In this week’s Sunday Science: climate change protests and figures; catastrophic decline in North American birds; a breakthrough genetic therapy for a sugar storage disorder; galactic super structures; how the plague bacterium attacks cells – and how some have evolved immunity – and how drinking tea improves the structure of your brain…

On Friday, millions of schoolchildren – and others – in 185 countries participated in strikes to protest inaction over climate change. This good Nature magazine piece highlights key climate change figures – what is happening, what we’ve pledged to change, and what we actually need to do – in an informative and visually striking article.

The protein that the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, uses to bind to human immune cells and destroy them has been identified. Readers may recall that there was previously speculation that the mutation conferring HIV resistance, CCR5delta32, had initially been selected for in human populations for plague resistance, but follow up studies suggested this was unlikely (see blog post here for background). The actual target for plague identified, FPR, was mutated by the researchers in mice, which conferred some degree of resistance to the disease. Convincingly, this gene is found in many rodents, but lacking entirely in canids (dogs and wolves), which, unlike mice, rats and the like, cannot be infected with the plague. They subsequently identified a gene variant in human cell studies, FPR1R190W, which has the same effect. However, this may not be without a cost attached – possibly a decreased ability to resist cancerous cells. It will be interesting to see population studies to see the prevalence of this gene variant in different human populations. Original article here.

Some very positive news here, with a successful trial of a gene therapy for a common genetic disorder of sugar storage. Ordinarily, the glucose you consume in your food is stored in the form of glycogen in the liver (any further excess being converted to fat), which is basically just long chains of glucose molecules. The liver uses this store to balance your blood sugar between meals, because your brain is completely dependent on glucose. In this genetic disorder, type 1 glycogen storage disorder (GSD1), the final enzyme that exports the glucose broken down from glycogen into the bloodstream is deficient, meaning that it builds up in the liver, causing all sorts of problems. And, of course, you go hypoglycaemic between meals, which itself can be fatal, as any diabetic will tell you. Until now the only way of managing the condition is to eat cornstarch to slow release glucose between meals. The gene therapy uses a harmless virus to infect liver cells and insert the correct copy of the gene. The trial was actually only of a low dose to assess safety, but has been so successful further trials at higher doses are now planned.

Two giant “radio bubbles” (featured image) above the centre of the Milky Way galaxy have been discovered by the new South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. These are around 1400 light years across, and can be observed because the electrons (subatomic particles) inside them are stirred around inside magnetic fields, generating radio waves which the pioneering telescope observed. They are likely the remnants of giant explosions from aeons ago. Original study, for the physicists, published here (paywalled).

North America (US and Canada) has lost around 30% of its bird population since 1970. This amounts to around 3 billion less birds, which is terrible, and, clearly unsustainable. Video below, and original study published here (behind the Science paywall; a Science Daily summary may be found here).

And finally, tea drinkers show better organised brain regions, which, as a lifelong tea drinker, I will happily choose to believe is conclusively proven! Imaging studies of the brains of habitual tea drinkers compared with non-tea drinkers showed a better structural organisation, if not necessarily a functional one. This may explain better cognitive function in the ageing brains of tea drinkers. Original study (which is small, admittedly) is here (open access).

Featured image

Bubbles of radio waves at the centre of the Milky Way. Credit: South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) via Nature Publishing.

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