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Fossils flesh out the tale of the first primates

The shapes of fossilized teeth from 65.9 million-year-old, squirrel-like creatures suggest that the branch of the tree of life that gave rise to us humans and other primates flowered while dinosaurs still walked the earth. That’s the claim coming from a team of 10 researchers across the U.S., including biologists at Seattle’s Burke Museum and the University of Washington.

In a study published by Royal Society Open Science, the team lays out evidence that an ancient group of primates known as plesiadapiforms must have emerged before the mass-extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs. (Technically, modern-day birds are considered the descendants of dinosaurs, but that’s another story.)

The evidence comes from an analysis of tooth fossils that were unearthed in the Hell Creek area of northeastern Montana.

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New study links sleep cycles to moon cycles

A newly published study adds to the long-debated evidence that humans are hard-wired to sleep less when the moon is full or the lights are on, probably due to the ancestral quirks of circadian rhythm.

The pattern has been documented in a variety of indigenous communities in Argentina — and at the University of Washington in Seattle, where bright lights and cloudy weather tend to dull even the full moon’s glare.

“We see a clear lunar modulation of sleep, with sleep decreasing and a later onset of sleep in the days preceding a full moon,” senior study author Horacio de la Iglesia, a UW biology professor, said in a news release. “And although the effect is more robust in communities without access to electricity, the effect is present in communities with electricity, including undergraduates at the University of Washington.”

The research was published today in the open-access journal Science Advances. It’s not the first study to report a correlation between lunar phases and sleep cycles. But it does make use of cutting-edge technology, in the form of wrist monitors, to track the sleep patterns of hundreds of experimental subjects reliably under natural conditions.

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New human cell atlases track how tissues develop

Two new human cell atlases have mapped the molecular machinery that builds tissue in the weeks after conception — and could eventually point the way to addressing developmental disorders.

The researchers behind the atlases say their method for single-cell analysis, detailed in a pair of studies published by the journal Science, could dramatically accelerate efforts to trace how individual cells develop from the embryo to adulthood.

“The key point is that the method scales exponentially,” said University of Washington geneticist Jay Shendure, a senior author for both studies. “When you think about the human body, there’s 37 trillion cells. To really get the kind of comprehensive atlases that we want, we want this kind of scalability.”

Study co-author Dan Doherty, a UW pediatrics professor, compared the procedure’s promise to the impact of the Hubble Space Telescope or the Human Genome Project. “Single-cell methods — it’s hard to overestimate their importance for understanding developmental biology,” he said. “They’re really giving us a picture that we’ve never seen before.”

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Did life emerge from carbonate-rich lakes?

Mono Lake
Eastern California’s Mono Lake has no outflow, allowing salts to build up over time. The high salts in this carbonate-rich lake can grow into pillars. (Matthew Dillon Photo via Flickr / AAAS)

Where did life on Earth get its start? In a newly published study, researchers from the University of Washington argue that carbonate-rich lakes would have been the best place for life’s chemical building blocks to come together.

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Chinese gene-editing scientist goes to prison

He Xiankui
Chinese researcher He Jiankui discusses his lab’s effort to produce babies whose genes have been altered to protect them from future HIV infection. (The He Lab via YouTube)

Chinese researcher He Jiankui, who stirred up a global controversy last year when he said his experiment produced twin baby girls with gene-edited traits, has been sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a $430,000 fine, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported today.

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Dog Aging Project aims to enlist 10,000 canines

Dog Aging Project
The organizers of the Dog Aging Project plan to use big-data tools to study canine health – and apply their findings to human health issues as well. (Dog Aging Project / UW / Texas A&M Photo)

Scientists are looking for 10,000 good dogs to take part in a 10-year effort aimed at tracking their health and identifying factors that can lengthen their lifespan.

The pets that are selected for the Dog Aging Project could come in for some scientific pampering, including genome sequencing and health assessments.

But that doesn’t mean the project’s organizers at the University of Washington, Texas A&M University and other research institutions are totally going to the dogs. The larger purpose of the campaign — and the reason it’s getting $15 million in direct funding from the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health — is to pick up new clues about the aging process in humans.

Researchers can use dogs as a model for human health studies, just as they use lab mice, said project co-director Matt Kaeberlein, a professor of pathology at the UW School of Medicine. And for this project’s purposes, pets bring an extra advantage.

“Unlike laboratory animals, they also share our environment,” he told GeekWire. “So we absolutely believe that, in that respect, pet dogs are going to be superior to laboratory models for understanding the aging process in humans, because we’re able to capture that environmental diversity.”

Kaeberlein and his colleagues have been ramping up the project for several years, but now they’re ready for prime time: The official launch comes today in Austin, Texas, at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.

Dog owners can nominate their canines as candidates for study on DogAgingProject.org. The nomination process entails setting up a secure user portal and providing health and lifestyle information about their dogs. Participants will also be asked to share their pets’ veterinary medical records.

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Allen Institute gives a boost to cell researchers

Samantha Morris in lab
Biomedical researcher Samantha Morris, shown here in her lab at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is one of the newly named Allen Distinguished Investigators. ““This award is enabling us to take a big risk in our arena by generating a completely new technology, one which will be useful to the scientific community. That’s really exciting for us,” she said. (Washington University in St. Louis Photo)

The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, a division of Seattle’s Allen Institute, is making a total of $7.5 million in awards to its latest class of five biomedical researchers.

The themes for this year’s Allen Distinguished Investigators focus on stem cell therapies and single-cell interactions in their native environments.

“The field of stem cell biology has the potential to change how we treat diseases by helping precision medicine, and there’s so much we still don’t understand about the interplay between cells in living tissues or organs,” Kathy Richmond, director of the Frontiers Group, said today in a news release.

“Our 2019 Allen Distinguished Investigators are pushing their fields in these two areas, through new technology development, probing pivotal interactions in the body that cause health to fail, and generating creative new stem cell models that will improve our understanding of different human diseases,” she said.

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Biologists use AI to flesh out cell’s inner workings

3-D cell model
A 3-D view of human cells is color-coded to highlight substructures. (Allen Institute for Cell Science)

What happens when you cross cell biology with artificial intelligence? At the Allen Institute for Cell Science, the answer isn’t super-brainy microbes, but new computer models that can turn simple black-and-white pictures of live human cells into color-coded, 3-D visualizations filled with detail.

The online database, known as the Allen Integrated Cell, is now being made publicly available — and its creators say it could open up new windows into the workings of our cells.

“From a single, simple microscopy image, you could get this very high-contrast, integrated 3-D image where it’s very easy to see where all the separate structures are,” Molly Maleckar, director of modeling at the Seattle-based Allen Institute, told GeekWire.

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How families will help shape the future of health

Future of Health panel
Panelists discuss the future of health during a Town Hall Seattle forum at the Institute for Systems Biology. From left: GeekWire’s Clare McGrane, the panel’s moderator; Leroy Hood of Providence St. Joseph Health; Howard Frumkin of the University of Washington School of Public Health; and John Aitchison of the Center for Infectious Disease Research. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

It’s no secret that a rising flood of data, from the results of sophisticated genetic tests to the vital signs recorded by your smartphone, is transforming the way we approach health and wellness. But one of the pioneers of that trend says big data could well shift the focus of the quest for wellness from the hospital to the home.

“I think the most powerful unit for scientific wellness is the family,” Leroy Hood, co-founder of Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology and chief science officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, said during a March 7 forum on the future of health.

The forum was hosted by the Institute for System Biology’s headquarters as part of Town Hall Seattle’s science lecture series.

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How are gut microbes connected to memory?

Bacteria and brain
Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are studying how bacteria in the gut can affect the brain’s memory function. (PNNL Illustration)

AUSTIN, Texas — Can probiotic bacteria play a role in how well your memory works? It’s too early to say for sure, but mouse studies have turned up some clues worth remembering.

Preliminary results suggest that giving mice the kinds of bacteria often found in dietary supplements have a beneficial effect on memory when it comes to navigating mazes or avoiding electrical shocks.

One such study, focusing on mazes and object-in-place recognition, was published last year. And researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., are seeing similarly beneficial effects on memory in preliminary results from their experiments.

PNNL’s Janet Jansson provided an advance look at her team’s yet-to-be-published findings here today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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