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5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

A Chinese oncologist used cells altered by the gene-editing tool CRISPR to treat a human for the first time. His American colleague promptly called it a “Sputnik 2.0” moment. Also, if you came down with a case of bird flu as a child, you may enjoy some lasting benefits. Elsewhere, scientists found a powerful light receptor hiding inside a blind worm. Keep your eyes open and let us guide you through this surprising world.


Bird Flu: If It Doesn’t Kill You, It Will Make You Stronger

Girl walking wearing a mask in the city street.

“We’re not a completely blank slate when it comes to how susceptible we are to these emerging flu viruses,” says the University of Arizona’s Michael Worobey. Illustration image credit: Getty Images

Researchers working at the University of Arizona and UCLA say that the year of your birth can “to a certain extent” predict how likely you are get sick or be killed by a flu virus that crossed over from an animal. “We’re not a completely blank slate when it comes to how susceptible we are to these emerging flu viruses,” said Michael Worobey, head of the University of Arizona’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “Even if we’ve never been exposed to H5 or H7 viruses, we have some kick-ass protection against one or the other.” The team analyzed data “from every known case of severe illness or death from influenza” caused by the H5N1 and H7N9 bird flu strains. They found that “whichever human influenza strain a person happened to be exposed to during his or her first infection with flu virus as a child determines which novel, avian-origin flu strains they would be protected against in a future infection.” The team writes that “this effect of ‘immunological imprinting’ appears to be exclusively dependent on the very first exposure to flu virus encountered in life — and difficult to reverse.” The results appeared in the journal Science.


A Sputnik 2.0 Moment?

Cancer cells - 3d rendered illustration

Scientists used CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human immune cells so they could attack cancer (above). Image credit: Getty Images

Scientists in China have inserted cells with genes altered by the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 in a human for the first time. “I think this is going to trigger ‘Sputnik 2.0’, a biomedical duel on progress between China and the United States,” University of Pennsylvania immunotherapy specialist Carl June told the journal Nature. CRISPR works like molecular scissors and Scotch tape. It can cut and paste bits of DNA and turn genes on or off. The Chinese team first removed immune cells from the blood of a patient suffering from an aggressive form of lung cancer. Then they used CRISPR to disable a specific gene so the cells could better attack the disease. Next they multiplied the modified cells. Finally, they injected the lot back into the patient’s body. Researchers around the world are pursuing this type of cell therapy to fight stubborn cancers and other disease. CRISPR could make the process much faster and more precise.


Blind Worm’s Bluff

Rhodopsin (the extremely sensitive to light pigment involved in vision process) protein structure

Above: A molecule of rhodopsin. Top image: Scientists found the new powerful light receptor stashed away among taste receptors in blind roundworms. Images: Getty Images

Researchers at the University of Michigan have found a new kind of photoreceptor that’s 50 times more efficient at capturing light than the pigment rhodopsin that converts light into electrical impulses in the human eye. Strangely, the scientist found the new receptor — called LITE-1 — stashed away among taste receptors in blind roundworms. The team first started focusing on the millimeter-long eyeless creatures when they recoiled after being exposed to flashes of light. “Photoreceptors convert light into a signal that the body can use,” said Shawn Xu, the study’s senior author. “LITE-1 is unusual in that it is extremely efficient at absorbing both UV-A and UV-B light — 10 to 100 times greater than the two other types found in the animal kingdom: opsins and cryptochromes. The next step is to better understand why it has these amazing properties.” The team said that the new photoreceptor could point the way to new sunscreen materials that absorbs harmful rays, “or to further scientific research by fostering light sensitivity in new types of cells.” The results appeared in the journal Cell.


Read My Lips

A team at the University of Oxford Computer Science Department have developed LipNet, a program that’s better at reading lips than humans. The researchers reported in the online journal arXiv that LipNet “achieves 93.4 percent accuracy, outperforming experienced human lipreaders and the previous 79.6 percent state-of-the-art accuracy.” The team wrote that “traditional approaches separated the problem into two stages: designing or learning visual features, and prediction.” But all existing lip-reading models “perform only word classification, not sentence-level sequence prediction.” LipNet, however, “is the first lipreading model to operate at sentence-level, using a single end-to-end speaker-independent deep model to simultaneously learn spatiotemporal visual features and a sequence model.”


Ravenous Artificial Leaves Could Gobble CO2 From Air

Multiple Coal Fossil Fuel Power Plant Smokestacks Emit Carbon Dioxide Pollution

Artificial leaves could gobble up CO2. Image credit: Getty Images

German scientists led by Tobias Erb of the Max Planck Institute have supercharged the way living organisms such as plants and algae feast on CO2 in the atmosphere and turn it into glucose, making the process about 25 percent more energy efficient, according to Popular Science. Erb, who calls the process the CETCH cycle, told the magazine that he could “imagine one day producing something like an artificial leaf, or another hybrid system where photovoltaic solar cells could provide energy for algae and bacteria living under them, which are using this CETCH cycle to adsorb CO2 and produce useful chemicals.”

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