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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.

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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Ask Dr. Universe: What is venom?

A lot of different animals, like wasps, spiders, snakes, jellyfish, and scorpions, make venom. Animals like the cone snail, the blue-ringed octopus, and centipedes do, too.

Venom is a mixture of different proteins that can be very toxic to animals. While humans don’t make venom, they do carry around proteins. Proteins called keratin are the building blocks of your hair and nails. The red protein hemoglobin in your blood helps deliver oxygen around your body.

Mark Margres.
Mark Margres

Venom tries to disrupt the systems in our body that help keep us alive, said my friend Mark Margres. He was a post-doctoral researcher in biological sciences at Washington State University and now works at Clemson University.

In his work as a scientist, he’s also studied the venomous eastern diamondback rattlesnake. It is the largest of the 32 species in the rattlesnake family. It’s about four or five feet long. Snake venom is one of the kinds of venom scientists know the most about. Margres has collected thousands of samples of rattlesnake venom and he said proteins in the venom can do different things.

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Dr. Universe

Cacao analysis dates domesticated chocolate trees back 3,600 years

Researchers analyzing the genomes of cultivated cacao trees have traced their origin to a “single domestication event” some 3,600 years ago. The discovery opens a new front in a long-running argument regarding when and where humans started growing the source of chocolate.

Omar Cornejo.

“This evidence increases our understanding of how humans moved and established in America,” said Omar Cornejo, a Washington State University population geneticist in the School of Biological Sciences and lead author of an article on the study in Communications Biology, an open-access journal from the publishers of Nature.

“It is important in itself because it gives us a timeframe for asking questions that are perhaps trickier: How long did it take to make a good cacao? How strong was the process of domestication? How many plants were necessary to domesticate a tree?”

The study, which involved 18 scientists from 11 institutions, also found that cacao’s domestication ended up selecting for flavor, disease resistance and the stimulant theobromine. However, that came at the cost of retaining genes that lowered crop yields.

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