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Wellcome Trust Research Round-Up: 09.11.15

9 Nov, 2015

Our fortnightly round-up of news from the Wellcome Trust community…

Fly-tipping

Credit: MRC Lab. Molecular Cell biology. Wellcome Images

Credit: MRC Lab. Molecular Cell biology. Wellcome Images

A small molecule called microRNA (miRNA) may help fruit flies control their movements, according to new research published in Science.

The new study indicates that miRNA may be the reason why fruit flies can flip over when placed on their backs, a finding that disproves previous assumptions that the molecule doesn’t impact on animal behaviour.

miRNAs are encoded in the genome of all animals, including humans, and regulate the activity of individual genes. They are already known to affect the formation of the nervous system. However, researchers discovered that the molecules might also have very specific roles for controlling particular movements.

‘Switching off’ miRNA molecules did not have an effect on the structure of the nervous system, but it did affect whether it ‘worked’ properly. When individual miRNA molecules were ‘switched off’, the flies could no longer turn over when upside down.

Dr Claudio Alonso, a Wellcome Trust Investigator based at the University of Sussex, explains: “We know very little about how simple movements are encoded in the genome. Yet, the survival of all animals – including humans – strongly depends on our ability to perform simple movements since the moment of birth, such as primitive reflexes essential for feeding. This knowledge might in the long-term contribute to the understanding of the underlying mechanisms of human disorders of the nervous system that lead to loss of movement coordination such as Parkinson’s disease.”

Flexible working

Credit: Solenn Patalano

Credit: Solenn Patalano

Genetic flexibility in some insect species allows them to switch roles from a worker to a queen at any stage in their life, according to new research published in PNAS.

The study focused on two insect species from Latin America – the dinosaur ant and the red paper wasp. Researchers used paint spots or identification tags to observe the behaviour of the insects in their natural environment to determine which ones were workers and which were queens.

Surprisingly, researchers found very few molecular differences between queens and workers of both species. This differs to the honeybee, where hundreds of genes are involved in distinguishing queens from workers.

Scientists suggest that the difference in social behaviour is unlikely to be controlled by a major gene, but instead by a subtle network of genes.

Professor Wolf Reik, Head of the Epigenetics Programme at the Babraham Institute, associated faculty at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and a senior author on the paper, said: “We are excited about discovering molecular mechanisms which in these wasps and ants allow easy switching between workers and queens. There are some applications of these principles to human stem cells to make them more plastic, potentially leading to better stem cell therapies in the future.”

Why we develop allergies

Credit: Annie Cavanagh. Wellcome Images

Credit: Annie Cavanagh. Wellcome Images

Developing allergies could be a by-product of our evolved immunity to parasites, according to a new study published in PLOS Computational Biology.

The research indicates that part of our immune system has evolved in order to protect against infection by parasitic worms. However, if there isn’t a parasitic infection, this same section of the immune system can become hyper-responsive and mistakenly target allergenic proteins in food (such as peanuts) or the environment (such as pollen).

Researchers were able to accurately predict which proteins in parasitic worms could cause an immune response similar to an allergic reaction in humans. Using computational techniques, they identified the first known example of a pollen-like protein found in a parasitic worm.

Due to the tools provided in this study, scientists will be better able to identify allergy-causing proteins in foods and the environment more easily, and design protein molecules for treating allergies.

Dr Nick Furnham from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said: “Our findings address an outstanding question: what makes an allergen an allergen? We’ve shown that the off-target effects of the immune system in allergy are due to the significant molecular similarities we have identified between environmental allergens and parasitic worm proteins. The findings demonstrate that allergy is the price we pay for having immunity to parasites.”

In other news…

Keith Matthews Sanofi prizeCongratulations to Professor Keith Matthews, a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator at the University of Edinburgh for being awarded the Sanofi-Pasteur mid-career laureate for tropical and neglected diseases. He explains his research here.

MQ, the mental health charity supported by the Wellcome Trust, have announced the winners of their 2015 Fellows awards. Congratulations to the new Fellows Dr Johannes Gräff , Dr Martijn van den Heuvel, Dr Ian Maze and Dr Etheldreda Nakimuli-Mpungu.

The Wellcome Trust-funded film Curing Cancer has won the Grierson Award for Best Science or Natural History Documentary – congratulations to Brian.

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