Research roundup

Insights & Outcomes: a new spin on quantum research, and the biology of sex

(Illustration by Eri Griffin)

This month, Insights & Outcomes will turn your head with spinning electrons, prolific plankton, and the biology of sex.

As always, you can find more science and medicine research news on YaleNews’ Science & Technology and Health & Medicine pages.

A life story for plankton

The group of single-celled marine organisms known as planktic foraminifera are among the most prolific shell producers in the open ocean. They leave behind one of the most extensive fossil records on the planet, and they allow scientists to reconstruct Earth’s climate history. Yet little was known about their life history until now. A research team led by Yale paleontologist Catherine Davis grew a generation of planktic foraminifera in the lab and documented the organisms’ full life cycle. The team confirmed the organisms’ apparent ability to reproduce both sexually and asexually, and found that the shells of cloned siblings grown together in the laboratory can look strikingly different from each other. “These results have broad impacts on how foraminifera fit into food webs, how vanishingly small populations can rapidly respond to their environment, and perhaps even their long-lived success as a group,” said Davis, a postdoctoral associate in the lab of Pincelli Hull, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and co-author of the study. The study appears in Science Advances.

ENCODE and the dance between genes and DNA/RNA

Since 2003, the lab of Yale’s Mark Gerstein has played a major role in an international effort to catalog data on the complex interactions between genes and the segments of DNA and RNA that regulate their functions. The latest findings of the ENCODE project were published July 29 in 30 papers, four spearheaded by Gerstein’s lab, in a variety of scientific journals. Jing Zhang and Donghoon Lee from Gerstein’s lab have created a video illustrating science’s evolving understanding of the complex regulatory networks that can contribute to cancer and other diseases. The latest findings by the Gerstein lab and other major ENCODE contributors can be found on the Gerstein lab website.

The systemic role of sex — a new series

Yale’s Nina Stachenfeld believes that to understand disease, scientists must understand the biology of sex. So she is helping to launch a series of papers for publication in The FASEB Journal that explores the systemic role sex plays in human physiology. Stachenfeld, a fellow at the John B. Pierce Laboratory and professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences, has enlisted contributions from half a dozen scientists to explore a variety of topics, including the role sex plays in addiction and the biology of high blood pressure in people of different races. The series, “Sex as a Variable in Human Research: A Systems Approach,” will appear over the next few months in The FASEB Journal.

Yale’s single quantum spin story

A research result by Yale physicists lends credibility to an exotic proposal for safeguarding quantum information called topological quantum protection. Topological quantum protection is an alternative to Yale’s primary approach to fault tolerant quantum computing based on active error correction. Rather, it involves a theoretically proposed entity called a Majorana quasiparticle, which has not yet been directly observed. A team led by Michel Devoret, the F.W. Beinecke Professor of Applied Physics and Physics, has applied the tools of circuit quantum electrodynamics to achieve the continuous monitoring of a quasiparticle’s spin, a promising step toward detection of Majorana quasiparticles. The Yale team includes Max HaysValla FatemiKyle Serniak, and Spencer Diamond. The study appears in Nature Physics.

Adaptive therapy takes a bow

When pathogens or cancer cells develop resistance to drug treatment, researchers usually try to develop new drugs. But a new study by Yale researchers helps bolster a new strategy — taking advantage of evolutionary processes to combat drug resistance through drug-sensitive pathogenic cells. The new approach, known as adaptive therapy, offers an alternative to prolonged and high-dose drug treatment for cancer or infections. Adaptive therapy calls for an intermittent series of lower dose treatments that kill fewer disease-causing cells but also decrease the chances that those cells develop resistance to the drugs. “In other words, as long as a pathogen or cancer remains responsive to a drug, it may be wiser, in some instances, to manage a disease rather than trying to eradicate it at the expense of an elevated risk of drug resistance evolution,” said Sergey Melnikov, lead author of the new study. It is based on his work in the lab of Yale’s Dieter Soll, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and professor of chemistry. In a laboratory experiment, Melnikov and Soll gave adaptive therapy a boost by adding the amino acid norvaline to the antibiotic tavaborole to combat drug-resistant E. coli. Norvaline impairs the ability of E. coli cells to produce cells resistant to tavaborole by hindering their ability to mutate, allowing antibiotic-sensitive cells to outcompete antibiotic-resistant ones. “By integrating Darwinian principles of natural selection into therapeutic treatment of a disease, we can significantly prolong the effectiveness of drugs or give a second life for drugs that are currently abandoned due to rapid evolution of resistance,” said Melnikov, now a group leader at Newcastle University. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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