Snake SolutionS: Synthetic Studies

A few months ago, the medical charity Doctors Without Borders warned of a new threat to public health in the developing world: shortage of snake anti-venom. Strangely, anti-venom is still being produced according to a method that has remained unchanged for decades, an absolute aberration in the world of medical science. In fact, the currently used system involved breeding snakes in captivity and then milking them for their venom, which is subsequently used to produce antidote. Unfortunately, snakes only produce relatively small amounts of venom and are difficult to breed and milk, thus reducing in a slow and inefficient production process.

In response to these issues, researchers from Brazil have come up with a synthetic biology approach to stimulate the production of anti-venom antibodies. In fact, they have engineered small DNA fragments which lead to the production of effective anti-venom antibodies when injected into mice. Hopefully this approach will lead to more efficient and cost-effective ways to produce antivenom before the shortage turns into a terrifying global heath crisis!

How Monarch Butterflies Find Their Way Home

Monarch butterfly migration is both incredibly visually appealing and really interesting. Monarch butterflies are found throughout the United States and all the way up to Canada, but migrate down south to Central Mexico to breed and spend the colder months of the year.

Their journey lasts for over 2 months and so far it was unknown how these beautiful insects find their way back to a very specific location in Mexico. Scientists form the University of Washington have discovered that they do so following the position of the sun. Excitingly, this study combines complex mathematical modelling with neurobiology to understand how butterflies integrate their internal “clock” with the position of the sun they record with their antennae.

Monarch butterflies (c) Monarch Watch

Last but not Least; How We Get Paid Matters!

The economist Margaret Blume-Kohout has spent time studying graduate students in the biomedical field (we know, we’re fascinating) and how they get paid.In particular, the study was targeted towards understanding whether how grad students get paid impacts their job prospects. Interestingly, the study found that grad students who are funded as research assistants are more likely to become post-docs than students who are recipients of competitive fellowships or training schemes funded by the NIH (National Institute of Health).

This study was heavily targeted towards understanding the American system. However, it would be interesting to see if any parallels can be drawn with the UK system. For instance, it would be interesting to compare students involved in 4-year PhDs and students involved in 3+1 rotational programmes.

Written by: Gaia Cantelli