Breaking optimism, reset neurons, and gene-borrowing mosses

I’m taking a small break for a couple of days, but in the meantime, here are some links to news pieces I’ve written for The Scientist over the last month or so, which I’ve been a bit remiss in signposting to.

“Humans tend to embrace good news, while discounting bad news. We overestimate our odds of winning the lottery or living long lives, while underplaying our risk of cancer, divorce, or unemployment. Now, researchers from University College London (UCL) have found a way of removing these rose-tinted glasses, by aiming a magnetic field at a brain region called the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG).”

The majority of the brain doesn’t produce new neurons—we’re born with the set that has to last us throughout our lives.  That’s a problem for people with Parkinson’s and other diseases where neurons are destroyed. But one group of scientists has transformed another type of brain cell – pericytes – into neurons, using just two proteins, in laboratory cells and in mice. Other scientists have accomplished the same feat using skin cells, but the resulting neurons would then have to be transplanted. If you can do the same with brain cells, you could potentially create new neurons right there in the brain.

Mosses were some of the earliest land plants, which invaded terra firma half a billion years ago after evolving from green aquatic algae. Were they aided in their invasion by genes borrowed from fungi, bacteria and viruses? A new study certainly thinks so – it documented loads of borrowed genes in the genome of a living moss, which are involved in adaptations for life on land and are shared with other land plants. But many of the people I spoke to for this story were not convinced by the data.

“An international consortium of scientists known as the 1000 Genomes Project has published a long-awaited map of variation in the human genome, cataloging the subtle differences that shape our bodies and influence our risk of disease. The results… were derived from the genome sequences of 1,092 volunteers hailing from 14 populations in Europe, East Asia, Africa, and the Americas. They should help scientists more efficiently hunt for the genetic causes of disease, by comparing mutations in a patient’s genome against those seen in his own country or ethnic group.”

“Scientists at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI) have created a fast and efficient way of identifying antibodies that recognize bacterial toxins or viral proteins in a few days, using simple equipment found in most facilities around the world.” It’s billed as a way of quickly and efficiently developing tests for potential bioterror agents, but could be a valuable tool for a lot of basic research.