All posts by Krista

Krista's a freelance proofreader and writer who spends most days eyeballing medical texts, others crafting stories for teen games. Sometimes she even makes a few bucks with photography. One thing's always true--she's got a hot geek streak for historical and scientific discovery.

Anti-GMO? This modified corn could save lives!

University of Arizona plant geneticist Monica Schmidt has genetically modified corn plants to turn off the ability of Aspergillus species of fungus to spread a toxin that leads to multiple life-altering and deadly conditions, which could be a game-changer for developing countries all over the world.

The procedure is called host-induced gene silencing (HIGS), and it involves inserting foreign genetic material into a host species so that the host can silence unwanted genes expressed by pathogens and pests. Schmidt and colleagues inserted RNA from the aspergillus fungus into the corn plant’s genetic code. When the fungus tried to infect the corn plant, the two exchanged genetic code, which, since the corn contained aspergillus genes, shut down the ability of the fungus to produce aflatoxin.

The trials were 100 percent effective according the peer-reviewed results published in Science Advances journal, and there were no other changes to the corn’s genetic code. The success of this initial trial is important because Aspergillus species cause illness, death, and economic loss in places where the fungi are rampant.

What is Aspergillus and why is its toxin dangerous?

Aspergillus refers to a genus of fungi that includes a few hundred species. Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus are the main species that produce dangerous aflatoxins, a certain fungus that can contaminate crops at all stages, from development to processing. These fungi are found on crops such as coffee, cocoa, copra, corn, cottonseed, groundnuts, peanuts, tree nuts, and yam chips, especially in warm, humid regions.

Exposure to aflatoxins can lead to liver disease, liver failure, liver cancer, aflatoxin toxicity leading to death, Reye’s syndrome, and impaired growth in children. According to the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, studies have also linked the toxins “to immune suppression, increased susceptibility to diseases such as HIV and malaria, and a possible reduction in the effectiveness of vaccines.”

corn

Who does this impact?

These problems are especially important in developing countries. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that Kenya suffers from high rates of aflatoxin contamination and poisoning, with up to 40% of cases resulting in death. This is because testing is not readily available in these countries, resulting in undetected contamination. Aflatoxins have an impact on the economy and nutrition in countries without widespread testing available because 1) contaminated crops must be destroyed, 2) the crops do not meet standards for trade, and 3) aflatoxins can cause illness and decreased yields in livestock.

What’s next?

According to the Arizona Daily Star, Schmidt is seeking funding for phase two trials but has hit roadblocks because of the public distrust of GMOs.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded her initial research but refused to fund the second leg of the trial, stating that they were funding other ways to fight aflatoxins, reports the Arizona Daily Star. They also turned down her next project involving fighting the fungus itself, but the US Department of Agriculture agreed to fund that research.

Right now phase two is still unfunded, which is unfortunate because if a group would overcome the GMO stigma and provide a grant to Schmidt and her colleagues, the eventual approval and release of such genetically modified corn could save lives in Africa.

When ya gotta go, ya gotta go: Teens live stream protest from high school bathroom

Girls have had enough at a school in Yorkshire Dales, England, where they say that they are being denied access to the bathroom outside of specified break times.

The angry teens staged a live-streamed protest inside the girls’ bathroom at Bedale High School to draw attention to a new rule that even parents are upset about. Thirty-five girls and five boys were involved, states the Harrogate Advertiser

“I really hate to put this on Facebook but I wondered if anyone else is having issues with the High School refusing access to toilets?” wrote an anonymous parent on Facebook, reports The Telegraph. “I have recently complained to the school about their new rule which ONLY allows access to toilets between 11.05am and 11.25am, and 12.25pm and 12.45pm. I believe that this humiliating and undignified and is a breach of human rights to be denied access to toilets at any other time unless you have a medical need, and totally ridiculous to say that you cannot go to the toilet after you have had lunch.”

The parent goes on to state that the headteacher responded to complaints about the issue and stated that the rule would remain in place. The rule was apparently issued to “improve teaching.”

Planned the previous night on social media, thirty-five girls and five boys were involved in the protest, states the Harrogate Advertiser, which eventually moved to the school field, where it continued. 

Teachers at the school called the police to handle the protesters, but according to The Telegraph, they stated that it was not a police matter. 

“North Yorkshire Police was alerted to a protest involving students at Bedale High School this morning,” said a police spokesman. “PCSOs attended the school grounds and, after making enquiries, advised staff that this was not a police matter.” 

Student Caitlin Mclean told the Harrogate Advertiser that the students involved were suspended for a week and might not be allowed to attend prom. 

A spokesperson released the following statement on behalf of the school: 

Bedale High School has recently introduced a new behavioural code as part of an action plan to improve teaching and learning in the school.

The code includes a range of measures to ensure that students are focused and can get the most out of their lessons and wider school provision.

These measures include students having access to fresh drinking water at all times and being able to take bags into lessons so they have ready access to all the materials they need for learning.

The code also includes tighter rules on uniform and on reducing the numbers of students outside of classrooms during lesson time.

As part of this the school has reminded students that toilets are freely accessible during specific periods at lunchtime and break time but that students who need the toilet during lessons, or need access for medical reasons, will always be given access on request. Toilets are therefore accessible at all times.

Bedale High is a school of 580 students and the vast majority today have participated fully and calmly with their lessons and wider provision.

The school has stated that families and students were fully informed of the new behaviour code before half term and that many have given supportive feedback and view it as a positive step.

Caitlin Mclean disputes the statement’s assertion that toilets are always accessible when requested, stating “The whole reason why we went out is so nothing embarrassing happens to us again. It’s not just me that has been in that situation, it’s been a few of us and we wanted to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Bird flu in Tennessee: first case of 2017 found in commercial flock (updated)

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) issued a press release on Sunday to confirm highly pathogenic avian influenza was found in a commercial chicken breeder’s flock in Lincoln County, Tennessee.

The 73,500-bird flock experienced an increased number of deaths, raising a red flag and leading to laboratory testing that revealed the infection. Tennessee’s Kord Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory completed initial testing, and the APHIS National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Iowa confirmed the results.  While the isolation of the subtype of virus is not yet complete, it is expected to be the neuraminidase protein, or “N-type.” The USDA characterizes the differences among subtypes as follows:

AI viruses are classified by a combination of two groups of proteins: hemagglutinin or “H” proteins, of which there are 16 (H1–H16), and neuraminidase or “N” proteins, of which there are 9 (N1–N9). Many different combinations of “H” and “N” proteins are possible. Each combination is considered a different subtype, and can be further broken down into different strains. AI viruses are further classified by their pathogenicity (low or high)— the ability of a particular virus strain to produce disease in domestic chickens.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is already working to ensure facility workers “are taking the proper precautions to prevent illness and contain disease spread.” They have also quarantined the facility and will destroy the animals to prevent further spread. The flock will not be used as food.  

According to the USDA, wild birds can carry the illness without appearing sick and transmit it to other bird populations they encounter. Since there are large chicken-producing facilities in surrounding states, state and local officials are working together to surveil and test nearby commercial facilities, live bird markets, and migratory birds in order to prevent a similar outbreak to that of 2015, which killed more than 48 million birds after the virus spread through equipment, employees, and other animals:

The virus was introduced into the U.S. by wild migratory waterfowl and then spread from farm to farm in a number of ways.  This included farms sharing equipment, vehicles moving between farms without being cleaned or disinfected, employees moving between infected and non-infected farms, rodents and small wild birds reported inside some poultry houses, and feed stored outside or without appropriate biosecurity measures. The virus spread was also assisted by instances of noncompliance with industry-recommended biosecurity practices.

So far there is no evidence that other facilities or populations have been infected.

Citizens are urged to report sick birds or unusual bird deaths to their state officials, or to the USDA at 1-866-536-7593.


 Update 3/7/17 4:18 am EST:

According to Reuters, Asian countries are now reacting to the news by limiting imports of poultry:

South Korea will ban imports of U.S. poultry and eggs after a strain of H7 bird flu virus was confirmed on Sunday at a chicken farm in Tennessee, South Korea’s agriculture ministry said.

Japan and Taiwan will block poultry from the state, while Hong Kong will restrict imports from the Tennessee county where the infected flock was located, said James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, a trade group.

Fish skin to treat burns? Doctors in Brazil are paving the way

Doctors in Fortazela, Brazil, may have finally found a solution to their shortage of burn dressing options through a clinical trial that, at least temporarily, gives patients a fish-like appearance, according to a report by STAT.

With only three functional skin banks in the entire country, and a lack of access to human, pig and artificial skins available in countries like the United States, doctors in Brazil face a big problem: too often the only option available for burn victims is a gauze and silver sulfadiazine cream bandage, a dressing that must be changed daily, which is very painful to the patient and prolongs healing time.

In response to this problem, researchers at the Federal University of Ceará began to study tilapia skin to determine its possible application in burn victims.

Clinical trial leader Dr. Edmar Maciel, a plastic surgeon and burn specialist, explained to STAT that researchers were surprised by what they found.

“We got a great surprise when we saw that the amount of collagen proteins, types 1 and 3, which are very important for scarring, exist in large quantities in tilapia skin, even more than in human skin and other skins,” Maciel said. “Another factor we discovered is that the amount of tension, of resistance in tilapia skin is much greater than in human skin. Also the amount of moisture.”

To prepare the skin for medial applications, researchers used sterilizing agents and radiation to remove bacteria, muscle tissue, scales, toxins, viruses, and other dangers from the skin, then packaged and refrigerated the 10cm by 20cm skins, which can last for up to two years. And because Brazil farms tilapia in mass, researchers will easily be able to keep the stock up. Now, instead of throwing away the skin, the Brazilian healthcare system can use what was formerly trash as an important medical treatment.

According to Dr. Maciel, tilapia skin is flexible like human skin, allowing it to mold to the body easily, and serves as an ideal bandage because it reduces the number of bandage changes, healing time, risk of infection, and the use of pain medication. For instance, with the tilapia skin, a patient with a superficial second-degree burn will not require a bandage change before scarring occurs, whereas with the gauze and cream, the patient would require regular bandage changes.  

The clinical trial’s first 50 patients started treatment in December 2016. 

Patient Maria Ines Candido da Silva (see above video) compared the treatment to a sci-fi movie and stated that she’d recommend the treatment to other burn patients.

Another patient, Antônio dos Santosm, told STAT that the skin reduced his pain.

While countries like the United States might not have much use for the skin due to sustained access to alternative options, developing countries with the resources to safely mass produce the product will find real promise in the success of the clinical trials.

With positive initial results, doctors are looking to the future. Successful clinical trials will open the door for companies to produce the product and sell it to the healthcare system, giving Brazilian physicians a better option for treatment and improving the quality of care for the country’s burn patients.

Study: patient expectations influence prescribing of antibiotics

An experiment published by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that doctors are more likely to prescribe antibiotics if patients have high expectations of receiving them, even if the probability of bacterial infection is low. Researchers referred to this as the “expectations effect.”

The APA’s findings are based on two similar experiments that were designed to 1) test how low versus high expectations for antibiotics influenced the frequency of antibiotic prescriptions and 2) observe whether higher expectations for antibiotics increased the perceived probability of bacterial infection by doctors.

A total of 305 family doctors completed the first experiment, and a total of 131 completed the second. In both experiments, doctors were presented with an online survey that used vignettes, or accounts, of patients presenting with illnesses ranging from colds to ear infections. Some patients had high expectations for antibiotics (for instance, because of an upcoming swim meet or the need to return to work), and some patients had low expectations (no time-sensitive events or patient requests hurrying recovery).

In experiment one, doctors were presented with five hypothetical patients, each randomly associated with one of four conditions. Parents’ expectations for antibiotics were also presented to address the idea that parents’ expectations impact the prescription of antibiotics and have a large influence on the expectations effect. The order of the questions about probability of infection and prescribing of antibiotics was randomized to see if the order impacted the decision to prescribe.

In experiment two, doctors were presented with only two patients, one with a cold and one with an ear infection. Both were adults advocating on behalf of his or her self. The question and vignette orders were fixed in this experiment, with the decision to prescribe antibiotics coming before the probability of infection and the ear infection vignette coming before the cold vignette.

doctor clipboard

The results of both experiments show both good and bad news: While doctors were more likely to prescribe antibiotics to patients with high expectations, this did not influence their view on whether infections were likely bacterial or viral. The common cold worked as a good sort of control for this, as it is well-known to be a viral infection, with only 12.2% of doctors prescribing antibiotics despite a high expectation from the patient, which is a drastic drop-off from the expectations effect in the other vignette (at 51.9%) in the second experiment.

Results also show that more experienced doctors were just as susceptible to the expectations effect as less experienced doctors, with experience having a positive association with prescribing antibiotics.

Researchers came to the following conclusion regarding decreasing the overprescription of antibiotics:

From a clinical point of view, nonclinical factors and, specifically, social influences might contribute to the overprescribing of antibiotics and, in turn, to the increased antibiotic resistance (Costelloe et al., 2010). This is particularly important in situations in which most of the interventions designed to reduce antibiotic overprescribing are focused on clinical guidelines (National Institute for Health Care Excellence, 2015). To reduce overprescribing of antibiotics, potential interventions should target patients’ expectations, physicians’ beliefs about these expectations, and physicians’ skills in managing these expectations. Consistently with such a conclusion, prior complex intervention studies have found the most effective interventions to be those that target patients and clinicians during consultations, facilitating shared decision-making (Coxeter, Del Mar, McGregor, Beller, & Hoffmann, 2015; Ranji, Steinman, Shojania, & Gonzales, 2008; Vodicka et al., 2013).

These suggestions go hand-in-hand with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) urgent calls to control the spread of antibiotic resistance and to develop new drugs to fight specific families of bacteria.

Alarmingly, for the first time in their history, WHO recently published a list of “priority pathogens” that are antibiotic-resistant and present a need for immediate research and the development of drugs. The list is divided into three priority groups: critical, high and medium.

The most critical group of all includes multidrug resistant bacteria that pose a particular threat in hospitals, nursing homes, and among patients whose care requires devices such as ventilators and blood catheters. They include Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas and various Enterobacteriaceae (including Klebsiella, E. coli, Serratia, and Proteus). They can cause severe and often deadly infections such as bloodstream infections and pneumonia.

These bacteria have become resistant to a large number of antibiotics, including carbapenems and third generation cephalosporins – the best available antibiotics for treating multi-drug resistant bacteria.

The second and third tiers in the list – the high and medium priority categories – contain other increasingly drug-resistant bacteria that cause more common diseases such as gonorrhea and food poisoning caused by salmonella.

Washing HandsIn addition, WHO provides the following suggestions for individuals to help slow the spread of antibiotic resistance in these and other families of bacteria:

  • Only use antibiotics when prescribed by a certified health professional.

  • Never demand antibiotics if your health worker says you don’t need them.

  • Always follow your health worker’s advice when using antibiotics.

  • Never share or use leftover antibiotics.

  • Prevent infections by regularly by washing hands, preparing food hygienically, avoiding close contact with sick people, practising safer sex, and keeping vaccinations up to date.

Doctors have their own set of guidelines, including infection control techniques, education of patients and the public, careful prescribing, and the reporting of resistant bacteria.

Both doctors and patients must take responsibility for the use of antibiotics.

As an individual, you can make the first move by not asking for antibiotics with every illness. Let your doctor make his or her decision without the expectations effect.

Read a PDF of the full experiment results.

Boston Dynamics’ new robot ‘Handle’ is fun to watch

On Monday Boston Dynamics released a YouTube video of its newest robot, “Handle.” Its cool agility will have you begging the company to see more tricks, and your mind will run wild with all the ways it could be used.


According to the YouTube description, “Handle is a research robot that stands 6.5 ft tall, travels at 9 mph and jumps 4 feet vertically. It uses electric power to operate both electric and hydraulic actuators, with a range of about 15 miles on one battery charge. Handle uses many of the same dynamics, balance and mobile manipulation principles found in the quadruped and biped robots we build, but with only about 10 actuated joints, it is significantly less complex. Wheels are efficient on flat surfaces while legs can go almost anywhere: by combining wheels and legs Handle can have the best of both worlds.”

It’s almost creepy watching it go, with its “arms” held back and “knees” constantly bent, and its agility would definitely make it an intimidating robocop, but boy, can that robot catch some air! 

Of course, the practical applications are important, too. With the ability to pick up 100 lbs, Handle very well could be the future of warehouse work. 

Technically, it’s copy-and-paste: AI learns to write code by combining pieces from different programs

Collaboration between Microsoft and University of Cambridge researchers has resulted in the creation of DeepCoder, an artificial intelligence system that can write code based on a database of existing code fragments.

DeepCoder works by synthesizing information from pre-built computer programs. The AI scans a list of code fragments and chooses the inputs and outputs to achieve the requested result. In other words, the system does what human coders do, choosing a piece of code to fit a specific programming need, and puts each piece together to create a final functioning program. 

The system was tested by completing simple challenges seen in programming competitions and can currently solve coding challenges up to approximately five lines of code. This may not seem like a lot, but DeepCoder can complete what would normally be tedious tasks in fractions of a second, which is a step up from its predecessors, and it gets faster the more tasks it completes and the more it learns which fragments of code work together and which do not.

Researchers state that this technology will be beneficial to both experienced and inexperienced coders because it can test code combinations much faster than humans as well as automate simpler coding tasks, enabling experienced human coders to work on more complicated tasks and laymen to build simple programs with ease. The system can also thoroughly and quickly scan a wider range of code to find combinations that humans might not otherwise consider. 

The hope is that technology such as DeepCoder will allow a higher rate of productivity and possibly one day allow people with no knowledge of code to input an idea and receive a program built by AI. 

A similarly named program called DeepCode was created in 2015 by Draper Laboratory  to find and correct bugs in software before their release by recognizing patterns in code. The system would scan for flaws in code patterns and suggest corrections for repair. Another system called Prophet was created by researchers at MIT to correct problems with code. In contrast to DeepCode, Prophet learned from past successful human patches and applied that knowledge to correct flaws in applications.

For more information, see the research paper DeepCoder: Learning to Write Programs.

NASA finds 7 Earth-sized planets orbiting one star

NASA announced on Wednesday that Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed “the first known system of seven Earth-sized planets around a single star,” including three planets located in the star’s habitable zone. 

Trappist system
Source: NASA

Never has there been a discovery outside of our solar system with so many habitable-zone planets around a single star. NASA states that all seven planets could have liquid water, but the three planets in the habitable zone have the highest likelihood, meaning that their environments would be conducive to life. 

All seven planets orbit the TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultra-cool dwarf in the Aquarius constellation, and are about 40 lightyears from Earth. The system is named after The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, which discovered three of the planets in the system. Spitzer was then used along with ground-based telescopes to confirm their existence as well as discover the remaining planets.

Trappist-1 System
Trappist-1 System. Source: NASA.

The system’s planets are situated closer to their star than Mercury is to our sun, and they appear to be tidally locked, meaning that the same side of the planet is always facing the sun, leaving one side in perpetual darkness. According to NASA, this could mean their weather patterns are completely different from Earth.

Hubble is now reviewing the three planets inside the habitable zone, as well as one additional planet, to determine whether they have hydrogen-dominated atmospheres. Hubble’s work has ruled this out in the two closest to the star, suggesting that they are rocky planets. 

Kepler is also studying the system by “making measurements of the star’s minuscule changes in brightness due to transiting planets” to refine the properties of the planets.

Scientists, however, are most excited about the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, a joint project with Canada and Europe. The telescope will be more sensitive than current telescopes and able to detect the chemical components of a planet’s atmosphere, temperatures and surface pressures, all which are important in determining the habitability of each of the planets. The telescope will also be able to detect longer wavelengths and see fainter objects in the solar system at a rate of 10 to 100 times fainter than Hubble. These are all reflected in the project’s four goals.

Webb Telescope Goals

To find out more about the TRAPPIST-1 system, visit https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/trappist1/.

To read NASA’s official press release, visit https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-telescope-reveals-largest-batch-of-earth-size-habitable-zone-planets-around.

To read the results published in Nature journal, visit http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v542/n7642/full/nature21360.html.