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Obesity may be caused by ancestors’ exposure to toxic chemicals

Decades ago, someone’s grandmother was exposed to a toxic pesticide that was later banned. A Washington State University professor’s research suggests that person’s grandchild may be suffering the consequences of that environmental exposure.

The inheritance that WSU epigeneticist Michael Skinner studies does not come from genes – those are set in stone after birth. But epigenetics, the way those genes express themselves, do change throughout a person’s life and can also be passed down through the generations.

Skinner suggests that today’s high rates of obesity could be linked to epigenetics rather than just diet and exercise.

Though each cell in the body has an identical DNA sequence, the form and function of cells are often quite different. That is because different epigenetic processes can “turn on and turn off” different cells, according to Skinner.

“Disease we now know primarily comes from an abnormal epigenetics, which is causing an abnormal set of genes to turn on or off and gives genes an abnormal function,” he said.

Unlike DNA, the body’s epigenetics can change throughout their life – largely based on environmental factors. That’s how exposure to a chemical can cause disease decades later.

Over his decades of research, Skinner’s contribution to the field of epigenetics has been the discovery that epigenetics is inherited just like the genes themselves.

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The Columbian

Science Now: Foraging rabbits

When your task is trapping a rabbit, you gotta be on the hop. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. 

“[The eastern Idaho] Lemhi valley [is] a high desert valley that runs along the border with Montana and it’s the sagebrush steppe environment which means it’s a mix of shrub and grasslands and it is just a gorgeous gorgeous intact piece of sagebrush landscape.” With support for the National Science Foundation, mammalian ecologist Janet Ratcliffe with the University of Idaho and a team want to understand this critical habitat from the perspective of a small but important long term resident: the pygmy rabbit.

The rabbits live in burrows under raised clumps of sage called moema mounds so they have kind of a tough life. … Putting themselves in places where they’re close to burrows, where they can quickly escape from predators, that’s really important.”

Sheltering from the heat and cold is important, too, but so is food. Sometimes they risk a venture into the open to eat. Lisa Shipley is a foraging ecologist with Washington State University: “Especially in the winter, it might eat 99% of its diet in sagebrush. It’s very nutritious. It has a lot of protein in it but it also has a lot of toxic chemicals. It’s the only mammal that can eat sagebrush for virtually exclusively its diet.”

Using tracking data from the collars and imagery from where and when the rabbits spend their time in burrows under the sagebrush and out in the open. maps like these can tell them a lot about how the rabbits use and ultimately shape the landscape around them.

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Science Now (FOX 49)

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

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

How the Post Office could decide the presidency in 2024

The result of the next US presidential election could be decided by the efficiency of the humble postal service.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, voting by mail has become the norm for millions of Americans, and the practice is now central to each political party’s path to the White House. As legislative battles rage across the country over laws governing the practice, new research suggests that the performance of the postal service can have a small but noticeable impact on election turnout.

Michael Ritter.

“Across the board, this study shows that having better postal administration makes it more likely there will be more positive voter turnout outcomes linked to all mail voting laws,” said researcher Michael Ritter, of Washington State University, who published the study in the Election Law Journal this summer.

“Postal service administration is important for shaping the ability of people to vote by mail,” Mr Ritter told The Independent. “For example, it can capture, you know, how easily or readily people are able to receive election mail at their homes, how quickly that mail is transported to distribution facilities and to election ballot counting sites,” he added.

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The Independent