Nasal Spray Blocks Covid-19 and Other Viruses

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have created a new COVID-19 therapeutic that could one day make treating SARS-CoV-2 infections as easy as using a nasal spray for allergies. The therapeutic uses short snippets of synthetic DNA to gum up the genetic machinery that allows SARS-CoV-2 to replicate within the body.

In a new study published online in the journal Nature Communications, the team shows that these short snippets, called antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs), are highly effective at preventing the virus from replicating in human cells. When administered in the nose, these ASOs are also effective at preventing and treating COVID-19 infection in mice and hamsters.

Vaccines are making a huge difference, but vaccines are not universal, and there is still a tremendous need for other approaches,” said Anders Näär, a professor of metabolic biology in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology (NST) at UC Berkeley and senior author of the paper. “A nasal spray that is cheaply available everywhere and that could prevent someone from getting infected or prevent serious disease could be immensely helpful.”

Because the ASO treatment targets a portion of the viral genome that is highly conserved among different variants, it is effective against all SARS-CoV-2variants of concern” in human cells and in animal models. It is also chemically stable and relatively inexpensive to produce at large scale, making it ideal for treating COVID-19 infections in areas of the world that do not have access to electricity or refrigeration.

If the treatment proves to be safe and effective in humans, the ASO technology could be readily modified to target other RNA viruses. The research team is already searching for a way to use this to disrupt influenza viruses, which also have pandemic potential.

If we can design ASOs that target entire viral families, then when a new pandemic emerges, as long as we know which family the virus belongs to, we could use the nasally delivered ASOs to suppress the pandemic in its early stages,” said study first author Chi Zhu, a postdoctoral scholar in NST at UC Berkeley. “That’s the beauty of this new therapeutic.”

Source: https://news.berkeley.edu/

How to Track the Brain as it Generates an Antonym

A study using epilepsy patients undergoing surgery has given neuroscientists an opportunity to track in unprecedented detail the movement of a thought through the human brain, all the way from inspiration to response. The findings, published in 2018, confirmed the role of the prefrontal cortex as the coordinator of complex interactions between different regions, linking our perception with action and serving as what can be considered the “glue of cognition“.

Previous efforts to measure the passing of information from one area to the other have relied on processes such as electroencephalography (EEG) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which, while non-invasive, offer less than perfect resolution. The study led by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, recorded the electrical activity of neurons using a precise technique called electrocorticograhy (ECoG). This required hundreds of tiny electrodes to be placed right up against the cortex, providing more spatial detail than EEG and improving the resolution in time of fMRI. While this poses an unethical level of risk for your average volunteer, patients undergoing surgery for epilepsy have their brain activity monitored in this very way, giving the researchers a perfect chance to conduct a few tests.

Each of the 16 test subjects performed a number of tasks varied to suit their individual arrangement of electrodes, all while having their neural activity monitored and tracked. Participants were required to listen to a stimulus and respond, or watch images of faces or animals on a screen and asked to perform an action. Some tasks were more complex than others; for example, a simple action involved simply repeating a word, while a more complex version was to think of its antonym.

Researchers monitored the split-second movement of electrical activity from one area – such as areas associated with interpreting auditory stimuli – to the prefrontal cortex, to areas required to shape an action, such as the motor cortex.

Tracking the Brain as it Generates an Antonym. Click on the image to enjoy the video.

While none of this threw up any surprises, the results clearly emphasized the role of the prefrontal cortex in directing activity.

For some tasks its input was fairly limited. In others the area was required to work hard, managing signals from multiple parts of the brain to coordinate the recognition of words, possibly dredging up memories before setting to work a bunch of muscles to provide a novel answer. “These very selective studies have found that the frontal cortex is the orchestrator, linking things together for a final output,” neuroscientist Robert Knight from UC Berkeley said at the time. “It’s the glue of cognition.”

The prefrontal cortex was seen to remain active throughout most of the thought process, as would be expected for a multitasking region of the brain. The quicker the handoff from one area to the other, the faster people responded to a stimulus. “fMRI studies often find that when a task gets progressively harder, we see more activity in the brain, and the prefrontal cortex in particular,” said the study’s lead author, neuroscientist Avgusta Shestyuk. “Here, we are able to see that this is not because the neurons are working really, really hard and firing all the time, but rather, more areas of the cortex are getting recruited.

What did come as something of a surprise were details on the precise timing of each area. Some of the responding areas lit up remarkably early, often during the stimulus, suggesting that even before we have a complete response handy, our brain is already getting those parts of the cortex ready for action. “This might explain why people sometimes say things before they think,” suggests Shestyuk.

This research was published in Nature Human Behaviour.

Source: https://www.sciencealert.com/

How to Produce Drinkable Water from Sea Water

University of California, Berkeley, chemists have discovered a way to simplify the removal of toxic metals, like mercury and boron, during desalination to produce clean water, while at the same time potentially capturing valuable metals, such as gold.

Desalination — the removal of salt — is only one step in the process of producing drinkable water, or water for agriculture or industry, from ocean or waste water. Either before or after the removal of salt, the water often has to be treated to remove boron, which is toxic to plants, and heavy metals like arsenic and mercury, which are toxic to humans. Often, the process leaves behind a toxic brine that can be difficult to dispose of.

The new technique, which can easily be added to current membrane-based electrodialysis desalination processes, removes nearly 100% of these toxic metals, producing a pure brine along with pure water and isolating the valuable metals for later use or disposal.

A flexible polymer membrane incorporating nanoparticles of PAF selectively absorbs nearly 100% of metals such mercury, copper or iron during desalination, more efficiently producing clean, safe water

Desalination or water treatment plants typically require a long series of high-cost, pre- and post-treatment systems that all the water has to go through, one by one,” said Adam Uliana, a UC Berkeley graduate student who is first author of a paper describing the technology. “But here, we have the ability to do several of these steps all in one, which is a more efficient process. Basically, you could implement it in existing setups.”

The UC Berkeley chemists synthesized flexible polymer membranes, like those currently used in membrane separation processes, but embedded nanoparticles that can be tuned to absorb specific metal ionsgold or uranium ions, for example. The membrane can incorporate a single type of tuned nanoparticle, if the metal is to be recovered, or several different types, each tuned to absorb a different metal or ionic compound, if multiple contaminants need to be removed in one step.

The polymer membrane laced with nanoparticles is very stable in water and at high heat, which is not true of many other types of absorbers, including most metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), when embedded in membranes.

Source: https://news.berkeley.edu/

Nobel Chemistry Prize Awarded For CRISPR ‘NanoScissors’

A humbling lesson of science is that, even when it comes to many of humanity’s most brilliant inventions, nature got there first. The 2020 selection for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to two scientists who share credit for identifying and developing a revolutionary method of genome editing — one that has allowed researchers to modify and investigate the genomes of microbial, plant and animal cells with an ease, precision and effectiveness that would have been unfathomable even a decade ago. Yet the technology that came out of their work, revolutionary as it is, springs from an innovation that first evolved in bacteria, probably more than a billion years ago, and went unnoticed until recently.

Emmanuelle Charpentier (right) and Jennifer Doudna (left) have been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of CRISPR/Cas9 genetic editing.

Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens Institute for Infection Biology and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley have been recognized for their work on CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing — a technique routinely called CRISPR for short and often referred to as “genetic scissors.” This award marks the first time that two women have been award a Nobel Prize for science.

In a seminal 2012 paper, Charpentier and Doudna showed that key components of the ancient immune system found in bacteria and archaea could be retooled to edit DNA, to essentially “rewrite the code of life,” as the Nobel committee put it this morning.

In the eight years since, the discovery has transformed the life sciences, making genome editing commonplace in laboratories around the world. It has enabled researchers to probe the functions of genes at will, pushing the field of molecular biology ahead by leaps and bounds; to innovate new methods of plant breeding; and to develop promising new gene therapies, some now in clinical trials, for conditions such as sickle cell disease.

The Nobel committee’s selection will undoubtedly be greeted as controversial because of well-publicized disputes about the intellectual property associated with CRISPR. Virginijus Šikšnys of Vilnius University in Lithuania independently developed the idea of using these genetic features of bacteria as a genome-editing tool at about the same time as Charpentier and Doudna, and he has sometimes been honored alongside them. Two other scientists, Feng Zhang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and George Church of Harvard University, are also often credited as early co-discoverers and developers of CRISPR technology, and their exclusion will fuel arguments. However, no one in the scientific community would dispute that Charpentier and Doudna’s work laid the foundation for CRISPR’s prolific and game-changing use today.

Source: https://www.quantamagazine.org/

Molecular ‘Switch’ Reverses Chronic Inflammation And Aging

Chronic inflammation, which results when old age, stress or environmental toxins keep the body’s immune system in overdrive, can contribute to a variety of devastating diseases, from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to diabetes and cancer.

Now, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have identified a molecularswitch” that controls the immune machinery responsible for chronic inflammation in the body. The finding, which appears online  in the journal Cell Metabolism, could lead to new ways to halt or even reverse many of these age-related conditions.

My lab is very interested in understanding the reversibility of aging,” said senior author Danica Chen, associate professor of metabolic biology, nutritional sciences and toxicology at UC Berkeley. “In the past, we showed that aged stem cells can be rejuvenated. Now, we are asking: to what extent can aging be reversed? And we are doing that by looking at physiological conditions, like inflammation and insulin resistance, that have been associated with aging-related degeneration and diseases.”

In the study, Chen and her team show that a bulky collection of immune proteins called the NLRP3 inflammasome — responsible for sensing potential threats to the body and launching an inflammation response — can be essentially switched off by removing a small bit of molecular matter in a process called deacetylation.

Overactivation of the NLRP3 inflammasome has been linked to a variety of chronic conditions, including multiple sclerosis, cancer, diabetes and dementia. Chen’s results suggest that drugs targeted toward deacetylating, or switching off, this NLRP3 inflammasome might help prevent or treat these conditions and possibly age-related degeneration in general.

This acetylation can serve as a switch,” Chen said. “So, when it is acetylated, this inflammasome is on. When it is deacetylated, the inflammasome is off.”

Source: https://news.berkeley.edu/

How To Trap CO2 Molecules

Scientists from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University have taken the first images of carbon dioxide molecules within a molecular cage ­­– part of a highly porous nanoparticle known as a MOF, or metal-organic framework, with great potential for separating and storing gases and liquids.

The images, made at the Stanford-SLAC Cryo-EM Facilities, show two configurations of the COmolecule in its cage, in what scientists call a guest-host relationship; reveal that the cage expands slightly as the CO2 enters; and zoom in on jagged edges where MOF particles may grow by adding more cages.

This is a groundbreaking achievement that is sure to bring unprecedented insights into how these highly porous structures carry out their exceptional functions, and it demonstrates the power of cryo-EM for solving a particularly difficult problem in MOF chemistry,” said Omar Yaghi, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a pioneer in this area of chemistry, who was not involved in the study.

The team, led by SLAC/Stanford professors Yi Cui and Wah Chiu, described the study  in the journal Matter.

Source: https://www6.slac.stanford.edu/

The Ionocraft, Insect-sized Drone That Flies Without Any Moving Parts

Developed by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, it’s not only described as the smallest flying robot ever made, but one which flies with zero moving parts: meaning no rotors, wings, or similar appendages. Instead, the insect-scale robot relies on atmospheric ion thrusters which allow it to move completely silently.

CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO ENJOY THE VIDEO

To understand how it works, imagine two asymmetric — [such as] a wire and a plate — electrodes,” said Daniel Drew, currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Mechanical Engineering department at Stanford University. “When a voltage is applied between the two, the electric field will be stronger in the vicinity of the wire as a function of its geometry. If this field is strong enough, an ambient electron can be pulled in with enough kinetic energy to initiate avalanche breakdown through impact ionization. There’s now a stable plasma, glowing purple in the dark, around the top wire. Generated ions will be ejected from this plasma, drifting in the electric field towards the bottom electrode. Along the way, they collide with neutral air molecules and impart momentum, producing a net thrust.”

Source: https://people.eecs.berkeley.edu/
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Brain Metals Drive Alzheimer’s Progression

Alzheimer’s disease could be better treated, thanks to a breakthrough discovery of the properties of the metals in the brain involved in the progression of the neurodegenerative condition, by an international research collaboration including the University of Warwick.

Iron is an essential element in the brain, so it is critical to understand how its management is affected in Alzheimer’s disease. The advanced X-ray techniques that we used in this study have delivered a step-change in the level of information that we can obtain about iron chemistry in the amyloid plaques. We are excited to have these new insights into how amyloid plaque formation influences iron chemistry in the human brain, as our findings coincide with efforts by others to treat Alzheimer’s disease with iron-modifying drugs,” commented Dr Joanna Collingwood, from Warwick’s School of Engineering, who was part of a research team which characterised iron species associated with the formation of amyloid protein plaques in the human brainabnormal clusters of proteins in the brain. The formation of these plaques is associated with toxicity which causes cell and tissue death, leading to mental deterioration in Alzheimer’s patients.

They found that in brains affected by Alzheimer’s, several chemically-reduced iron species including a proliferation of a magnetic iron oxide called magnetite – which is not commonly found in the human brainoccur in the amyloid protein plaques. The team had previously shown that these minerals can form when iron and the amyloid protein interact with each other. Thanks to advanced measurement capabilities at synchrotron X-ray facilities in the UK and USA, including the Diamond Light Source I08 beamline in Oxfordshire, the team has now shown detailed evidence that these processes took place in the brains of individuals who had Alzheimer’s disease. They also made unique observations about the forms of calcium minerals present in the amyloid plaques.

The team, led by an EPSRC-funded collaboration between University of Warwick and Keele University – and which includes researchers from University of Florida and The University of Texas at San Antonio – made their discovery by extracting amyloid plaque cores from two deceased patients who had a formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. The researchers scanned the plaque cores using state-of-the-art X-ray microscopy at the Advanced Light Source in Berkeley, USA and at beamline I08 at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron in Oxfordshire, to determine the chemical properties of the minerals within them.

Source: https://warwick.ac.uk/