Week in review: August 28, 2017

Some cool science that was published in the last two weeks (blame the start of the semester for tardiness): a virtual map of the fly embryo, using molecular sledgehammers to smash cells, and test-tube brains! 

A map of gene expression in the fly embryo at single-cell resolution

A truly impressive blend of experimental biology, computer science, and statistics has produced a map of the developing fly embryo, complete with lists of which proteins each cell is churning out! To accomplish this feat, scientists sequenced the genes that were expressed in every cell of the fly embryo. They then used sophisticated algorithms and previously collected gene expression data to build a virtual fly embryo. It’s available online at http://www.dvex.org/ ; check it out!

We’re getting better at growing test tube brains

If you take special brain cells and treat them very nicely in controlled laboratory conditions, you’ll be rewarded with mini brain-like organoids. It’s as science fiction-y as it sounds: the cells organize themselves into structures almost indistinguishable from the real deal (albeit in miniature), allowing scientists to study the fine details of brain function without probing into the cerebellums of humans. Four papers published recently make significant advances in technologies used to grow these mini-brains. The better we can coax these organoids to recapitulate real biology, the better we can model neurological diseases and test out potential cures.

Molecular sledgehammers can drill through cancer cells  

In a feat of chemical creativity, scientists have crafted microscopic machines that are able to drill through cell membranes upon exposure to light. The molecules snuggle into membranes, innocuous until they are activated by a light source. Once activated, they thrash around, poking holes in the membrane. Scientists hope to use them to target drugs to specific cell types – potentially for the treatment of cancers.

You are what you eat: bee caste is informed by plant pollen

Honeybees are social insects, organizing themselves into unique castes (worker bees vs. queen bees). We’ve known for a while that the food a young bee is fed early in development determines which caste it grows up to join. However, this week scientists reported the cause of this food-born identity: plant RNA molecules are distributed differently in the two types of bee food. These molecules influence the expression of genes within the developing bee, resulting in the two distinct caste fates.

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