The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine this year as awarded to Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Yoshinori Ohsumi, a cell biologist at the Frontier Research Center, for his contribution to discovering autophagy in depth. Autophagy is the process where cells degrade themselves and recycle most cellular components. Ohsumi’s multiple discoveries in the file have led to a new level of understanding on cellular recycling. There is a fundamental importance in the study of autophagy in several physiological processes. This includes the body’s adaptation to starvation situations without shutting down vital processes and its response to infections before the action of secondary immune defenses.
In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, many researchers began to recognize that certain animal cells use undergo a process they termed ‘autophagy’ which the cells used to recycle proteins and other cellular components. They also came to know that this phenomenon was particularly active when the cells was placed under stressful conditions, such as disease, when the host organism was battling an infection or starvation, when essential nutrients would be in short supply. In the 60+ years of the discovery of this process, exactly how the process functioned and which cells could use it remained unclear.
Rare cases of autophagy mutations in certain genes do exist and can cause diseases, with several consequences. Additionally this process is also involved in conditions such as cancer and neurological disorders. Ohsumi’s research basically started with the investigation of another phenomenon in yeast, however one discovery led to another and they finally formed the crux of molecular medicine. Mutated yeast was used to pinpoint exactly which genes were used for autophagy.
Scientists in the field agree that not only is it well-deserved but he has also become a great example of someone who laid a strong foundation for basic research and discovered great things because of his thoroughness.
The topic of genetic manipulation has always been surrounded by stigma, even more so when it comes to handling stem cells from human embryos and the embryos themselves. In fact, there is a strict law pertaining to long-term development of these embryos, as they must be destroyed within 24 days of their naissance, though none have actually lived past the 20 day mark so far.
Developmental biologist Kathy Niakan, a developmental biologist, has been the first scientist in the UK to receive permission from The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to actually modify genes in human embryos using a cutting edge gene-editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9. Niakan works at the London branch of the Francis Crick Institute and had applied for permission in order to utilize this technique in her research to understand the role of certain genes during early stages of embryo development. The HFEA meeting concluded that in order to use CRISPR/Cas9 to its fully proposed potential and success rate, allowing the use of human embryos justified the technical approach to obtaining research data about embryo gene function.
The ethical debate against embryonic genomes has dragged on for years with many disapproving critics stating that studies like Niakan’s are possibly the first step to creating eugenics, which is the science of creating desirable traits artificially or through selective breeding and the production of “designer babies”. However, a majority of scientists are happy with the decision HFEA has made. For many people, this is the beginning of a new era of understanding as unlocking the makeup of the human embryo can also throw light on how and why stem cells are pluripotent and how they are differentiated during later development.
Gene editing techniques like CRISPR/Cas9 will allow scientists to provide fresh insight into the early embryo’s basic genetic mechanisms which controls cell and are crucial for healthy development.
The solar system appears to have a new ninth planet. After kicking out Pluto from the planet group on a basis of its small size, a bigger planet has been predicted to exist beyond the ex-planet. Two scientists recently announced that they had evidence of a hitherto unseen celestial body approximately the size of Neptune which completes one orbit of the sun every 15 millennia. During the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, the giant planet is believed to have been knocked out of the area near the sun. Its projector into outer space was slowed down by gas and the planet finally settled at a distant elliptical path far away from the sun.
The claim of Brown and Batygin, the scientists who proposed the idea, is the strongest so far in the search for a planet beyond Neptune, often mentioned as “Planet X”. The newest quest has been plagued by outright quackery and far-fetched. But since the evidence comes from of Brown and Batygin who are obviously a pair of respectable planetary scientists, other scientists express cautious excitement over the proposed result. Many members of the scientific committee says that they cannot imagine a bigger deal if the prediction turns out to be right.
If Planet X is really out there, astronomers should be able to find objects in otherwise non-existing orbits that have been shaped by the gravitational pull of the hidden planet. Both scientists concede that there is nothing to prove the hypothesis and no one will really be able to believe in Planet X until we can see it from a telescope. Their team has been allowed access time to a large telescope situated in Hawaii which has been deemed suitable for the search. Brown and Batygin hope that the recent paper they published will encourage other astronomers to join the hunt.