Sucker-punch antibiotics, DINOSAURS, and new hope for Canadian science – Sciencish News for 9/11/2015 (part 2)

The show keeps on going! For Part 2 of Sciencish News we’ve got a brilliant way to track bacteria to their hiding places, some spectacular dinosaur finds, and high, high hopes for the future of Canadian science. Read on, won’t you? (though if you missed it, here’s Part 1 of the news)

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Get ‘em where the sun don’t shine

The bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, or “golden staph” as it’s sometimes known, causes thousands of deaths every year. Outbreaks in hospitals are a problem, and resistance to most antibiotics means that small-scale infections can quickly get out of hand. Combine this with the ability to switch to a “persistent” lifestyle, wherein bacteria go covert and hide out in human cells without raising the suspicion of the immune system, and it’s no wonder that researchers are scrambling to find new ways to combat staph.

Researchers from the biotechnology company Genentech, out of San Francisco, USA, have unveiled a promising new weapon in this fight. They noted that antibiotics were often ineffective at killing staph that had invaded human host cells, where the bacteria replicate. Staph can then re-emerge after antibiotic treatment to cause a new round of infection. Genentech scientists therefore set about designing a drug that could access these reserve forces. They settled on an inactive “prodrug” derived from the antibiotic rifampicin, conjugated to an antibody. Antibodies are protein molecules naturally produced by the immune system, and work by binding tight to the surface of invading bacteria or viruses. They are also extremely specific for their target of choice, and the Genentech researchers found their antibody-antibiotic conjugate bound tightly to the surface of staph cells. In fact, it bound so tight that when a bacteria invaded a human host cell it brought any antibody-antibiotic conjugates with it. Once inside a host cell, human digestive enzymes break the bond connecting the antibody and antibiotic. This activated the antibiotic, and now the staph found themselves trapped inside a host cell along with an extremely deadly drug! Even more impressive, when staph accidentally brought the antibody-antibiotic conjugate with it into a cell that already contained “persistent” bacteria that had been hiding out, it also killed these bacteria. The antibody-antibiotic conjugate appeared much more effective than existing frontline antibiotics. Part of this effectiveness may be because, having been specifically targeted to the staph by the antibody and then brought into the enclosed space of a host cell, the antibiotic becomes extremely concentrated, as opposed to other non-targeted antibiotics that disseminate throughout the entire body. This work opens up exciting new possibilities for employing similar strategies with other pathogens.

Find the paper here

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Warming feathers and giant raptors

It’s hard to believe that, when I was a kid, it was considered controversial to say that dinosaurs had feathers. Nowadays, we’ve come to accept that at least the majority of therapods – two-legged dinosaurs – were downright fabulous, and probably bore all sorts of plumage. But the purpose of feathers for these “non-avian” dinosaurs remains controversial. Now, a description of a spectacularly preserved Ornithomimus by researchers from the University of Alberta, Canada, has shed some light on the mystery. Ornithomimus (meaning “bird-mimic”) stood a little taller than an adult human, and would likely have eaten a wide variety of plants and animals (see image below). This new specimen, a 75-million year old animal that is so well preserved that even skin from the leg to the body are retained, has shown that Ornithomimus’ body and tail were covered with feathers. Like a modern ostrich, however, its legs were bare. This suggests that, like ostriches, Ornithomimus‘ body was covered with feathers to keep it warm, while bare legs allowed it to regulate its body temperature somewhat to prevent overheating. The strikingly avian-like morphology of this Ornithomimus makes the relationship between birds and dinosaurs just that bit clearer. I bet the tubby kid that Sam Neill traumatised at the start of Jurassic Park feels extra stupid now.
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Credit: Julius Cstonoyi

Credit: Julius Cstonoyi

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In other slightly mind-boggling dinosaur news, palaeontologists at the University of Kansas, USA, have described a new species of raptor that outshines almost all others. Named Dakotaraptor after the state it was found in, it is thought to have been around 5.5 metres long, and would have towered over an adult human. Like the famous dog-sized Velociraptor, Dakotaraptor would have been quick and deadly, built for agility. It is not the biggest raptor found to date – that honour stays with the 7 meter monster Utahraptor – but what is most striking is the famous sickle-shaped claw on each of its rear legs, characteristic of the raptors. It was an incredible 24 centimeters long, beating out even the beefier Utaraptor’s impressive 22 centimeters. The forearms of Dakotaraptor also show evidence of quill knobs, indicating it too was well-feathered.
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Credit: Emily Willoughby

Credit: Emily Willoughby

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Find the papers here
and here

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New life for Canadian science

Canadian scientists were celebrating two weeks ago when the 10-year reign of Prime Minister Stephen Harper was brought to an end. The Harper administration had been repeatedly accused of ignoring scientific advice on environmental issues and climate change; of defunding chief government grants bodies; of devaluing “basic” research that did not have direct industry outcomes; and silencing government-funded scientists from speaking about their work without explicit permission. There was hope that much of that would change with the new Prime Minister and his Liberal government taking office last Tuesday.

Now, early signs indicate that there is reason to have hope. Canada finds itself with a new minister, a Minister of Science. Kirsty Duncan will be the first person to take the reigns – a medical geographer who searched for frozen samples of Spanish flu in the permafrost of Norway, and earned herself a reputation as a genuine badarse. Her ministry will oversee mainly research-driven science, which doesn’t necessarily aim to have short-term outcomes for the general population. Meanwhile, the new Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development is Navdeep Bains. A former financial analyst, his ministry will concern itself more with applied research with industrial outcomes when it comes to science. I should hope that having two ministers will allow the tensions between “applied” and “basic” science to be dispelled in this country. However, it’s hard to see how much can be achieved without increasing funding of grants agencies: last year, only ~12% of grant applications submitted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research were successful.

An added bonus is that Canada’s Minister of Environment now has “and Climate Change” added to their title, giving hope that the latter issue will now have significantly more focus than the frequently denialist Harper government gave it. Catherin McKenna, a former lawyer who specialised in trade and international law, is filling the role, and has had to hit the ground running with climate talks in Paris beginning this week.

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That’s it! Hope you’re keeping well out there. Hey, I’m sorry, I’ve just been talking and talking, and I haven’t let you say anything. If you have any suggestions or questions please leave a Comment, or feel free to email me at thesciencishblog@gmail.com. Also, go ahead an follow me on Twitter @Sciencish.

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Bye for now.

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– J

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