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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Today in the News (10 Nov 09)

Evolution:
Inefficient Selection: New Evolutionary Mechanism Accounts For Some Of Human Biological Complexity. A painstaking analysis of thousands of genes and the proteins they encode shows that human beings are biologically complex, at least in part, because of the way humans evolved to cope with redundancies arising from duplicate genes. "We have found a specific evolutionary mechanism to account for a portion of the intricate biological complexity of our species," said Ariel Fernandez, professor of bioengineering at Rice University. "It is a coping mechanism, a process that enables us to deal with the fitness consequences of inefficient selection. It enables some of our proteins to become more specialized over time, and in turn makes us more complex." Fernandez is the lead author of a paper slated to appear in the December issue of the journal Genome Research. The research is available online now. BLOG NOTE: Of course, people who like to deny science because they have no comprehension of how it actually works will attempt to cite this as another example of science being wrong, as opposed to science getting better.

Speed Limit To The Pace Of Evolution, Biologists Say. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a theoretical model that informs the understanding of evolution and determines how quickly an organism will evolve using a catalogue of "evolutionary speed limits." The model provides quantitative predictions for the speed of evolution on various "fitness landscapes," the dynamic and varied conditions under which bacteria, viruses and even humans adapt. A major conclusion of the work is that for some organisms, possibly including humans, continued evolution will not translate into ever-increasing fitness. Moreover, a population may accrue mutations at a constant rate -- a pattern long considered the hallmark of "neutral" or non-Darwinian evolution -- even when the mutations experience Darwinian selection.

Vaccines:
New Strategies To Combat The Flu Virus. New anti-flu drugs could become a reality as a result of a study carried out by academics at the University of Hertfordshire. Dr Andreas Kukol at the University of Hertfordshire's School of Life Sciences led a team which studied the evolution of proteins from more than 2,000 viruses, which included swine, avian and human flu. Antivirals such as Tamiflu act on surface proteins, which are highly variable among different viruses. But the researchers found that, if they went deeper than the surface proteins, they could identify proteins which remain constant in evolution and therefore can be targeted more effectively with antivirals.

Sneezing In Times Of A Flu Pandemic. The swine flu (H1N1) pandemic has received extensive media coverage this year. The World Health Organization, in addition to providing frequent updates about cases of infection and death tolls, recommends hyper vigilance in daily hygiene such as frequent hand washing or sneezing into the crook of our arms. News reports at all levels, from local school closures to airport screenings and global disease surveillance, continue to remind us of the high risk. In times of heightened health concerns, everyday behaviors like sneezing can serve as a reminder to wash our hands or take our vitamins. But, what if we overreact to everyday sneezes and coughs and sniffles? Can these signals transform healthy discretion into an unreasonable fearfulness about germs and more?

Autism:
Handwriting Is Real Problem For Children With Autism. Handwriting skills are crucial for success in school, communication, and building children's self-esteem. The first study to examine handwriting quality in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has uncovered a relationship between fine motor control and poor quality of handwriting in children with ASD, according to research published in the November 10, 2009, issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The study, conducted by researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, compared handwriting samples, motor skills, and visuospatial abilities of children with ASD to typically developing children. The researchers found that overall, the handwriting of children with ASD was worse than typically developing children. Specifically, children with ASD had trouble with forming letters, however in other categories, such as size, alignment, and spacing, their handwriting was comparable to typically developing children. These findings build on previous studies examining motor skills and ASD conducted in 2009 by Kennedy Krieger researchers. BLOG NOTE: As a parent of a child with ASD, I can attest to this first hand! Looking at my own handwriting, you may suspect even more!

Clinical Tests Begin On Medication To Correct Fragile X Defect. NIH-supported scientists at Seaside Therapeutics in Cambridge, Mass., are beginning a clinical trial of a potential medication designed to correct a central neurochemical defect underlying Fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited cause of intellectual disability. There has to date been no medication that could alter the disorder's neurologic abnormalities. The study will evaluate safety, tolerability, and optimal dosage in healthy volunteers. The work is the outcome of basic research that traced how an error in the fragile X mental retardation gene (FMR1) leads to changes in brain connections, called synapses. The changes in turn appear to be the mechanism for learning deficits in Fragile X syndrome. The new trial tests Seaside Therapeutics' novel compound, STX107, that selectively and potently targets the synaptic defect.

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