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Science Reporting

Portable DNA sequencers will allow millions of new species to be discovered

Today, determining the existence of new animal species has become easier because it is “enough” to identify the DNA profile to be sure of being faced with a new species, a differentiation that until a few years ago could only be made after long and difficult tests.

However, DNA analysis is a process that can only be carried out in the laboratory, which means that researchers who go “on an adventure,” ie those who wander around the various habitats and environmental ecosystems in search of new species, may find it very difficult to capture the species and take them to the laboratory for analysis.

It is in this context that a project carried out by researcher Paul Hebert of the University of Guelph in Canada could prove very important. The researcher, together with his team, will lead various expeditions that will use a sort of portable genomic laboratory that will allow you to analyze the samples “in the field.” The researchers intend to identify more than 2 million new species of multi-cellular creatures in a global effort funded to the tune of 180 million dollars.

“Biodiversity science is entering a very golden age,” Hebert himself says in an article on the Science website. To understand if a specimen is part of a new species could take away now only a few hours of time and especially a few cents in cost.

It will be a sort of analysis like the one done with bar codes, in this case done with portable DNA sequencers, fast and cheap: just analyze a single portion of DNA and find the markers of differentiation of the species.

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Science Reporting

Study launches the alarm regarding pollution inside houses

When we talk about pollution, we very often think of natural environments degraded and influenced by human presence. However, pollution is also present in our homes and in the closed environments that we frequent daily and it damages us even when we least expect it.

A study that appeared in Building and Environment deals with this aspect: researchers at Washington State University have analyzed the indoor environments frequented by people, primarily U.S. homes, and have found quite worrying levels of pollutants. Among the latter, in fact, they found formaldehyde and mercury inside the houses analyzed.

The levels of these pollutants varied during the day and their effects increased with increasing temperature. The study shows that heat dates and ongoing climate change heavily affect indoor air quality and will do so even more in the future. For example, in a house built in the early 1970s they found a plaster panel that emitted high levels of formaldehyde and mercury when heated.

At the moment there is virtually no regulation of indoor pollution, unlike outdoor pollution where increasingly strict laws are proposed by the institutions. There are regulations regarding the construction of houses and their structure but nothing about the emission rates that exist inside, emission rates well present as this study shows.

The sources of these emissions are varied. Pollutants can come from the same building materials as well as from the chemicals used in the home or kitchen. The only way to tackle the problem, in addition to paying attention to the chemicals used in the home, is to regularly ventilate the rooms leaving windows and balconies open.

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Science Reporting

Hepatitis B virus in a mouse defeated with T-cell therapy

An excellent discovery was made by a group of researchers from the Helmholtz Zentrum München and the Technical University of Munich. For the first time, the researchers were able to defeat a chronic infection caused by the hepatitis B virus in a mouse during experiments with a T-cell therapy.

There is currently no cure for hepatitis B in humans, so much so that the virus itself is considered a global health problem by the World Health Organization, as more than 260 million people worldwide are chronically affected by it. There are currently drugs that partially limit the replication of virus cells in the liver but complete elimination of the virus from the body is currently not yet technically possible. Hepatitis B can then lead to various serious complications such as liver cancer or liver cirrhosis.

Ulrike Protzer, director of the Institute of Virology at the Helmholtz Zentrum München, one of the authors of the study, explains the results achieved: “We were able to demonstrate that T-cell therapy using new technologies presents an encouraging solution for the treatment of chronic HBV infection and liver cancer that is activated by the virus. This is because these “living drugs” are the most powerful therapy we have at our disposal at the moment.”

Describing the therapy is Karin Wisskirchen, scientist of the Ulrike Protzer group and first author of the study: the new therapy with T cells has been specifically developed as an approach to combat HBV infection and liver cancer associated with HBV. It is known that in chronically infected patients, virus-specific T-cells cannot be detected or show decreased activity. However, if patients are able to control the virus themselves, a strong T-cell response can be detected. The obvious answer is therefore to use specific T-cell viruses to compensate for this deficiency.

Experiments on mice were then conducted in collaboration with the group led by researcher Maura Dandri. During these experiments, T cells attacked only infected liver cells.

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Science Reporting

Scientists discover that carnivorous plants also catch salamanders

When we think of carnivorous plants, we think of meals made with insects, at most spiders, which can fall into the clutches of this type of plant. However, new research confirms that these plants can also feed on small vertebrates, specifically salamanders.

A research group of the University of Guelph has analyzed a group of carnivorous plants that grow in the wetlands of Canada and that are characterized by a particular mechanism of capture. Their leaves form a sort of deep cavity that is filled with digestive fluid. Once attracted to the insect or spider, by means of visual baits such as pigments, special pigments or distilling glands of sweet nectar, they make it drown in this liquid thanks to which the prey slowly but surely melts.

In the study, published in Ecology, the researchers describe “an unexpected and fascinating case of plants that eat vertebrates.” Studying various specimens of the species Sarracenia purpurea purpurea located near a small pond in the autumn of 2018, the researchers discovered that almost one in five contained, inside their cavity filled with liquid, young specimens of salamanders.

These were salamanders that had recently come out of the larval state inside the pond and ventured into the outside world by crawling for the first time. Obviously very inexperienced, these small and young salamanders ended up being trapped by the plants. Usually, they died in 3-4 days but according to the researchers, who analyzed the plants at length and for several months, some of the victims had remained inside the liquid for 19 days.

This time is necessary for the digestive enzymes in the plant liquid to do their job by decomposing the body of the prey. According to the researchers, some of these salamanders may have ended up in the trap set by the plants to escape from other predators. In addition, other factors that can contribute to faster death of prey once captured are the heat that is created inside the cavity, hunger and infection by pathogens.

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Science Reporting

New discoveries on how multicellular living beings have developed

A result that contradicts years of scientific tradition: this is the conclusion reached by Professor Bernie Degnan of the University of Queensland who, together with his colleagues and using new technology, studied how multicellular beings developed.

The study, published in Nature, states that the cellular structure of the first multicellular animals on Earth does not resemble those of modern sponges but probably that of a stem cell.

This statement therefore disproves the long-standing idea that multicellular animals on Earth have developed from a monocellular ancestor similar to a modern-day coanocyte, a cell type from the gastric cavity of today’s porifers.

One reason that would encourage support for Degnan’s theory would be that, as the scientist himself reports, multicellularity has led to incredible complexity so much so that today’s multicellular organisms differ from over 99% of all biodiversity that can only be seen under a microscope.

According to Sandie Degnan, senior author of the study, the transcriptomic signatures of today’s sponges and choanoflagellates, the monocellular organism considered the closest relative to the animals, do not coincide and this “means that these are not the basic building blocks of animal life that we originally thought they were.”