The WHO’s Global Study on the Origins of SARS-CoV-2

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a joint study, (WHO Headquarters, 2021), conducted between 4 January 2021 and 10 February 2021 in partnership with the World Organisation for Animal Health, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and a team of multidisciplinary Chinese experts. This study aimed to identify the source and introduction route of the SARS-CoV-2 virus into the human population. The study focussed on three main components: epidemiology, molecular epidemiology and bioinformatics, and animals and the environment.

Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and nicotine addiction

Nicotine is an addictive chemical compound and the main psychoactive ingredient in tobacco. It acts on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in the mesolimbic reward pathway of the brain. Neurones of this pathway release dopamine, which helps establish nicotine addiction over time. Nicotine also activates the habenulo-interpeduncular pathway, which suppresses the centres responsible for withdrawal symptom development. Different types of nAChRs, which vary in their sensitivity to nicotine and ability to desensitise, are present in these pathways. This allows nAChRs to adapt to prolonged nicotine exposure in a way that discourages quitting. Various pharmaceutical, biotechnological and legislative efforts are being made to overcome the addiction associated adaptations in the brain.

The visualisation of Quadruple-Helix DNA in Living Human Cells

The DNA molecule is often associated with its well-known double-stranded helical B conformation, first discovered using crystallographic evidence sought by English chemist and x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin. While this is the most common structure, it can also be found in two other double helical conformations, the A and Z forms, and it has also been found to adopt a range of other structures such as cruciform and slipped structures, and triple helices.1 The diversity of known possible non-B conformations has increased  with the discovery of four-stranded ‘quadruple helix’ DNA molecules, also known as ‘G-quadruplexes’ or ‘G4s’, having been detected in guanine-rich regions of the genome. While this form of DNA has been previously theorized to exist and has been synthesized ‘in vitro’ by researchers, it was only found to exist in human cells in 2013. 2 It has been found to have an essential role in telomere function, replication, transcription, and translation. However, imaging the molecules remained a challenge and in January 2021, researchers identified a probe exhibiting fluorescence in the presence of G-quadruplexes which could be used in order to visualize quadruple-stranded DNA in live cells using fluorescent lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM).

Motor neurone disease: Edinburgh scientists reveal breakthrough

A group of scientists led by Dr. Arpan Mehta in the Euan MacDonald centre have published a breakthrough paper for Motor Neurone Disease research. Motor Neurone Disease (MND) also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is characterised as the loss of upper and lower motor neurons that are involved in voluntary muscle contraction. Sclerosis of motor neurons usually starts in the neuromuscular junctions (NMJ) which is the point of transmission of electric potential between the axon and the muscle. The selectivity of neuronal degeneration is still under active research, but is thought to be related to an interruption of the glutamate-mediated communication between neurons (Van den Bosch, 2006). Most current MND drugs approved by the FDA target glutamate regulation, as well as pain regulation drugs and treatment for respiratory failure associated with NMD. The recent research, published by Mehta et al. 2021 shows a new identifiable characteristic of MND neurons that is a possible target for treatment. The main medication used for treatment called Riluzole only increases survival of patients by around 2-3 months, this is why the findings are crucial as they may offer a more effective treatment solution. Mehta et al. used analysis of patient derived pluripotent stem cells as well as patient post mortem tissue analysis to identify key differences in axonal length and mitochondrial movement within the axons between control and affected cells. 

Can we predict the next pandemic virus?

Viruses are obligate microparasites (Lodish et al., 2000) which pose a great public health threat, as highlighted by the current COVID-19 pandemic (WHO, 2020a). Pandemics are the global spread of disease, with the ongoing HIV/AIDS (Eisinger and Fauci, 2018) and 2009 influenza A/H1N1 pandemics (WHO, 2020b), as viral examples. Virus emergence is increasing with rising human population density, changes in land use, and the arrival of international trade and travel (Morse et al., 2012). This highlights the need to identify and prevent pandemics through identification and targeted surveillance of candidate viruses (Neumann and Kawaoka, 2019). This essay aims to discuss whether the next pandemic virus can be predicted; focusing on identifying, characterising, and modelling viruses to assess their pandemic potential, and the associated challenges. 

Electron Microscope Simulator

Electron microscopy (EM) is a fundamental technique which can be used to investigate the ultrastructure of cells, microstructure of inorganic crystals, and the structures of proteins. It has become an essential investigative approach in almost all scientific disciplines, yet it is hard for the curious student to get easy access to such a facility that would complement their scientific education. In this article, this issue is addressed and a feasible solution described by bringing to life an online simulator that can be an essential tool in the students’ learning. This simulator aims to mimic a real scanning electron microscope (SEM), walking the user through a tutorial that explains every essential function of the instrument.