Issue 22

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In this issue:


  • Phages — our secret weapon in the fight against bacteria.

  • How natural disasters can literally age you.

  • An answer to the question: "can plants grow on the moon?"

  • Pregnancy advice, teeny robots, and chimpanzee linguistics.


Chosen by our Leak Curators

You're probably sick of hearing about viruses.

Covid, bird flu, now monkeypox. The list of ~scary~ viruses seems never-ending. But what if we could use these pathogens as double agents, harnessing their infectious capabilities to target and eliminate unwanted entities? Congrats — you just learned about phage therapy.

Uh, what’s a phage?

Short for bacteriophage, these sneaky little viruses infect bacteria, while leaving other organisms (like people) alone. This makes them perfect partners-in-crime for treating bacterial infections. You may not have heard of it before, but phage therapy actually dates back around a hundred years. But it suddenly phell out of vogue (especially in western medicine) around a century ago when antibiotics were discovered.

Why bring them back?

Because antibiotics, that’s why! Antibiotics were super effective at phirst, but we ended up overusing them (as people tend to). This is a problem because bacteria are notoriously good at overcoming hardship (for example, by evolving antibiotic resistance). Thankfully, scientists refused to go down without a phight and phigured out how to use phages and antibiotics together. Smart phage therapy essentially involves pulling an Uno reverse and presenting bacteria with a trade-off: if they redirect their evolution towards phending off phage attacks, they become susceptible to antibiotics once again (talk about a bait and switch).

So what’s the latest?

As with any treatment, phage therapy still needs to go through clinical research. These phriends from Australia just carried out the phirst ever preclinical animal trial using phage-antibiotic combination therapy. In the study, the researchers phished out antibiotic-compatible phages from sewage water (ew) to see if they could use them to squash bacterial infections.

What did they find?

The TL;DR is that when bacteria-infected mice were treated with either antibiotics, phages, or a combination of the two, the one-two punch combo proved to be the most effective. Great news because as of now, phage therapy is used for humans only in extreme situations (like in the case of this patient who underwent emergency treatment in 2016). As we gather more evidence of its efficacy and safety, phage therapy might eventually become more common.

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The Leak: Thanks to our overuse of antibiotics (ugh), we need new therapeutics to phight bacterial infections. One approach is to recruit the enemy of our enemy: viruses that kill bacteria. By creating a strike phorce of special phages and antibiotics, we might just have a shot at winning the great bacteria war.


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Feel like these past couple of years have really aged you?

Can’t say we’re surprised, considering how disastrous things have been lately. Scientists have long known that enduring hardship can accelerate one’s aging at a genetic level. But does this principle also apply to natural disasters like hurricanes? A recent paper suggests that indeed, adverse weather events can speed up the rate at which your body ages.

How do you measure the effects of a hurricane?

A group of scientists turned to the wild macaque monkeys on the island of Cayo Santiago, off the coast of Puerto Rico. These monkeys had been happily living their best, tropical lives until 2017, when they were hit by the devastating Hurricane Maria. The scientists were able to collect blood samples from the monkeys who survived the hurricane, and compare them to blood samples collected from monkeys on the island in the years prior.

What did they find?

Following the hurricane, the monkeys showed increased expression of genes associated with stress, inflammation, and aging. In other words, having experienced this natural disaster appears to have accelerated their aging at a molecular level. Based on the typical profile of macaque aging, the scientists estimated that the hurricane had accelerated their gene expression patterns by about 2 years (which is around 7-8 human years!).

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The Leak: According to a new paper, weather-related natural disasters can make your body get older on an accelerated timeline. Good thing the world’s climate isn’t getting increasingly volatile and unpredictable or anything.


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Keep accidentally killing your houseplants?

At least you don’t have to figure out how to grow them in outer space. Scientists have started to crack that puzzle by growing the very first plants in lunar soil.

Hold up. Is there a farm on the moon?

Not yet. But we do have lunar soil samples here on earth that were collected on the various Apollo missions. A group of researchers planted seeds in this moon dirt to see what would happen.

And?

The good news is that the plants did in fact grow in this extraterrestrial soil. The less good news is that their roots and leaves were somewhat stunted, and their genes showed clear signs of stress (aka the plants survived, but didn’t exactly thrive).

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The Leak: If we ever want to support human life on other planets, we’ve gotta figure out how to grow food in space. As of now, it looks like we might be able to grow some earthly plants, but it’s probably gonna be a while before you get any organic bok choy in the space cafeteria.


As if balancing every bit of pregnancy advice isn't hard enough already.

A new study shows that unborn fetuses rely on their mothers’ circadian rhythms (aka body clocks) to dictate their own biological activities (like gene expression). So if you’re expecting, you now have a scientifically approved reason to stop working and go straight to bed at 10 pm.


The next time you feel a bug crawling across your skin...

Double check to make sure it’s not a tiny robot.


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