Genetic manipulation yields larger rice

Comparison of genetically manipulated rice and normal rice.

Comparison of genetically manipulated rice strain and normal rice strains. Scale bar: 10mm

Rice is one of the largest sources of human energy on the planet providing near one quarter global energy per capita. As such, researchers have looked for ways to manipulate rice and increase throughput. One group with educational roots in Nanjing, Hangzhou, and Beijing found a rare allele in rice, qgl3, that produces longer grain rice.

This is not the first time, however, rice has been put under the genetic microscope. Back in 2000, an article was published in Science that detailed genetically modified rice made to contain beta-carotene, a vitamin-A precursor. “Golden rice” as it was deemed was seen as a great breakthrough by some and frowned upon by others. Perhaps this larger strain of rice will attract similar attention.

Rice grains range from 5mm to 10mm depending on strain. In these project, researchers crossed extra long grain rice, N411, with a backcrossed strain containing the rare gene. Growing the plants resulted in grains averaging 12.22mm in length. Compared to the control rice, 93-11, this was a 2mm increase.

A closer look at qgl3 revealed that the hybrid N411-qgl3 strain grew longer because of increased longitudinal cell numbers. This was also hypothesized to be the reasoning behind the heavier grains observed.

If the qgl3 gene is crossed more universally, elite grains of rice may be bred. It is estimated that 5,000 liters of water is needed to produce one kilo of rice. With this superior rice, higher yields will be observed for an unchanged amount of biological material put in.

Xiaojun Zhang, Jianfei Wang, Ji Huang, Hongxia Lan, Cailin Wang, Congfei Yin, Yunyu Wu, Haijuan Tang, Qian Qian, Jiayang Li, Hongsheng Zhang. 2012. Rare allele of OsPPKL1 associated with grain length causes extra-large grain and a significant yield increase in rice. PNAS.


Vascular healing through exercise

Photo credits: Barbara A. Brehm, Healthy Learning

Photo credits: Barbara A. Brehm, Healthy Learning

Exercise has been deemed a top means to improve physical health, and a Eurasian recent study conglomerates evidence linking exercise to improved health in specific disease populations due to increased endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs). EPCs are precursors to the cells that make up a blood vessel’s lining. These cells participate in angiogenesis and vasculogenesis, two processes that result in the growth of new blood vessels.  Exercise is said to increase EPCs and blood vessel growth, which helps to fight certain diseases.

In this review, coronary heart disease, chronic heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obstructive sleep apnea, diabetes, cerebrovascular disease, peripheral arterial disease, arterial hypertension, and obesity were looked at in relation to EPC levels. Specifically,

– A decreased level of EPCs was seen in coronary heart disease, diabetes (I and II), and obesity patients. Also, EPC function was impaired in obese patients.

– Biphasic levels of EPCs were seen in chronic heart failure (CHF) and peripheral arterial disease (PAD) patients as increased in moderate stages of the disease and decreased in the advanced stage. Conversely biphasic levels were seen in cerebrovascular disease (ischemic stroke) sufferers as decreased until after the stroke. It is thought that this post-stroke EPC increase occurs to aid in neurorepair.

– Unchanged levels of EPCs were seen in arterial hypertension patients, however, these EPCs were impaired in function.

– Inconclusive levels of EPCs were seen in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and obstructive sleep apnea patients as studies did not show agreeing levels of EPCs for patients. This may suggest a non-link between EPCs and these diseases.

Regarding exercise, an up to three fold  increase of circulating EPCs was seen after sustained physical activity. Experimental regimens consisted of aerobic exercise over weeks of training resulting in high levels of sustained EPCs for over 7 days of no training. The increase caused by activity was directly measured in patients suffering from CHF and PAD yielding levels near that of control patients post-exercise. Extrapolating, these results show that exercise can return EPC levels to normal in patients suffering from diabetes and similar conditions in which significantly decreased levels are seen.

Conclusively, long-term physical activity seems to increase EPC levels with the capability to improve conditions in those suffering from vascular diseases.

Matina Koutroumpi, Stavros Dimopoulos, Katherini Psarra, Theodoros Kyprianou, Serafim Nanas. 2012. Circulating endothelial and progenitor cells: Evidence from acute and long-term exercise effects. World Journal of Cardiology.

Butterfly display scares off even chickens

Gallus Gallus Domesticus. Photo Credits: Susulyka

Peacock butterflies, an insect of about two inches across, have developed mechanisms to scare of potential predators much bigger than themselves. In a recent study, scientists tested the eyespot display of this butterfly against the gallus gallus domesticus, domestic chicken, for aversion or nonchalance.

Peacock butterfly courtesy of Øistein Haugsten Holen

Peacock butterflies have the eyespots on their wings, which mimic a larger animal’s eyes, hidden while resting, but flick them open when disturbed. This experiment used butterflies with their eyespots either visible (BV) or painted (BP) over to test the response of a large bird species. Each test consisted of a room with one chicken and one butterfly. The chicken would unknowingly startle the butterfly when pecking for food, and the resulting responses were noted.


– Results showed that 30/40 birds were scared away from the butterfly when wings were flicked open regardless of whether eyepots were painted over or visible (P=0.0022).
– Birds confronted with BV took longer to return to the food area, median of 217 seconds, vs. birds confronted with BP, median of 7 seconds, (P=0.014)
– Birds confronted with BV were more likely to utter predator alarm call, 13/23 birds, vs. birds confronted with BP, 1/17 birds, (P=0.00094).

The behaviors seen from the domestic fowls were textbook anti-predator responses for the species. As a prime example of batesian mimicry, this showed that the eyespots of the peacock butterfly were perceived as belonging to a potential predator by butterfly predators.

Martin Olofsson, Hanne Løvlie, Jessika Tibblin, Sven Jakobsson, Christer Wiklund. Eyespot display in the peacock butterfly triggers antipredator behaviors in naïve adult fowl. Behavioral Ecology.

Kidney Disease correlates to suPAR levels

Photo Credits: Case Western Reserve University, School of Medicine

High levels of circulating soluble urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (suPAR) were shown linked to the kidney disease focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS). Two adult and child cohorts, North American and European, of FSGS patients were studied.

SuPAR is one of many innate immune system activation markers. It is usually found in higher levels when the body is fighting off infection.

Of 164 patients with biopsy-proven FSGS, 69.8% were found to have elevated suPAR between the two cohorts. This was compared to 6% of control participants who had elevated suPAR (P<0.0001). Elevated levels of suPAR were defined as 3,000 pg/mL or higher.

Further analysis was done to test the levels of suPAR when treating with either mycophenolate mofetil or cyclosporine A, two immunosuppressants. The patients of the U.S. cohort were treated with either drug and results showed decreased suPAR with the first drug and raised levels with the second (P<0.05). The European cohort of patients showed significant response only to mycophenolate mofetil, with lower suPAR levels (P<0.05). These correlative suPAR levels may be due to the body detecting the FSGS scar tissue as foreign and raising an immune response against it.

Finally,  a 10% decrease of suPAR correlated with a 44% increased chance of complete remission from FSGS (P<0.05).

Taken together, these results show that suPAR levels may be directly correlated with FSGS risk. FSGS may be able to be treated by lowering circulating suPAR. Only further tests will tell.

Changli Wei, Howard Trachtman, Jing Li, Chuanhui Dong, Aaron L. Friedman, Jennifer J. Gassman, June L. McMahan, Milena Radeva, Karsten M. Heil, Agnes Trautmann, Ali Anarat, Sevinc Emre, Gian M. Ghiggeri, Fatih Ozaltin, Dieter Haffner, Debbie S. Gipson, Frederick Kaskel, Dagmar-Christiane Fischer, Franz Schaefer, Jochen Reiser and the PodoNet and FSGS CT Study Consortia. 2012. Circulating suPAR in Two Cohorts of Primary FSGS. Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Neuroprosthetics reach new heights

Jan Scheuermann successfully using a prosthetic arm to eat chocolate. Photo Credits: SCMP

Jan Scheuermann successfully using a prosthetic arm to eat chocolate.
Photo Credits: SCMP

Jan Scheuermann, a quadriplegic woman, recently showed how skillfully a prosthetic arm can be used using only her mind. Paralyzed from the waist down over 13 years ago, Jan has lost movement of most of her body and suffers from spinocerebellar degeneration. She recently decided to undergo a procedure in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania giving her use of a prosthetic arm to possibly give her back the ability to reach, grasp and manipulate.

Jan had two silicon-substrate microelectrode arrays implanted into her motor cortex, which recorded grouped neuronal activity. The activity from her brain was translated into electrical signals interpreted as intended movement commands for this mechanical extremity. After two days of training, Jan was able to move the prosthetic arm. After 13 weeks, she was able to perform three dimensional tasks using the prosthetic arm with a 92% success rate.

The action research arm test, an exam given to stroke victims to assess their returned arm function, was given to Jan periodically over the training period. Her score rose from 0 to 17 out of a possible 27. This well surpassed the needed 5.7 point gain to demonstrate clinical significance. Her three dimensional target reaching success rate rose to 92% during the final two weeks without computer assistance, which was well over the 6% chance success rate.

Over the course of 13 weeks, Jan was able to skillfully reach and manipulate objects with an extension of a body part that she hasn’t had control over in 13 years. With the development of such technology coming to life, war veterans, neurodegenerative disease sufferers, and the like may no longer fear the threat of losing a limb.

Jennifer L Collinger, Brian Wodlinger, John E Downey, Wei Wang, Elizabeth C Tyler-Kabara, Douglas J Weber, Angus JC McMorland, Meel Velliste, Michael L Boninger, Andrew B Schwartz. 2012. High-performance neuroprosthetic control by an individual with tetraplegia. The Lancet.

Muscle building adolescents live longer lives

Photo Credits: Sam Bakhtiar

A prospective cohort study done over a Swedish population recently revealed adolescents with signs of high muscle strength lived longer than their lower strength counterparts. The study was done using 1,142,599 Swedish males age 16-19 followed over a 24 year period measuring strength with knee extension, handgrip, and elbow flexion tests to see the correlation to premature death, pre-age 55.

Baseline measurements of aforementioned strength exams as well as blood pressure and BMI were taken at the start of the study. After the 24 year period, 26,145 participants, 2.3%, died. From the sample, 22.3% died from suicide, 17.9% from cancer, and 7.8% from cardiovascular disease.

Participants were grouped into tenths for muscle strength per test for analysis. Higher muscle strength was associated with 20-35% lower risk of premature mortality independent of BMI and blood pressure. Suicide risk was 20-30% lower as well having any psychiatric diagnosis was 15-65% lower in these individuals. Extrapolated to per 100,000 years, mortality rates were 122.3 for the weakest tenth of participants and 86.9 for the stronger tenths.

Pulling all together, it seems that higher muscle strength in adolescents has a correlation to lower risk of death before age 55. From this, staying active over the next year could be a great Christmas present to give oneself.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays everyone. Stay informed, live well.

Francisco B Ortega, Karri Silventoinen, Per Tynelius, Finn Rasmussen. 2012. Muscular strength in male adolescencts and premature death: cohort study of one million participants. BMJ.

Renewable Energy generation linked to crab complications

Array of tidal energy generators. Image credits: Mercator Media.

Renewable energy sources such as the wind and oceanic tides are rapidly expanding as utilized resources. However, the growth of these industries brings along environmental side effects. Recently, the impact of underwater anthropogenic, ‘man-made,’ sound due to tidal and wind turbines on the settlement and metamorphosis of two estuarine brachyuran crabs species, the tunneling-mud crab and hairy-handed crab, was studied. Researchers of New Zealand found the crabs were rattled by the immense sound of the turbines to the point of disrupted metamorphosis.

These crabs use physical and chemical cues to first find a suitable settlement during their megalopae, post larvae, stage followed by metamorphosis into a juvenile initialized by similar environmental cues. This species of marine life was chosen because of its ubiquity in coastal environments. The time to metamorphosis (TTM) was tested in this study. When compared to silent controls (measured as decibels in reference to 1 micro pascal), the following results were gathered:

– TTM was shorter for crabs exposed to naturally occurring mudflat sounds. Median reductions of 31% and 21%, P < 0.001.
– TTM was longer for crabs exposed to 145dB re 1µPa tidal turbine sounds. Median increase of 26%, P=0.006.
– TTM was longer for crabs exposed to 145dB re 1µPa wind turbine sounds. Median increase of 15%, P=0.006.
– Finally, intensity of sound was found to have no significant effect on TTM. Given a source of 145dB versus 125dB re 1µPa the difference in TTM between the two was found to have a P value of 0.69 indicating statistical insignificance.

The culmination of results indicate that these renewable energy generating turbines, tidal and wind, do cause a disturbance of the settlement and metamorphosis time in the estuarine brachyuran crab species studied. This delay in metamorphosis can result in the death or impaired post-settlement growth of these crabs. This study indicates a need to further research the environmental effects of renewable energy generation.

To prevent harming crabs such as this or other coastal critters, a means of sound mitigation would be the next necessary step for successful energy generation innovation.

Matthew K. Pine, Andrew G. Jeffs, Craig A. Radford. 2012. Turbine Sound May Influence the Metamorphosis Behaviour of Estuarine Crab Megalopae. PLoS ONE.