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New research at WSU could help doctors stop patients’ diseases before they start

Wouldn’t it be great to find out years in advance if you were at risk of developing a disease later in life and be able to take steps to prevent it?

With some recent research findings from Washington State University, that reality may be closer than you think.

Michael Skinner.

Researchers from the university, which include Michael Skinner, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences, studied epigenetic biomarkers — factors that change how a gene is expressed without changing the DNA itself — that are connected to preterm birth, rheumatoid arthritis and autism spectrum disorder.

Epigenetics doesn’t research the DNA sequence, but instead the molecular entities around the DNA that affect how the genomes function. Those entities are called methyl groups, and they’re organic compounds which link to a DNA molecule that can turn genes within that DNA on and off and regulate how they’re expressed.

“We’ve been studying epigenetics for well over 20 years, but it’s only recently we’ve been looking at a human population to find these new associations,” Skinner says.

According to Skinner, epigenetic research has a much higher frequency at accurately identifying an individual’s likelihood of developing a disease than genetic research does.

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Breakthrough study examines evolution of snake venom genes

A new study from  an international team of collaborators, including biologists at Washington State University, provides the first comprehensive explanation of how snake venom regulatory systems evolved—an important example that illuminates the evolution of new complex traits.

Blair Perry.

“This work gives us a better understanding of how snake venom evolved and how venom production functions at a genomic level,” said Blair Perry, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Biological Sciences at WSU. He is lead author of the new paper.

“In addition to studying specific venom genes, we can now investigate parts of the genome involved in the regulation of these genes as well,” Perry said. “This opens up new opportunities to understand how variation in snake venom, both within and between snake species, corresponds to variation in the genome.”

In 2019, the World Health Organization declared snakebite a neglected tropical disease. The primary challenge for treating snakebite is the extreme variation in venom composition across populations and species of snakes.

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Migratory birds can change their restless ways

Nomadic pine siskins are a type of finch often seen on backyard feeders. Studies of migrating pine siskins have shown they exhibit “nocturnal migratory restlessness.” This means the birds move around a lot at night instead of resting. Their bodies also adapt to support migration by gaining muscle and fat deposits to use as fuel during flight.

However, a new study from Washington State University has revealed that the natural migratory behaviors of pine siskins can change in the presence of settled birds.

Heather Watts.

“The presence of another bird that isn’t migratory seems to be a really potent cue to stop migration,” said study co-author Heather Watts. “We saw changes in their behavior and changes in their physiology associated with the energetics of migration.”

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Science Daily
WSU Insider

Study supports stronger conservation efforts in Appalachians and the Gulf Coast, US

During the last ice age, glaciers covered vast portions of North America. But some regions, including areas of the southern Appalachians and the Gulf Coast, had more temperate climates in which plants and animals survived and thrived. From those regions, called glacial refugia, those populations spread northward as the glaciers receded.

Jeremiah Busch.

New research by Clemson University scientist Matthew Koski and colleagues, including WSU professor of biological sciences Jeremiah Busch, supports strengthening conservation efforts in glacial refugia because of their high genetic diversity.

“These regions are the source of genetic diversity for the rest of the species ranges to the north of us,” said Koski. “Conservation of these habitats in the Southeast is vital and has implications for other areas of the country.”

If forced migrations of species — the planting populations beyond their current range edges — is necessary, being able to sample from regions with high genetic diversity is important.

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Science News

Ask Dr. Universe: ‘How do trees give us air to breathe?’

In recognition of Earth Day, the WSU Insider dug into the Ask Dr. Universe archives for a 2021 piece answering a question from a curious 11-year-old about how trees give us air to breathe.

Balasaheb Sonawane.

The fictional feline Dr. Universe sat down with her friend Balasaheb Sonawane, a WSU biologist, to learn about how plants use energy from the sun to make oxygen via a process called photosynthesis.

Sonawane explained that plants don’t have a nose or mouth like humans but rather use tiny microscopic organs on their leaves called stomata to move gasses in and out. Another key difference between humans and plants is that while humans breathe oxygen gas, plants take in carbon dioxide gas using the stomata on their leaves.

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WSU Insider