5 BIOLOGICAL DISCOVERIES THAT SHAPED 2019

2019 has been one of the most scientifically bizarre years- here are some discoveries that stood out to us.

 

Until recently, the oldest fungal fossils were estimated to be 450 million years old; however, in May, fungal fossils found in shale of the Grassy Bay Formation (Shaler Supergroup, Arctic Canada) were approximated to be a 1,010–890 years old, almost doubling their age. This proves that fungi occupied land even before plants did, and sets back the minimum date of the appearance of eukaryotic species. 

 

This discovery raises questions about what we thought about how plants have evolved. 

 

1 Were plants really the first land organisms?

The original age of fungi indicated that both fungi and plants migrated to terrestrial areas together. When plants colonised land, they lacked roots: this caused them to enter into a symbiotic relationship with fungi where their fungal counterparts grew inside them and spread out- the fungal hyphae would then discharge organic acids to extract nutrients from rocks, essentially acting as roots. Consequently, the plants would provide the fungi with nutrients produced through photosynthesis. This partnership was thought to have encouraged the development of flora on Earth. 

 

However, the uncovering of this fossil has led the scientific community to question the origin of this relationship, because it opens up the possibility that Earth's lands could have already been prepared for successful plant life for hundreds of millions of years before the plants inhabited them.

2 HIV cured in a second patient in the world.

Scientists succeeded in attempting to cure HIV after the first successful treatment 12 years ago.

 

A new discovery or luck? After Timothy Ray Brown, the first successfully cured HIV patient, scientists fruitlessly tried for over a decade to replicate the same procedure, until one incidence of a patient in London led them to a similar outcome. Both the patients had been given bone marrow transplants, which, although ended up curing HIV in them, were, in fact, intended to cure an unlinked form of cancer. 

The ‘London’ patient had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for which he was set to receive the bone marrow transplant. This transplant caused a mutation in the CCR5 gene, which not only cured the patient’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but also resulted in his cells becoming nearly immune to HIV. The immune cells acted as a more powerful defense system to fight against the HIV infection. He stopped taking anti HIV drugs in september 2017 and scientists then confirmed that he was the second patient to have ever survived for more than a year after stopping the drugs.  This newly observed remission of a previously incurable disease led scientists to believe that perhaps a cure to HIV is possible in the future. 

 

However, Brown’s and the ‘London’ patient’s responses to the treatment were vastly different. Brown was given strong immunosuppressants after the transplant and consequently, he suffered severely in the following months, struggling to survive through the course of his treatment and even being placed in an induced coma for sometime. The London patient, on the other hand, also received immunosuppressants, but they were relatively much less powerful than the ones usually given during transplants. The only consequences he faced were a mild case of graft-versus-host disease (where donor cells assault host ones) and a few other side effects.

 

Through this groundbreaking remission, scientists are optimistic about the future of curing HIV and AIDS in patients across the world. However, the questions still keep up:  Was this truly a new discovery or just a mere coincidence? Were Brown and the ‘London’ patient symbols of progress or just examples of anomalous results in scientific procedures? Is there truly a cure for HIV or were these just two strokes of luck?

3 Treatment for Cystic Fibrosis found

 

Scientists found out that a widely-used antifungal drug called Amphotericin may hold the key to the treatment for cystic fibrosis.

 

Cystic Fibrosis is caused by a defect in a gene called CFTR (cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator), which synthesizes a protein that controls/channels the movement in and out of cells of salt, bicarbonates, and water. 

These substances are essential for the normal functioning of lungs. Cystic Fibrosis, however, leads to the production of a defective protein due to the defective CFTR gene. This leads to the accumulation of acidic and sticky mucus which blocks the lungs, making it hard to breathe, and also makes the lungs vulnerable to bacterial infection.

In usual cases, Cystic fibrosis is hard to treat as the mutated proteins are vastly varying in patients, and are sometimes completely absent too. However, scientists uncovered that Amphotericin has the potential to work regardless of the mutation or even the presence of the protein. 

 

“Instead of trying to correct the protein or do gene therapy – the latter of which is not yet effective in the lung – we use a small molecule surrogate that can perform the channel function of the missing or defective protein,” said Martin D. Burke, M.D., Ph.D., leader of the study and a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois in Champaign. 

 

This new discovery is exciting as not only is Amphotericin well approved and widely available in markets all across the world, it could also mean a much simpler recovery process for patients across the world

4 Memory differs at varying times of the day.

 

A study that took place at the University of Tokyo’s department of applied biological chemistry revealed astounding results. Researchers found, through experimentation using mice, that memory recall and the time of day may be actually correlated.

 

The researchers formulated a test in order to determine if the test mice did not know something, or if they knew something but have truly forgotten about it. 

BMAL1 is a protein found in mammals such as humans and mice, which functions to regulate the expression of multiple genes in the body.  BMAL1 functions in memory retrieval and activates the dopamine receptors and modifies other small signalling molecules in the brain. It was seen to be associated with the hippocampus of the brain. Scientists observe that BMAL1 levels are seen to waver based on the time of the day- low before a person wakes up and high before they fall asleep. 

 

Scientists tested the memories of young adult male and female mice in this experiment :

  1. They familiarised the mice with a new object for a few minutes.

  2. They measured how long the mice touched the object when it was reintroduced -- They found that mice spent less time touching objects they have seen before.

  3. They repeated this at different times each day using different objects with healthy mice and mice without BMAL1 as the test subjects.

 

The results were similar except for the fact that the mice without BMAL1 were more forgetful in the morning after waking up.

Hence, they concluded that the circadian rhythm could play a role in memory recall.

5 Maybe Ebola can be cured…

 

Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever of humans and other primates caused by ebolaviruses, which primarily leads to weakness, pains in the joints, headaches and several Gastrointestinal symptoms 

 

A clinical trial of four Ebola therapies took place in Democratic Republic of Congo outbreak. The outbreak began on August 1st, 2018 and trial began in November 2018. There were 681 patients. Patients were split into four groups and each group received one of the four treatments for Ebola: Monoclonal antibody cocktail REGN-EB3, Single monoclonal antibody mAb 114 (developed from antibodies of an Ebola survivor), Remdesivir (antiviral drug), and triple monoclonal antibody ZMapp (as a control).

 

Only the former two of the treatments provided hopeful results; the mortality rates were relatively reasonably lower than the other two treatments’ rates.

 

Mortality in the mAb 114 group was 35.1% and in the REGN-EB3 group was 33.5%, as opposed to the ZMapp and Remdesivir groups wherein the rates were 49.7% and 51.3%, respectively.

 

These results give hope to scientists that Ebola can be cured and that the vast numbers of people affected by it can see a healthy life again.

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