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Double Take: How Twins Are Unlocking the Molecular Mysteries of Obesity

A susceptibility to gain weight may be written into molecular processes of human cells, according to a research study from Washington State University.

The proof-of-concept study with a set of 22 twins found an epigenetic signature in buccal or cheek cells appearing only for the twins who were obese compared to their thinner siblings. With more research, the findings could lead to a simple cheek swab test for an obesity biomarker and enable earlier prevention methods for a condition that affects 50% of U.S. adults, the researchers said.

“Obesity appears to be more complex than simple consumption of food. Our work indicates there’s a susceptibility for this disease and molecular markers that are changing for it,” said Michael Skinner, a WSU professor of biology and corresponding author of the study published in the journal Epigenetics.

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Ask Dr. Universe: What is mutualism in nature?

I talked about your question with my friend Angeliqua Montoya. She’s a graduate student at Washington State University. She works on a mutualism between pea plants and bacteria.

“I study ecology, which is looking at interactions between different species,” she said. “Mutualisms are interactions where both species benefit.”

Living things interact with each other in lots of ways. When a lion kills a rabbit, that’s an interaction. When a bird builds a nest in a tree, that’s an interaction. When a bee collects pollen from a flower, that’s also an interaction.

Some interactions are good for just one individual and bad for the other. The lion gets a meal. But the rabbit becomes a meal.

Some interactions are good for one individual but neutral for the other. The bird gets a nice place to lay eggs. The tree isn’t helped or harmed.

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Ask Dr. Universe

Elk hoof disease goes beyond the hoof

A disease that has mangled the hooves of elk in western Washington and other parts of the country is affecting more than just the animals’ feet, according to a new study from Washington State University.

Michael Skinner, a molecular biologist at Washington State University and one of the authors of the study published last month in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that treponeme-associated hoof disease, or TAHD, is causing systemic molecular changes throughout the animal.

Scientists examined knee tendons from elk to look for changes in its epigenetics – molecular factors that regulate gene activity. The analysis found significant epigenetic changes in samples from animals that had TAHD.

“It’s a much more broad effect on the elk than just its hoof,” Skinner said.

The study was the first of its kind for the disease, which only affects elk. It also notes that it’s possible the alterations are passed down through generations, and that it could mean mutations that make an animal more or less likely to catch TAHD are being passed to newborn elk.

The disease is particularly common in the elk herd near Mount St. Helens – roughly 25% of hunters who submit reports on elk killed there report hoof abnormalities.

Margaret Wild, a [micro]biologist at WSU and one of the other authors of the study, is leading a team of researchers looking at the disease. They have spent the past several years building out their baseline knowledge, from how it infects elk to how it spreads to what it does to the animals.

“Right now, we just have all these pieces of a puzzle and we’re trying to put them together,” Wild said. “The more pieces of the puzzle come in, the more clear a picture we’ll have.”

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The Spokesman-Review
The Chronicle
Billings Gazette

Photos: How do you run tests on the hair of a grizzly bear?

A group of staff and volunteers at the Washington State University Research, Education and Conservation Center, worked together Tuesday to carry two of the 11 bears living at the center into their den.

The bears were sedated and carried indoors where they underwent a procedure to try to discover why some of the bears have been losing fur.

Although it was a minor procedure, the work took close to six hours from sedation to recovery, and required a slew of carefully measured drugs and precautions.

Zuri and Adak, two 8-year-old grizzlies, took the procedures well and several skin scrapes and punch biopsies were successfully recovered from the bears. Throughout those hours, the center staff and volunteers also carried out their regular daily care regimen for the rest of their resident bears.

Photo caption: [Biological sciences] graduate student Heather Havelock monitors any reactions from Adak while under sedation for his procedure.

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The Lewiston Tribune

How Elk Hoof Disease Alters the Animal’s System

Elk treponeme-associated hoof disease, previously thought to be limited to deformations in elks’ hooves, appears to create molecular changes throughout the animal’s system, according to epigenetic research from Washington State University.

The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, also suggest those changes may be heritable. It remains to be seen though whether this means subsequent generations of elk may be more, or less, prone to catching the devastating disease that severely impairs the elk’s ability to find food and escape predators.

“It’s not just the absence or presence of the infection. It’s affecting the animal’s entire physiology, all the cells,” said senior author Michael Skinner, a WSU biologist. “It shows that there’s a molecular impact by the presence of the disease organisms.”

Epigenetics are stable molecular processes that can influence how genes behave independent of the DNA sequence itself. Changes in an organism’s epigenetics can be caused by nutrition or environmental factors – and as this study shows, by an infectious disease.

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Big Country News