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Dr. Universe: Why do we have five fingers and five toes?

While humans may be one of the few animals that can give a high five, they are one of many with five fingers and toes.

Humans are part of the primate family, which also includes monkeys, apes, and even lemurs. As a member of the family, you also have fingernails instead of claws and pads on your fingertips that help with your sense of touch.

Sian Ritchie.
Ritchie

We actually see a total of ten fingers and toes in a lot of other vertebrates – animals with backbones. Fossil evidence of some early vertebrates show that some creatures had six, seven, or even eight fingers. That’s what I found out from my friend Sian Ritchie, who teaches biology at Washington State University.

Ritchie told me how animals tend to keep the characteristics or traits that help them survive in an environment. These are called adaptations. They may also over time lose some traits, like a finger or two.

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Dr. Universe

Expanding research communities and collaborations

From the depths of ocean dead zones, to wide swaths of forests, and rising up to the troposphere, where most weather changes occur, the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) 2014 Community Science Program portfolio seeks to parse functional information extracted from complex ecosystems to address urgent energy and environmental challenges. These massive, data-intensive undertakings require interdisciplinary approaches, many leveraging additional expertise through a new inter-DOE-Facility partnership.

Reflecting its vision of serving the scientific community as a next-generation genome science user facility, the DOE JGI has joined forces with the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to provide complementary scientific resources to significantly expand genomic understanding to cellular function. The inaugural round of eight accepted proposals showcases the synergy between these two DOE user facilities.

Five of the eight new DOE JGI-EMSL proposals going forward will focus on carbon cycling and three relate to improvements in biofuels production. Each of these projects will tap the capabilities at both facilities to further the research in ways that would not otherwise be possible, and all are targeted for completion within an 18-month time window.

Matthias Hess.
Hess

Two of the carbon cycling projects involve the study of cyanobacteria. Matthias Hess, research scientist and arts and sciences alumnus at Washington State University-Tri Cities, will build off the DOE JGI’s pioneering work in filling in gaps in the tree of life through the Genomic Encyclopedia of Bacteria and Archaea (GEBA) pilot project and a recent spin-off focused specifically on cyanobacteria.

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Bio-Medicine

Genetic mutation drives tumor regression in Tasmanian Devils

Andrew Storfer.
Andrew Storfer

Washington State University scientists, led by Andrew Storfer, an evolutionary geneticist and WSU professor of biology, have discovered genes and other genetic variations that appear to be involved in cancerous tumors shrinking in Tasmanian devils.

Their research is an important first step towards understanding what is causing devil facial tumor disease, a nearly 100 percent fatal and contagious form of cancer, to go away in a small percentage of Tasmanian devils and could have implications for treating cancer in humans and other mammals as well.

Mark Margres.
Mark Margres

“Some of the genes we think have a role in tumor regression in Tasmanian devils are also shared by humans,” said Mark Margres, a former WSU postdoctoral researcher now at Clemson University who is part of an international team of researchers studying devil facial tumor disease led by Storfer.

“While still in a very early stage, this research could eventually help in the development of drugs that elicit the tumor regression response in devils, humans and other mammals that don’t have this necessary genetic variation,” Margres said.

For the last decade, Storfer’s team has been investigating how some Tasmanian devil populations are evolving genetic resistance to devil facial tumor disease that could help the species avoid extinction.

Tasmanian devils have been pushed to the brink of extinction by the rapid spread of devil facial tumor disease, one of only four known forms of transmissible cancer and by far the deadliest. Since it was first documented in 1996, the disease has wiped out an estimated 80 percent of devils in Tasmania, the only place in the world where the animals live.

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Dr. Universe: Who created the very first chocolate bar?

For most of human history, people have enjoyed chocolate in a spicy, bitter drink. But when people discovered how to turn chocolate into a solid, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

Omar Cornejo.
Cornejo

That’s what I found out from my friend Omar Cornejo, a scientist at Washington State University who is very curious about the history and life of the cacao tree. Chocolate comes from the seeds of leathery fruits that grow on the tree.

If we cut open the fruit, we would find about 20 to 60 seeds on the inside. In ancient times, people would grind up the seeds and use them in a drink.

“When Europeans arrived to the Americas they found the indigenous people who were drinking this delicious thing,” Cornejo said. “It was bitter and interesting. They didn’t use sugar.”

It wasn’t until Europeans returned home that they added sugar to make it more drinkable. The drink was very popular among royalty. But engineers and scientists who lived during the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s and early 1800s helped find new ways to produce it so it could be enjoyed by everyone.

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Dr. Universe

$3M Templeton Foundation grant focuses on epigenetic biomarkers

Washington State University researchers have received nearly $3 million from the John Templeton Foundation, the second such grant in four years, to see if they can anticipate and prevent diseases by developing epigenetic biomarkers that could provide early stage diagnostics for disease susceptibility. Their approach would be a departure from traditional “reactionary medicine,” which treats diseases after they develop, as well as from diagnoses based on an individual’s genetic profile.

Michael Skinner portrait.
Michael Skinner

WSU biologist and professor Michael Skinner is the principal investigator on the grant and a leader in the field of epigenetics, which focuses on the molecular factors that regulate genome activity. Lawrence Holder, WSU professor of electrical engineering and computer science and co‑investigator, will collaborate with Skinner using machine learning to help develop predictive epigenetic biomarkers.

Skinner has repeatedly identified circumstances in which environmental factors have induced epigenetic activity, affecting health generations after an individual is exposed. His first multimillion-dollar grant from the Templeton Foundation in 2014 supported the investigation of environmental epigenetics as an additional causal factor for disease.

“Dr. Skinner’s research may contribute to more accurate prediction and interception of diseases before they develop, potentially leading to breakthroughs in preventative medicine and health care,” said WSU Vice President for Research Chris Keane. “His cutting-edge collaboration with Dr. Holder is among the many exceptional examples of interdisciplinary research occurring across WSU everyday.”

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