Why you should love your stomach bugs

How we should feel about bacteria is confusing, Dettol tells me it kills 99.9% of bacteria (fact.*) but Yakult tells me I should drink the little fellows to feel good. What exactly am I supposed to think? Very few of the types of bacteria on this planet** are particularly interested in harming us, most of the ones we interact with just want a nice warm place to stay. As a result, our species has grown and evolved with these beasties, and the impact of this is incredible. Scientists now think that the right balance of these critters is crucial for both our bodies and our minds to work properly. In one recent study in Houston, Dr Shelly Buffington and her colleagues fed pregnant mice a high fat diet, reducing the variety of bacteria found in the gut*** of their offspring. Interestingly, this new generation with altered gut bacteria displayed differences in brain activity and showed signs of antisocial behaviour. Even more amazingly, these ill effects could be corrected by introducing bacteria normally found in healthy guts. This shows that diet can affect the balance of bacteria in the gut, which in turn is important for mental wellbeing and physical health.

Whilst we know that the microorganisms in the gut are important for health generally, we know very little about what the ‘best’ set of bacteria really is, so don’t go panic buying probiotic yoghurts just yet. But perhaps think twice before taking antibiotics when you don’t need to, as the effect of killing your natural gut dwellers may be worse than you think.

*Disclaimer: I’ve no idea if this actually is a fact… but it is a very effective advertising campaign

**there are quite a lot, about five million trillion trillion to be precise

***the bacterial community in the gut is also known as the “gut microbiome”

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You did what to my genome!?

The scientist’s constant craving for tinkering often receives bad press, drawing images of mad scientists and Frankensteins. Rest assured, we are using our powers for good, not evil. Recent technological developments have allowed scientists to edit genes with previously unthinkable precision. These techniques, known collectively as genome editing, could usher in a new era in medicine, allowing very specific, personalised treatment of disease. However, the scientific community is understandably cautious; the technology must be extensively tested before it can be used extensively in medicine. We are taking one step closer next month over in China. Oncologist Lu You and his team are about to begin the first ever clinical trial using this technology in humans, just weeks after a similar trial was approved in America.  The plan is simple, to edit the immune cells of cancer patients to destroy the cancer cells. In this trial, scientists will take a particular type of immune cell, the T-cell††, from lung cancer patients. These T-cells will be genetically altered in a lab to stimulate them to attack cancer cells, before being returned to the patient to hunt down and destroy cancer cells†††. These initial trials will be to assess the safety of treatment and to ensure the editing doesn’t overstimulate the T-cells, as overactive T-cells may go rogue and begin attacking other healthy cell types. Fingers crossed the trial works out, it could open a door to a vast amount of new treatments for all sorts of diseases.

with great power comes great responsibility

†† this type of cell normally spends its days defending the body by destroying foreign particles like bacteria found in the body
††† like a tiny, anti-cancer SWOT team

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Patching up the Ozone

Rattling around in the back of our heads is the knowledge that there is a pretty big hole in the ozone somewhere, and that this is quite bad and probably our fault. This is true, the use of a variety of unpleasant chemicals‡‡ triggered a somewhat undesirable chemical reaction in the ozone. This thinned this atmospheric layer that shields us from some of the suns most harmful UV rays. But fear not, recent reports indicate that the hole in the ozone is beginning to heal, thanks to the worldwide purge of these nasty chemicals. Don’t crack out the champers just yet, these little nasties take such long time to break down that they are still lingering around in the atmosphere, because of this scientists predict that the hole won’t heal until 2050 at the absolute earliest. Do give yourselves a pat on the back though, this is a great example of how a mistake that damaged the earth can be reversed if we put our minds to it. Hopefully this success will encourage policy makers to take on more environmental challenges and tackle climate change in a more gung-ho manner.

Well done heads

‡‡ like CFCs found in fridges and aerosols (It was acceptable in the 80s… but restrictions begun in 1989 after researchers realised what these chemicals were up to)

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Written and drawn by: Emily Baldwin