biology, Developmental biology, Organ transplantation, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 18/02/2018

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, with self-reproducing crayfish, breakthroughs in developmental biology, the quantum internet, and cleaning.

A big story that’s just hit the mainstream news: scientists have managed to grow sheep embryos containing human cells: 1/10,000 of the sheep embryo’s cells were human, after 28 days of development. This offers the potential of radically improving transplants, and builds on the group’s previous success with pig embryos, but with tenfold efficiency.

An invasive crayfish spreading through Madagascar is a recent hybrid species that reproduces through parthenogenesis – as in, without mating, with the unfertilised egg developing into an adult by itself.

Researchers have found a way to artificially treat wood,compressing it in a way that substantially increases its strength and stiffness and offers more engineering possibilities for this sustainable (when managed) material.

The axolotl genome has been sequenced (open access: technical). The Mexican salamander, as it is also known, is an important model in developmental biology, with scientists keen to understand how it can regenerate it’s limbs. Already the genome has thrown up a lot of information and a few surprises: it lacks a key gene, Pax3, that is essential in other vertebrates.

Still on the subject of developmental biology: scientists are attempting to create a “human developmental cell atlas” – mapping the development of humans from embryos at a single cell level (open access, bit technical). This is in conjunction with the Human Cell Atlas, here, and made possible by modern molecular methods that allow us to minutely examine which genes are active in which cells.

A nice piece on the future of the (potential) quantum internet, long theorised by both science fiction authors and scientists.

And finally: women who do lots of cleaning at home have a greater risk of decline in lung function. Men don’t, apparently, so clearly they should be doing all the cleaning!

Featured image

Part of an experiment to investigate diamond-based systems as quantum-internet nodes at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Credit: Marcel Wogram for Nature

biology, Science

Human embryo development in 3D

Well, December proved to be rather more busy than anticipated, what with moving house and getting tonsillitis etc….and whilst I’m on the excuses, this is going to be a very busy term for me. So let’s start the New Year with a very short little post about my own favourite subject, developmental biology.

Researchers have compiled a 3D atlas of human embryology by making interactive three-dimensional digital reconstructions based on microscopically sectioned human embryos. It covers the first two months of gestation, in which the major organ systems and body plan are established, and it’s well worth a look and free to access. You can download interactive PDFs. I’ve spent ages playing with them. From the related Science paper:

We created a three-dimensional digital atlas and database spanning the first 2 months of human development, based on analysis of nearly 15,000 histological sections of the renowned Carnegie Collection of human embryonic specimens. We identified and labeled up to 150 organs and structures per specimen and made three-dimensional models to quantify growth, establish changes in the position of organs, and clarify current ambiguities. The atlas provides an educational and reference resource for studies on early human development, growth, and congenital malformations.

Even if you have no real clue about the biology it will give you an appreciation of the complexity of the early embryo and is frankly quite beautiful in places; don’t be surprised how little like a human it looks like in the early stages (it does in fact look very like the chick embryos I used to work on; evolutionary conservation in action). If you are a developmental biologist, it’s a useful resource and quite fascinating.

There are still huge amounts we don’t know about human development in particular (as compared to model organisms such as mice). One of the things that can be surprisingly hard to work out is what embryonic tissue an adult organ is derived from, not to mention the complex process of, say, making a kidney from a little tube. Studies like this are really illuminating these processes and advancing our understanding of ourselves.

biology, Developmental biology, Explainer, genetic modification, Opinion piece, Organ transplantation, Science

Growing human organs: we’re closer than you think

(Edit note: I somehow disappeared this whilst correcting an image, so if it’s still problematic, drop me a note!)

One of the major medical advances of the last century was that of organ transplantation: replacing diseased organs with healthy ones from donors (usually the recently dead, but there are exceptions: you can donate one kidney, or parts of your liver, for example). It is a process that has become ever more successful, with improvements in surgery and drugs that suppress the immune system, preventing it from destroying the donated organ. However, this has created a demand for donor organs that is not being met: about 100,000 people worldwide are waiting for donor organs, and many thousands die before they receive one. Continue reading