Structure of complement C5 (shown in dark and light blue) in a complex with two knob domains (shown in orange and magenta; PDB ID: 7AD6 and 7AD7) that have been isolated from the antibodies of cows (shown in black and white; modified from PDB ID: 5E99). Image credit: Alex Macpherson and Jean van den Elsen (CC BY 4.0)

A protein domain found on cows’ antibodies could be a new source of treatment for inflammatory diseases.

Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system that can selectively bind to other molecules and modify their behaviour. Cows are highly equipped at fighting-off disease-causing microbes due to the unique shape of some of their antibodies. Unlike other jawed vertebrates, cows’ antibodies contain an ultra-long loop region that contains a ‘knob domain’ which sticks out from the rest of the antibody. Recent research has shown that when detached, the knob domain behaves like an antibody fragment, and can independently bind to a range of different proteins.

Antibody fragments are commonly developed in the laboratory to target proteins associated with…

Image credit: Viscious-Speed (CC0)

How do we make decisions when faced with an array of different options?

In our everyday lives, we often have to choose between many different options. When deciding what to order off a menu, for example, or what type of soda to buy in the supermarket, we have a range of possibilities to consider. So how do we decide what to go for?

Researchers believe we make such choices by assigning a subjective value to each of the available options. But we can do this in several different ways. We could look at every option in turn, and then choose the best one once we have considered them all. This is a so-called…

Bacillus subtilis biofilm formed of bacteria (in blue) which may carry the ICEBs1 element (in yellow). Image credit: Ilana Grinberg (CC BY 4.0)

In a species of soil bacteria, carrying a certain type of mobile DNA element gives a competitive advantage when living in biofilms.

Many bacteria can ‘have sex’ — that is, they can share their genetic information and trade off segments of DNA. While these mobile genetic elements can be parasites that use the resources of their host to make more of themselves, some carry useful genes which, for example, help bacteria to fight off antibiotics.

Integrative and conjugative elements (or ICEs) are a type of mobile segments that normally stay inside the genetic information of their bacterial host but can sometimes replicate and be pumped out to another cell. ICEBs1 for instance, is an element found in the common soil bacterium Bacillus…

The Mekong River. Image credit: Helga Groll (CC BY 4.0)

Deforestation has complex effects on malaria transmission.

Biting mosquitos spread the malaria parasite to humans. Along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, spending time in the surrounding forest increases a person’s risk of malaria. This has led to a debate about whether deforestation in this area, which is called the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), will increase or decrease malaria transmission. The answer to the debate is not clear because some malaria-transmitting mosquitos thrive in heavily forested areas, in particular in the GMS, while others prefer less forested areas.

Scientists studying malaria in the Amazon in South America suspect that malaria transmission increases shortly after deforestation but decreases…

A brown planthopper feeding on a rice plant. Image credit: Yang Yu and Xin-qiu Wang (CC BY 4.0)

Reconstructing the three-dimensional structure of the brown planthopper’s body reveals how these pests suck the nutrients from rice plants.

Since the 19th century, scientists have been investigating how the organs of insects are shaped and arranged. However, classic microscopy methods have struggled to image these small, delicate structures. Understanding how the organs of insects are configured could help to identify new methods for controlling pests, such as chemicals that target the mouthparts that some insects use to feed on plants.

Most insects that feed on the sap of plants suck out the nutrient via their stylet bundle — a thin, straw-like structure surrounded by a sheath called the labium. As well as drying out the plant and damaging its…

Seedlings. Image credit: Public domain

The duplication of an ancient gene gave plants the opportunity to better adapt to certain types of light.

Place a seedling on a windowsill, and soon you will notice the fragile stem bending towards the glass to soak in the sun and optimize its growth. Plants can ‘sense’ light thanks to specialized photoreceptor molecules: for instance, the phytochrome A is responsible for detecting weak and ‘far-red’ light from the very edge of the visible spectrum. Once the phytochrome has been activated, this message is relayed to the rest of the plant through an intricate process that requires other molecules.

The CCR4-NOT protein complex is vital for all plants, animals and fungi, suggesting that it was already present in…

Image credit: Public domain (CC0)

Tracking where SARS-CoV-2 travelled in the bodies of 11 patients who recently died from COVID-19 reveals where the virus caused the most tissue damage.

Since the discovery of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, scientists have been scrambling to understand the different features of the virus. While a lot more is now known about SARS-CoV-2, several key questions have proved more difficult to answer. For example, it remained unclear where the virus travels to in the body and causes the most harm.

To help answer this question, Deinhardt-Emmer, Wittschieber et al. performed postmortem examinations on 11 patients who had recently died of COVID-19. After sampling 61 different organs and tissues from each patient, several tests were used to detect traces of SARS-CoV-2. …

A newborn being weighed. Image credit: Christian Bowen (CC0)

Opioid exposure during pregnancy has wide-ranging impacts in infants’ first few weeks of life.

The far-reaching opioid crisis extends to babies born to mothers who take prescription or illicit opioids during pregnancy. Opioids such as oxycodone and methadone can freely cross the placenta from mother to baby. With the rising misuse of and addiction to opioids, the number of babies born physically dependent on opioids has risen sharply over the last decade. Although these infants are only passively exposed to opioids in the womb, they can still experience withdrawal symptoms at birth. This withdrawal is characterized by irritability, excessive crying, body shakes, problems with feeding, fevers and diarrhea.

While considerable attention has been given…

Neurons (green) in the top portion of the spinal cord of mice (all cell nuclei in blue). These cells are particularly damaged by inflammation in animals with multiple sclerosis. Image credit: Sina Rosenkranz and Manuel Friese (CC BY 4.0)

Increasing the activity of mitochondria in neurons helps counteract neuronal death in a mouse model of multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis is a life-long neurological condition that typically begins when people are in their twenties or thirties. Symptoms vary between individuals, and within a single individual over time, but can include difficulties with vision, balance, movement and thinking. These occur because the immune system of people with multiple sclerosis attacks the brain and spinal cord. This immune assault damages neurons and can eventually cause them to die. But exactly how this happens is unclear, and there are no drugs available that can prevent it.

One idea is that the immune attack in multiple sclerosis damages neurons by disrupting structures…

The dominant male of a gorilla social group supporting a young member. Image credit: Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (CC BY 4.0)

For gorillas as for humans, it takes a village to raise a child.

Most mammals depend entirely upon their mothers when they are born. In these species, losing a mother at a young age has dramatic consequences for survival. In cases where orphaned individuals do reach adulthood, they often suffer negative effects, like reduced reproductive success or lower social status. But this is not the case for humans. If a child loses their mother, relatives, friends and the wider community can take over. This does not tend to happen in nature. Even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, are much less likely to survive if their mothers die before they reach adolescence.

Although orphan survival…

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