Reverse Aging and Live Longer: No Creams, Just Genes. hair, wrinkles, balding, crow’s feet – some wear these hallmarks of aging as a proud badge of wisdom and a long adventurous life, while others spend the latter parts of their lives fighting the signs of aging. There are a plethora of creams, lotions, diets, and therapeutics promising to make you look younger. However, a recent study suggests that the key to reversing the signs of aging and to living longer lies not in creams or lotions, but in the expression of your genes.

A recent study by Dr. Alejandro Ocampo and colleagues reversed multiple hallmarks of aging or the time-related decline in bodily functions required for survival and reproduction, in mice by expressing excess levels of four genes in various tissues and organs. The products made by the four genes are collectively called Yamanaka factors, after Nobel Laureate Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. Before the work of Dr. Yamanaka, it was thought cell programming is a unidirectional process; that is, an unprogrammed stem cell can be programmed into a skin or muscle cell, but once cellular programming has taken place, the cell cannot be reverted back to a stem cell. Dr. Yamanaka disproved this theory when he showed that excess expression of all four Yamanaka factors, which are naturally found at some level in all human cells, could revert or reprogram mouse fibroblast cells back into unprogrammed stem cells. Other techniques could then be used to reprogram these stem cells into any one of multiple cell types.  

The ability to reprogram fibroblasts into stem cells opened many new avenues of research in the stem cell field. Perhaps, one of the most intriguing is the study of stem cells in the regeneration of human tissue. Following an injury, stem cells can program themselves to fill in for the injured cells, thus allowing the body to continually regenerate tissues and maintain optimum function. Because of their vital role in regeneration and tissue maintenance, we are born with large pools of unprogrammed stem cells in our bodies. However, as we age, this pool of unprogrammed stem cells decreases, and we are less able to regenerate injured tissues or organs. This leads to the classic signs of aging such as increased recovery times, susceptibility to illness, and metabolic issues. The premise of the studies by Ocampo and colleagues is that replenishing the pool of unprogrammed cells would increase regeneration in mice and reverse the aging process, while extending the organism’s lifespan.

To replenish the pool of stem cells, scientists developed prematurely aging mice that produce the four Yamanaka factors in multiple tissues and organs of the mouse body. Production of the factors was placed under control of the antibiotic doxycycline, so that the cells would only produce excess Yamanaka factors when the mice were fed doxycycline. This allowed the scientists to control production of the factors and turn them on and off, similarly to how a lightswitch controls the lights in your living room. After doxycycline treatment, collagen producing cells in connective tissues of the mice were found to have increased metabolic function. In other words, these cells were more efficient at using nutrients to make energy and other biological molecules necessary for proper cell function. Furthermore, these cells were better able to maintain their DNA, as they showed less DNA damage than cells not expressing the Yamanaka factors. Because DNA damage is a hallmark of aging, these results suggest the aging process was reversed in the isolated collagen cells.

In addition to short-term effects on DNA damage and metabolic functions, Ocampo and colleagues explored the long term effects of Yamanaka factors on aging. Because previous studies showed excess expression of Yamanaka factors in mice leads to cancer, the first step to examining long-term effects was to develop a protocol to avoid cancer development in the mice. After much optimization of their inducible system, Ocampo and colleagues showed lower, intermittent doses of doxycycline resulted in excess expression of Yamanaka factors without cancer development. Even with decreased production of the factors, mice still exhibited fewer signs of aging than mice without inducible expression of the factors. The most striking evidence of age reversal in the mice was an increase in lifespan. Mice producing the Yamanaka factors lived 33% longer than mice not producing Yamanaka factors. In addition to increased lifespan, mice expressing Yamanaka factors had healthier, thicker skin, a healthier spleen, and less thinning of the gastrointestinal tract, suggesting the mice experienced a reversal in the aging process within these tissues.

Although reductions in age-related tissue damage were remarkable, aging was not reversed in all tissues and organs. There was little, if any, improvement in the aging of the heart, liver or skeletal muscle. Despite the fact aging could not be stopped or reversed in every organ, the ability for Yamanaka factors to reverse the hallmark signs of aging greatly increases our understanding of the aging process. Because aging is a large risk factor for many diseases and illnesses, comprehending the aging process could improve treatment of diseases that primarily affect the older portion of the population. Furthermore, knowledge of the aging process could lead to new therapeutic drugs to combat aging for health and cosmetic reasons. It is unlikely that a magic pill to stay young forever will be on the market in the near future. However, the work of Ocampo and colleagues will surely help pave the way in our fight against age related diseases.

Peer edited by Kaylee Helfrich and Katie Veleta.

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A Dinosaur “Tail”

Cortney CavanaughWhat happens when scientists get their hands on the remains of a dinosaur encased in ancient amber? Fortunately, life doesn’t imitate art to the extent to which we should be concerned about the potential pitfalls associated with an amusement park filled with revived, prehistoric beasts. And while you shouldn’t save any vacation time for a trip to Jurassic Park in the near future, paleontologists are excited to celebrate the findings of a well-preserved, feathered dinosaur tail published last month in Current Biology.

The mines of Myanmar are a longstanding source of the precious “gemstone” that is known as Burmese amber. While miners were searching for their own fossils (technically amber is fossilized tree resin) they came across a sample, smaller than a credit card and weighing about as much as one, that contained more than the usual bits of insects and foliage. This amber contained a portion of a tail, belonging to a juvenile dinosaur, which was covered in feathers. The fossil was obtained in 2015, directly from the miners, by paleontologist Lida Xing who hoped to learn more about the structure of the plumage. Evidence of feathered dinosaurs, which were distinct from the birds they coexisted with, was first discovered just before the turn of the 21st century. Despite their known existence, little has been discovered in terms of the evolution of the dinosaurs’ feathered coating. This finding, in particular, has given paleontologists a glimpse into the early differentiation between bird and dinosaur feathers.

Cortney Cavanaugh

Maybe one day a complete dinosaur encased in amber will be on display at a museum for all to see!

Xing and his fellow researchers proposed that the specimen belonged to a group of two-legged dinosaurs known as coelurosaurs. The well-preserved sample was determined to be about 100 million years old, placing the species’ existence in the mid-Cretaceous period. Researchers were also able to conclude that the fragment belonged to a young dinosaur and that it was likely a portion of a much longer tail. Based on the structure of the preserved feathers, it was determined that the dinosaur was probably incapable of flight and that the feathers were more of an ornamental feature than a functional one. This sample is considered to be especially unique and precious as it is the first of its kind to contain feathers that are affixed to soft tissue, as well as bones, which are also intact. Once all of the possible data and information is divulged from the sample, Xing hopes to return the sample to its native Myanmar due to its value as a unique, fossilized specimen.

While the reanimation of dinosaurs for human amusement remains a tale of science fiction, the scientific community will certainly benefit greatly from the knowledge that can be obtained by studying these rare remains. Perhaps the ultimate goal for paleontologists will be to uncover an amber fragment that bears the remains of a complete dinosaur just waiting to reveal its secrets!  

Peer edited by Manisit Das.

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The Periodic Table of Elements just got Bigger!

Picture taken by Christina M. Marvin

A good chemist always keeps a periodic table of elements handy!

As of last month, the periodic table of elements hanging in your classroom, office, or bathroom is officially out of date. Early in December 2016, the chemistry community officially recognized 4 newly discovered elements that complete the 7th row of the periodic table. These highly elusive elements do not exist in nature and decay into other elements with half lifes ranging from 20 seconds to 0.89 milliseconds. However, scientists believed they could be created and proved their existence by briefly synthesizing them in a lab and forcing them to stick around long enough to be measured. The official recognition of the new elements by the scientific community came as a delight to science geeks, who can’t wait to hang  up a new periodic table above the towel rack.

Let’s give a big science world welcome to the four new elements! Feel free to celebrate…periodically.

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“GEER”ing up for Planet Simulation

Image credit: NASA

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see the surface of another planet up close? Well, NASA researchers in Cleveland are making this possible right here on Earth. The Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER) is a chamber capable of regenerating temperatures, pressures and gaseous contents of a chosen environment. In 2014, researchers at NASA used GEER to recreate the conditions found on Venus for 24 days. This is quite a feat because the surface of Venus can reach temperatures greater than 460°C (860°F) and pressures more than 1385 psi, which is about the strength of a pressure washer! In comparison, the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere is around 14.7 psi at sea level.  The clouds on Venus are also made of highly corrosive materials, including sulfuric acid and hydrogen fluoride. Not exactly a place you’d like to visit.

Although the GEER chamber seems small, with only three by four-foot dimensions, it weighs in at twelve tons. GEER is capable of injecting up to nine different gasses with an accuracy equivalent to being able to count the drops of water in a 10-gallon fish tank.

Image source: WikipediaSo, what is the use of such a heavy duty device? By simulating the conditions on Venus, we can design and test materials better able to handle the dangerous atmosphere, which will better allow us to generate probes, like Curiosity on Mars. Previously built probes have only lasted on the surface of Venus for a few hours!

In the future, the scientists working with GEER are planning to add viewing windows, real time gas analysis, and a chamber to generate clouds. We are coming close to creating “Venus in a bottle”!

Peer edited by Christina Parker. 

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Cells and Samples Have Race Too!

Science should reflect the diversity of its subjects.

If I told you that a tumor DNA sequencing research study found 25% of lung cancer patients have a mutation in the gene KRAS, would that truly mean that if I were to gather together every person on this planet who has lung cancer, 25% of them would have a KRAS mutation? There are of course countless confounding factors to consider that would likely make it not so: age, race/ethnicity, and gender being a few. These traits are likely much more diverse in the global population than what they could ever be in a study population. And although we all consider it obvious that there are many such factors that we should consider when performing biomedical research – I wonder how much we actually bother considering them in practice. When we perform an experiment with a well-known cancer cell line that researchers have been using since the 1970s, for example, do we ever stop to think of who the cell line came from? What if we found that the majority of cell lines came from one specific ethnic group, age group, or gender? Would we still consider our findings as scientifically sound, or as relevant to general populations? Or if you read a paper and see that the authors are able to reproduce their findings in multiple cell lines or in a handful of patient samples in their final figure of data, are you satisfied that their results have clinical relevance? Or do you question how representative and relevant those samples are to the target patient population?

Take this example. The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) is a huge, multi-million dollar sequencing effort involving 20 different collaborating institutions across the U.S. and Canada to obtain genomic, transcriptomic, and epigenetic information from multiple cancer types. In total, TCGA obtained data from almost 11,000 patients. This effort has resulted in a slew of high-profile, high-impact papers and has provided enormous data sets that countless groups are mining and using to inform their research. These data have allowed researchers to discover many new targets which are being investigated for developing into new cancer therapies. A vast cohort of researchers have invested a great deal of time and effort into following up on studies directed by findings from TCGA. But, who are the actual patients represented in these datasets, and from whom we are drawing all of these sweeping biological conclusions? According to a brief report published in JAMA Oncology, 77% of the patients enrolled in the study were white, 12% were black, and most other ethnic groups were represented less than 5%. Interestingly, this mirrors the composition of the U.S. population fairly well: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2015, 77% of the U.S. population is white, 13% is Black, and most other ethnic groups are at 5% or less (as of 2015). One dramatic difference to note, however, is that about 17% of the U.S. population identifies as Hispanic, but only 3% of the patients in TCGA dataset are Hispanic.

Cancer is a global disease, and requires study of all patient groups.

One could maybe argue that the over-representation of certain ethnic groups in TCGA datasets is justified as it is a fair representation of the racial composition of the U.S. population, and thus we are focusing on understanding the majority of patients. But even, for example, the teeny 1% minority of the U.S. population classified as American Indian/Native Alaskan is still equivalent to about 3 million people – not at all a small number deserving to being ignored! Furthermore, cancer is not an American disease, it is a global one, and as arguably one of the most powerful, influential, and wealthiest nations in the world, it might be fair to hope that research in the U.S. is invested in finding cures for a larger cohort of human beings, and not just a subset that is the majority specifically in this country. The JAMA report further shows that for virtually all the cancer types they looked at in their report, there were only a sufficient number of TCGA samples for the White patient group, and not any other ethnic group, to detect a 10% mutational frequency rate. In short, TCGA datasets may have so poorly represented certain ethnic groups that we could be missing out entirely on important biology that drives their cancers. Thus, although TCGA is typically thought of as a huge dataset that is representative of a diverse population, the reality is that it may only be highlighting the biology of a specific subset of individuals.

Diversity within race needs to be considered in scientific studies.

Obviously, it is much easier to point fingers and complain than it is to actually do something to address the problem. And the issue, of course, is much more complex than even what I discuss here. White patients, Black patients, or Asian patients aren’t exactly homogeneous groups in and of themselves: the diversity within a socially-defined “race” is not something to be dismissed either. Regardless, this is certainly an important issue and one that we need to discuss more. TCGA proudly claims on their website that they obtained data from 33 cancer types, including 10 rare cancer types, but I hope in the future we can make similar claims about types of people.

Peer edited by Tamara Vital.

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Understanding the Space of Space

Image credit: NASA

Image of Earth taken from lunar orbit during the Apollo 11 mission. Mars is also faintly visible to the right of Earth.

In the past, the largest obstacle that separated humans was distance. In the first half of the 20th century, we built machines that made it possible to drive non-stop from Wilmington, NC to San Diego, CA in one and a half days or to fly the same distance in just five hours. As soon as we conquered these terrestrial distances, humans set their sights on the cosmos– but space has a lot of space.
Rockets provide the speeds necessary to send humans to the Moon and rovers to Mars. It seems humans have once again conquered vast distances to reach previously unreachable lands. We can travel from the East Coast to San Francisco in under 5 hours, but that doesn’t mean people in rural North Carolina do it. The Moon is our closest celestial neighbor, but that doesn’t mean you will notice a difference in size between full moons each month. We can travel to Mars in as little as 60 days, but that doesn’t mean it’s close enough to Earth to appear as big as the Moon. Any species with our technology could, in theory, colonize the galaxy in a few million years, but that doesn’t mean it’s been accomplished.
Understanding the space of space not only provides us a cosmic perspective, it gives us the ability to question fantastic memes and eases our disappointment when a celestial event isn’t as spectacular as promised.

Not-So-Super Moon

You may have seen posts on social media telling you to look up at the full moon on November 14th, 2016. At that time, the Moon was the closest that is had been to Earth since 1948. When the Moon approaches the full moon phase and is closest to Earth, we call that a supermoon. It’s not quite as rare as it sounds; there were actually three supermoons in October, November and December of last year. The thing is, while the Moon may be closer to Earth in its orbit, it is still really far away. Travelling at jet plane speeds, it would take you 16 to 19 days to get to the Moon. The Apollo astronauts, however, could reach lunar orbit with their rocket in under 10 hours. Compared to more familiar distances, the Earth-Moon distance is 100 times larger than the Wilmington-San Diego distance.

 Image credit: Tanya Hill created this graphic for the Nov 11, 2016 issue of Cosmos magazine.

This graphic takes images of the largest and smallest full moons of 2016 and shrinks them down by the same amount to mimic how big the Moon appears to someone on Earth. The two images are then placed in the same frame for comparison. In the image, one definitely looks bigger, but would you notice the difference 7 months later?

Another way to visualize the distance to the Moon is to look at how big it appears to us here on Earth. At over 2000 miles across, a little less than the Wilmington-San Diego distance, this large body is so far away that it always appears less than an inch wide to us in the sky. During the three full moons in October, November and December, if you were to hold your hand a foot away from your face and try to hold the full Moon between your thumb and pointer finger, the space between your fingers would only change by one-thousandth of an inch each month– less than the thickness of a sheet of paper.
On Friday, June 9, 2017, when the Moon is farthest away from Earth, what is known as a micro moon will occur. On that day, your fingers will be one-hundredth of an inch closer together than during the supermoons– about the thickness of a standard business card. An untrained eye would never notice a difference. So, if you were less than impressed by the supermoon in November, it’s totally understandable.

Distant Warrior Planet

Image credit:

Every summer, this meme pops up in my news feed. It claims that Mars will be so close to Earth that it will appear as big as the Moon. While the distance between the Earth and Mars varies significantly as both planets orbit the Sun, as they move closer to each other it would still take 52 days to get to Mars on one of our rockets. This is because even at their closest, the Earth-Mars distance is ten thousand times the Wilmington-San Diego distance and well over 100 times the Earth-Moon distance. If we think about this in terms of how big Mars looks to us, at two times the width of the Moon, Mars would need to be placed at twice the Earth-Moon distance to appear the same size as the Moon to us Earthlings. Mars’ orbit will never let this happen. Mars will always appear as a red point of light.

No matter how many articles have been written debunking this ‘double moon’ hoax, it’s survived for 13 years. We easily fall for this meme because we’ve heard of probes and rovers being sent to Mars in less than a year’s time but we lack the perspective of how fast these spacecraft are travelling and the distances they are able to cover.

Interstellar Travel: Where are all the aliens?

When we talk about travelling to places beyond our solar system, we immediately think about aliens and enter the realm of speculation. This can be fun, but we have to be careful. The distances we are working with are significantly larger than the distances we cover within our solar system. Travel time becomes a much bigger issue.
The average distance between stars in our galaxy is 4 light years or 23 trillion miles– one million times the Earth-Mars distance and ten billion times the Wilmington-San Diego distance. With our current technology, it would take approximately 100,000 years to travel this distance. We could start by sending one ship to the recently discovered Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Sun. Once there, we would need to establish a community. Less than 500 years passed between Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue and the Apollo moon landing. Just to be generous, let’s say it takes 1000 years to settle down and establish a space flight program on a new planet.
So humans would now have two colonies that could send ships out. With this strategy, we could double the number of worlds sending out new ships every 101,000 years. That would mean after just 505,000 years we’d be sending ships out to 32 planets. After 1 million years, 956 planets. And after just 4 million years, 800 billion planets. Astronomers estimate that half of the 200 billion stars in our galaxy have planets. In one thousandth of the time it took for Earth to form and evolve intelligent life, a space-faring species could have colonized all the planets in our galaxy eight times over. This begs the question: where are all the aliens?
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Prosopee.

A representation of the Coral Model of galactic colonization, described in this article.

Although we can calculate an average distance of 4 light years between the stars in our galaxy, our own Sun only has one star with a planet within that distance. The next closest star after Proxima Centauri is 6 light years away. If we were to continue sending out ships as described above from Earth, the travel time would no longer be 100,000 years but 165,000 years. The next closest star is 6.5 light years. Again, increasing our travel time. Astronomers have yet to detect planets around either of these stars, so why would we even go to them? It seems a more realistic approach would be to send out a new ship every 101,000 years from the planet we just colonized. This strategy would require 100 trillion years to visit all 100 billion stars– 100,000 times longer than the age of our solar system and 10,000 times longer than the age of the universe. So while these are a fun exercises, they are not realistic ways for any civilization to conquer the galaxy.
The space of space is huge. Understanding its vastness not only makes you less susceptible to bogus memes, it gives you a better perspective of how far humans have come in our quest to explore and how far we still have to go.

Peer edited by Salma Azam, Holly Schroeder and Leila Strickland.

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