Science Briefs: Cancer research, eating insects, and a new mystery of the universe

July 13, 2014 

A capuchin monkey dines on a bright green katydid grasshopper.


Gene mutations linked to a form of liver cancer

Two genetic mutations in liver cells may drive tumor formation in intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (iCCA), the second most common form of liver cancer, according to research published in the July issue of the journal Nature.

A team led by the Icahn School of Medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and Harvard Medical School has discovered a link between the presence of two mutant proteins, IDH1 and IDH2, and cancer. Studies had found IDH mutations to be among the most common genetic differences seen in patients with iCCA, but how they contribute to cancer development had been unknown.

iCCA strikes bile ducts, tube-like structures in the liver that carry bile, which is required for the digestion of food. With so much still unknown about the disease, there is no first-line standard of care and no successful therapies.

“iCCA is resistant to standard treatments like chemotherapy and radiation,” said Josep Llovet, director of the Liver Cancer Program at Icahn and an author of the report. “Understanding the molecular mechanism of the disease is the key to finding a treatment that works.”

Eating insects helped our ancestors’ brains grow

Figuring out how to survive on a lean-season diet of hard-to-reach ants, slugs and other bugs may have spurred the development of bigger brains and higher-level cognitive functions in the ancestors of humans and other primates, suggests research from Washington University in St. Louis.

“Challenges associated with finding food have long been recognized as important in shaping evolution of the brain and cognition in primates, including humans,” said anthropologist Amanda Melin, lead author of the study. “Our work suggests that digging for insects when food was scarce may have contributed to hominid cognitive evolution and set the stage for advanced tool use.”

Based on a five-year study of capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica, the research provides support for an evolutionary theory that links the development of skills – such as increased manual dexterity, tool use, and innovative problem solving – to the creative challenges of foraging for insects and other foods that are hard to procure.

The study, published last month in the Journal of Human Evolution, is the first to provide detailed evidence from the field on how seasonal changes in food supplies influence the foraging patterns of wild capuchins.

It notes that many human populations also eat embedded insects on a seasonal basis and suggests that this practice played a key role in human evolution.

Light is missing in cosmic accounting

Something is amiss in the universe: There appears to be an enormous deficit of ultraviolet light.

The vast reaches of empty space between galaxies are bridged by tendrils of hydrogen and helium, which can be used as a precise “light meter.” But a recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters finds that the light from known populations of galaxies and quasars is not nearly enough to explain observations of intergalactic hydrogen. The difference is a stunning 400 percent.

“It’s as if you’re in a big, brightly lit room, but you look around and see only a few 40-watt light bulbs,” noted Carnegie Institution for Science’s Juna Kollmeier, lead author of the study. “Where is all that light coming from? It’s missing from our census.”

Strangely, this mismatch only appears in the nearby, relatively well-studied cosmos. When telescopes focus on galaxies billions of light years away (and therefore are viewing the universe billions of years in its past), everything seems to add up. That this accounting works in the early universe but falls apart locally has scientists puzzled.

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