Wandering Gut Bacteria Could Be Behind Conditions Like Lupus

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When scientists sequenced the human genome, it gave us an unprecedented (and organized) understanding of how genes affect our health. In recent years, researchers have taken a similar interest in understanding the human microbiome, and its impact on health — especially when it comes to the bacteria that thrive in our gut.

If you’ve ever taken a probiotic supplement, you already know that some bacteria are “good,” and that sometimes, not having enough gut bacteria can be detrimental, and even fatal. Science still has a long ways to go in fully understanding exactly how the microbiome influences our overall health, but researchers at Yale have made a discovery that’s given us a better sense of just how influential our gut bacteria can be. Especially if they decide to go rogue.

The Wandering Bacterium

The recent study, published in the journal Science, found that a specific type of gut bacteria can actually leave our gastrointestinal system and cause trouble elsewhere in the body. Furthermore, the researchers found that when that bacterium, Enterococcus gallinarum, relocates to other organs (like the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen) it appears to trigger an inflammatory response.

That response, such as the release of antibodies, seems to be linked to the development of autoimmune conditions like lupus.

The bacteria Enterococcus gallinarum, a type gut bacteria that can trigger an immune response when it relocates, appears under a microscope as blue and light orange spots.
Enterococcus gallinarum. Image Credit: Yale University

The team started by demonstrating the link in mice who had been genetically engineered to be susceptible to developing autoimmune diseases. They then confirmed that human patients with autoimmune diseases often have E. gallinarum in their livers.

Promisingly, the researchers also found that they could even suppress this autoimmune response in mice with an antibiotic or vaccine that targeted E. gallinarum. By keeping the bacterium from growing, they could reduce its impact on the immune system.

The Yale researchers aren’t the first to make the connection between the gut microbiome and autoimmune disease, but their research is now part of a much broader research effort to strengthen that connection. If clear cause-and-effect can be established between the onset of certain conditions with the presence of specific bacteria, the researchers believe that treatments to keep the bacteria at bay — such as antibiotics or vaccines — could stall, or prevent, the development of the autoimmune disease associated with it.

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Hacking a Cow’s Gut Bacteria Could Make More Meat, Less Pollution

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Humans are not unique for our often-lauded gut microbes; different species host a dizzying variety of microscopic organisms that are an integral part of digestion. In cows, gut bacteria are critical to their ability to process a high-fiber diet — yet these same bacteria also produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. However, scientists now think that it’s possible to alter cow microbiomes so that the animals produce more meat, and perhaps even less methane through their burps and farts.

Tweaking cow microbiomes to make more meat on less food could make the meat industry more efficient and more profitable. Given that methane has roughly 25 times the heat trapping ability of carbon dioxide, reducing cows’ methane production could also have a serious impact on the environment.

A light brown cow with yellow tags in both ears. Cows like this one produce methane thanks to their unique gut bacteria. Image Credit: ulleo / pixabay
Image Credit: ulleo / pixabay

It’s not that simple, however, to alter an animal’s microbiome. As we have found in trying to alter our own gut bacteria, to make specific changes, you have to first understand what microbes already exist in the gut, how they’re interacting, and what roles they play. This is an enormously difficult process, especially given that microbiomes will vary between individuals.

To take on these challenges, Mick Watson, an animal scientist at the University of Edinburgh, and his team studied the gut bacteria of 43 Scottish cows through their digested food samples. The teamthen sequenced the genomes of the organisms they found, uncovering the important roles each bacterial species plays. Their research found the expected archaea microbes that make methane; yet through DNA sequencing, they also discovered a host of new digestive enzymes.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

The cow’s gut, or largest stomach compartment, is known as the rumen. As Kristi Cammack, director of the West River Agricultural Center at South Dakota State University, told NPR: “a lot of times, in animal science, we say we don’t really feed the cow, we feed the rumen microbes.” Watson and his team hope to one day use their improved understanding of the cow gut microbiome to introduce “the right bug, for the right diet, for the right animal.”

This is not the first attempt to make cows produce less methane, but previous attempts have not tried to do so by altering the microbiome. However, microbes exist in their environment for a reason. If certain bacteria are taken out or multiplied within a microbiome, this could seriously affect other species living there. These microbial communities live in a delicate balance, and disturbing it could have notable and unexpected consequences for their animal host.

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Bacteria Hidden Under Our Feet May Be a New Weapon Against Superbugs

Digging for Drugs

A newly discovered family of dirt-dwelling antibiotics could be our best weapon against treatment-resistant “superbugs.”

Researchers from Rockefeller University discovered the compounds, which are called malacidins, while analyzing more than 1,000 soil samples from across the United States. When they noticed a number of samples contained malacidins, they decided to dig a bit deeper into the compounds.

After infecting rats with MRSA, a bacteria that’s particularly resistant to most antibiotic treatments, the researchers treated the rodents with malacidins, and the compound eliminated the infection in the animals’ skin wounds. The team’s research has been published in Nature Microbiology.

Crisis Mode

In December 2016, the United Nations elevated the problem of antibiotic resistance to crisis level, calling it a “fundamental, long-term threat to human health, sustainable food production, and development.”

No corner of the world is immune to the issue, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and if we don’t do something about it, we could soon find ourselves living in the “post-antibiotic era,” a period in which something as simple as a minor cut could be deadly.

The WHO urges the healthcare industry to develop new antibiotics to combat this issue, and thus far, most of that research has been undertaken in labs. In that respect, the Rockefeller University team’s approach of turning to nature for leads is fairly unique.

“Every place you step, there’s 10,000 bacteria, most of which we’ve never seen,” lead researcher Sean Brady told The Washington Post. “Our idea is, there’s this reservoir of antibiotics out in the environment we haven’t accessed yet.”

The team is now working to improve the effectiveness of their treatment so it could be used in people. However, as Brady told BBC News, that process will be neither quick nor easy.

“It is impossible to say when, or even if, an early stage antibiotic discovery like the malacidins will proceed to the clinic,” said Brady. “It is a long, arduous road from the initial discovery of an antibiotic to a clinically used entity.”

Still, arduous or not, it’s a road worth traveling because an estimated 700,000 people die every year due to drug-resistant superbugs, and that number could increase to as many as 10 million by 2050 if we don’t take action now.

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These 3D Printed Health Monitoring Tattoos Contain Live Bacteria

A 3D printed health monitoring tattoo made with live bacterial ink is actually healthier for your body than it may sound.

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3D-printed bacteria ink could be used to treat burns

In a new study published today in Science Advances, researchers present a 3D-printable ink that contains bacteria and they say that depending on what species of bacteria it holds, the ink stands to have a number of useful applications. "Printing usin…
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Scientists Have Expanded the Genetic Code in Bacteria

AGCTXY

Every living thing on Earth is built up from the building blocks that are the four genetic bases, which are designated as A, G, C, and T. Now, scientists have successfully added two extra, synthetic bases to a bacterium.

Previously, a team of researchers genetically engineered a bacterium known as Escherichia coli to bear bases dubbed X and Y. However, while the bacteria in that study could store the bacteria and pass them onto cells produced via mitosis, there were limitations – the bases had to be transcribed into molecules of RNA before being translated into proteins.

This new study introduced the X and Y bases into bacterial genes where the standard four bases were already present, thereby expanding the genetic code as we know it.

Tests demonstrated that microbes were able to process this genetic information and transcribe it onto RNA molecules as a result. Those molecules demonstrated the ability to produce green fluorescent protein – a protein that exhibits a bright green glow when exposed to light in the range of blue to ultraviolet – containing unnatural amino acids.

Genetic Code Expansion

This research could offer up a host of new possibilities for scientists and medical professionals. The four standard DNA bases can be combined to produce 20 amino acids, but adding X and Y would allow as many as 152 to be synthesized. They may one day become foundational components for drugs and materials that are currently unobtainable.

“The immediate goal that really drives us, is to use the semi-synthetic organism to create new classes of protein drugs,” Floyd Romesberg, who led the study, told Futurism. “As you probably know, protein drugs have already revolutionized medicine. However, the properties that they have, and thus the diseases that they can be developed to treat, must in some way be limited by what they are made of. Unfortunately, the natural amino acids leave a lot of functionality to be desired.”

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Advances in a field like this can lead to a situation where scientists might be seen as ‘playing God’ without the proper oversight from the authorities or a specific regulatory body. Romesberg stressed that the techniques used in the 2014 study were safe in an interview with the New York Times.

Zhang explained that the semi-synthetic organism at the center of the research had to be fed the unnatural nucleotides, and cannot replicate or decode the unnatural information unless this happens. Furthermore, there’s no risk of the bacteria escaping the lab and causing unforeseen infections.

“If they escape and get out, they will no longer be ‘semi-synthetic’ because the unnatural base pair will mutate to a natural base pair and they will become normal E. coli,” Zhang added. “And there would be so many steps involved in getting the bacteria to make the nucleotides themselves that they could never evolve the ability to do so, especially because they have no incentive to do so.”

Zhang compared the cell to a ‘factory’ designed to create proteins that could be used to treat medical conditions. “The production of therapeutic proteins using bacteria, yeast and mammalian cells is standard and almost all commercial protein drugs are produced this way,” he wrote. “We are simply adding a technology that may make better protein therapeutics using unnatural amino acids.”

So it goes that scientists continue to stand back in awe of nature’s creations, have a thought, and then tweak the details to improve the human condition.

The post Scientists Have Expanded the Genetic Code in Bacteria appeared first on Futurism.

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Unearthing oxygen-starved bacteria might worsen climate change

A recently-released federal report has finally credited humans with causing climate change, but we might have more to worry about than fossil fuel emissions. While we knew bacteria in earth's soil releases almost a third of the carbon dioxide that re…
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How to power a device using dirt, sweat or bacteria poop

To get to a trillion connected devices, we’re going to need more cheap, energy harvesting microcontrollers like the proposal above.

I just got back from speaking at ARM’s annual tech event in Santa Clara, and I came back feeling confident in my vision for the future of our connected world but still wondering how we’re going to get there. I’m with SoftBank Chairman Masayoshi Son who believes by 2035 we will have a trillion connected devices.

To get there, we’re going to have to make some serious technological leaps. One of those leaps is in power. We can’t have people touching anywhere near a trillion sensors to change out batteries or replace unplugged cords.

The answer isn’t bigger batteries, it’s energy harvesting sensors. Already there may be devices in or near your home that convert mechanical energy to power. For example, the Hue Tap is a hockey-puck like remote control for Hue lights that contains a piezoelectric sensor instead of a battery. The City of Las Vegas has tested a lamp that’s powered by kinetic energy–specifically the footfalls of citizens walking near the lamp.

Other examples abound, but for the most part, the existing options generate very little power and can be expensive. The current main categories for energy harvesting technology still remain solar (power from the sun), pizeoelectric (mechanical and kinetic), thermoelectric (uses temperature differentials) and induction (a common form of wireless power).

But the potential for energy is all around us, and aside from the race to make photovoltaics (solar) more efficient, it can be hard to see what all is happening in the world of energy harvesting research. The big trend (and a necessary one) involves organics.

One challenge that needs to be addressed is wearables. Their small form factor and increasing power demands require more than solar power or kinetic energy from hand motions. One option to boost solar is to increase the surface area for the photosensitive cells that actually generate power. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are doing this using a paper made of cellulose produced by bacteria and nanocrystals.

A scalable process harnesses the bacterium Gluconacetobacter hansenii to produce dense nanocellulose membranes that are processed into paper. The nanoporous structure of the paper enables exceptional adhesion of the device layers and mitigates the impact of bending stresses that typically cause these brittle layers to crack.

In this case, more surface area means more power which is why foldable devices are so promising. This could be useful for a variety of devices, but especially bandages or stickers that attach to people’s skin to display biological data. Another useful energy generation technique for bandages or skin sensors comes from sweat.

This technique uses an enzyme that oxidizes the lactic acid in sweat to generate a current. It’s not a large current, but it could power a low power radio that can send data from a sensor. Like solar, the challenge associated with this technique is developing a greater energy density. Basically, it needs to generate more power over a smaller surface area.

And now for something completely different. For sensors in rivers, lakes and streams the Naval Research Lab has pioneered a battery that’s powered by bacteria moving within the water column. The negative end rests in the floor of the body of water and the positive end to sits within the water column. The current generated offers about .2 watts of power. These floating batteries could power water quality sensors for years.

Research is continuing in many other areas of energy generation, and many of them are relying more on organics than chemistry or physics. As we build more and more connected objects, I’m betting that organic and dynamic systems will be the way to go. For power, and to help solve other problems associated with a trillion connected devices.

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