Fixing gerrymandering with geometry – Tufts Now

Photo: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

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.

Read the full story in Tufts Now.

Advertisements

How to build a human cell atlas – Nature

photo by Casey Atkins for Nature

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.

Read the full story in Nature.

What will it take to 3-D print organs? – NeoLife

Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock; Scientific Reports

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.

Read the full story in NeoLife.

Arkansas should halt execution spree and let its drugs expire – New Scientist

Reuters

An unprecedented scheduled execution spree has begun this week in Arkansas. The state initially aimed to carry out the death sentence on eight people in 11 days before its stockpile of one of the three drugs used for lethal injections, called midazolam, reached its expiry date of 30 April.

Last night, legal hurdles were overcome in one case and the first execution took place. Arkansas should have let the midazolam expire. In fact, it shouldn’t have used it at all.

Whatever you think of capital punishment, the drugs used for lethal injection in the US today don’t offer the certainty of a swift end, because of a horrifying combination of a lack of data, historical quirks and uninformed decision-makers.

Read the full story in New Scientist.

Take two placebos and call me in the morning – NeoLife

Illustration by Gabriel Alcala

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.

First fluorescent frog found – Nature

Julián Faivovich and Carlos Taboada

Under normal light, the South American polka dot tree frog (Hypsiboas punctatus) sports a muted palette of greens, yellows and reds. But dim the lights and switch on ultraviolet illumination, and this little amphibian gives off a bright blue and green glow.

Read the full story in Nature.

Fish fossil upends scientists’ view of jaw evolution – Nature

Dinghua Yang

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.

Read the full story in Nature.

Bees die needlessly as Zika prompts US state to spray pesticide – New Scientist

Micha Pawlitzki/Getty

It was an avoidable massacre. Beekeepers in Dorchester County, South Carolina, saw 48 of their hives killed off on 28 August. The culprit was a pesticide, sprayed from a plane with the aim of killing mosquitoes that can carry the Zika virus. But South Carolina’s mosquito population isn’t yet known to carry Zika – and even if the virus is present, there are ways to kill the mosquitoes without killing bees.

Tasmanian devils show signs of resistance to devastating facial cancer – Nature

Jason Reed/Reuters

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.

Spiking genomic databases with misinformation could protect patient privacy – Nature

Nature

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.

If you give a mouse a menstrual cycle – Nature

fotandy/Getty

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.

Scientists track last 2,000 years of British evolution

Kurt Hutton/Getty Images

Humans may be members of an advanced species, but we haven’t stopped evolving. Over the past 2,000 years, British people have adapted to become taller and blonder, more likely to have blue eyes and better able to digest milk, according to researchers who have developed a technique to track very recent changes in the human genome.

Read the full story in Nature.

From autism to Chinese, a headset to help you with your language – New Scientist

Adrian Weinbrecht/plain picture

Learning a tonal language like Chinese is notoriously difficult–it’s easy to end up calling your mother a horse. But soon there could be a wearable headset that can help. The system was created for people with autism who want help with social interactions, but it could be adapted to help with speech or anxiety problems–or even language learning, says LouAnne Boyd at the University of California at Irvine, part of the team that designed it.

Power of positive thinking skews mindfulness studies – Nature

Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS

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.

Read the full story in Nature.

Biological specimen troves threatened by funding pause

Image credit: Marc Schlossman/Panos

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.

Read the full article in Nature.

Conor Walsh | Innovators Under 35

Walsh with his soft robotic exosuit.

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.

Read the full profile in MIT Technology Review.

Should babies have their genomes sequenced?

Illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

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?

Read the full article in MIT Technology Review.

New method taps family trees for clues about conditions – Spectrum

Genetic puzzle: A new approach for finding risk variants considers data from multiple generations of a family. Hero Images/Getty Images

Asking participants in genetic databases about their family’s medical history can help researchers uncover genetic variants tied to uncommon conditions. Because people share 50 percent of their DNA with each of their parents, siblings and children, the DNA of the participants holds clues to the conditions of these relatives.

Read the full story in Spectrum.