organisms such as humans are built.
Every day in the U.S., about 22 people die waiting for an organ transplant. If scientists could 3-D print organs like kidneys, livers and hearts, all those lives could be saved. For years, people have been touting personalized organ printing as the future.
But despite decades of promising work in bioengineered bladders and other kinds of human tissue, we’re not close to having more complicated organs made from scratch. Harvard professor Jennifer Lewis, a leader in advanced 3-D printing of biological tissue, has only recently developed the ability to print part of a nephron, an individual unit of a kidney.
I asked Lewis what it will take to someday print a full kidney or a similarly complex organ.
When a new drug is being tested in a controlled clinical trial, half the patients get the real drug and half get a placebo, something harmless like a sugar pill or a saline injection. But patients on the placebo often improve anyway, and that’s because they expect that they’re getting the real drug, right? Well, no. Harvard professor Ted Kaptchuk’s research has exploded that explanation. Read the full story in NeoLife.
Dyslexia is not just about reading, or even language. It’s about something more fundamental: How much can the brain adapt to what it has just observed? People with dyslexia typically have less brain plasticity than those without dyslexia, two recent studies have found.
A fossil fish found in Yunnan, China, has filled in a gaping hole in how researchers thought the vertebrate jaw evolved.
The 423-million-year-old specimen, dubbed Qilinyu rostrata, is part of an ancient group of armoured fish called placoderms. The fossil is the oldest ever found with a modern three-part jaw, which includes two bones in the upper jaw and one in the lower jaw. Researchers reported their find on 20 October in Science.
A contagious facial cancer that is almost always fatal has cut a wide swathe through the population of Tasmanian devils since 1996. The disease has reduced the devil population by 80%, and researchers have predicted that the cancer will drive the animals to extinction within decades. But a study published on 30 August in Nature Communications offers hope. Researchers have found that Tasmanian devils have developed some genetic resistance to the disease in just four to six generations.
Large genomic databases are indispensable for scientists looking for genetic variations associated with diseases. But they come with privacy risks for people who contribute their DNA. To address those concerns, a system developed by Bonnie Berger and Sean Simmons, computer scientists at MIT, masks the donor’s identity by adding a small amount of noise, or random variation, to the results it returns on a user’s query.
Mice are a mainstay of biomedical research laboratories. But the rodents are poor models for studying women’s reproductive health, because they don’t menstruate. Now researchers at Monash University in Clayton, Australia, say that they have found a rodent that defies this conventional wisdom: the spiny mouse (Acomys cahirinus). If the finding holds up, the animal could one day be used to research women’s menstruation-related health conditions.
There’s a little too much wishful thinking about mindfulness, and it is skewing how researchers report their studies of the technique.
Researchers at McGill University analysed 124 published trials of mindfulness as a mental-health treatment, and found that scientists reported positive findings 60% more often than is statistically likely. The team also examined another 21 trials that were registered with databases such as ClinicalTrials.gov; of these, 62% were unpublished 30 months after they finished. The findings hint that negative results are going unpublished.
Madagascar is home to many unique and threatened mammals, such as lemurs and small hedgehog-like creatures called tenrecs. Most people wouldn’t think of consuming one of these animals, but for many in Madagascar, bushmeat is on the menu. Scientists assumed that people turned to wild meat just to survive, but two new studies that examine the entire supply chain for this meat have found that consumption of wild mammals in Madagascar is common and far more open a practice than anyone had suspected.Read the full article in Smithsonian.
The cabinets of the Field Museum in Chicago hold a collection of eggs that led to one of the most famous conservation discoveries of the twentieth century: that the pesticide DDT was causing widespread nesting failures in birds of prey.
But such specimen troves — which are used to identify species, track diseases and study climate change — have lost a valuable means of support. Last week, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that it would indefinitely suspend a programme that provides funding to maintain biological research collections.
A nuisance to dentists is now a boon for archaeologists. Researchers have successfully sequenced DNA from fossilized plaque on 700-year-old teeth.
Solidified plaque—called calculus, tartar, or that chalky stuff the dentist scrapes off—contains a whopping 25 times more DNA than ancient tooth or bone.
This robotics researcher might have something in just your size.
Most robotics labs don’t contain sewing machines. But there’s a room full of them in Conor Walsh’s lab, along with three full-time textile experts and a wall of fabrics in neat plastic bins. There’s a rack that looks as if it belongs in a sporting goods store, with a row of what could be some new kind of running shorts in an array of sizes.
For Walsh, a robot is not necessarily a rigid metal machine. He’s working on robots that are soft, lightweight, and flexible so people can wear them to enhance their abilities.
Mothers-to-be expecting to learn about chromosomal defects from a noninvasive prenatal test sometimes instead learn they may have cancer.
Biology professor Erin Lindquist was in the middle of class when she got the phone call telling her that a prenatal test had returned abnormal results.
The BabySeq project in Boston has begun collecting data to quantify the risks and benefits of DNA sequencing at birth.
The central question for this project is what will come of giving genomic information to parents and their baby’s doctor. Will doctors order more tests and interventions? Will those tests and interventions make babies healthier? Or will they just waste money, or even end up doing more harm than good?
Mutations in the gene NLGN3, found in some people with autism, alter mice’s gut nervous system, two new studies suggest. One of these mutations also affects the population of microbes that live inside their gut. The results may help explain why gastrointestinal problems often accompany autism, says lead researcher Elisa Hill-Yardin.