Extreme old age linked to new gene variants

The relatively small number of people older than 100—just one per 5,000 population in developed nations—makes the search for the genetic determinants of extreme longevity challenging.

A new study identifies rare variants in chromosomes 4 and 7 that are associated with extreme survival and with reduced risks for cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s diseases.

The results highlight the importance of studying “truly rare survival, to discover combinations of common and rare variants associated with extreme longevity and longer health span,” researchers write in the Journals of Gerontology: Biological Sciences.

The research group, led by Paola Sebastiani, professor of biostatistics at Boston University School of Public Health, put together four studies—the New England Centenarian Study, the Long Life Family Study, the Southern Italian Centenarian Study, and the Longevity Genes Project—to build a large sample of 2,070 people who survived to the oldest one percentile of survival for the 1900 birth year cohort.

Researchers conducted various analyses to discover longevity-associated variants (LAVs), and to characterize those LAVs that differentiated survival to extreme age.

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Their analysis identified new “extreme longevity-promoting variants” on chromosomes 4 and 7, while also confirming variants (SNPs, or single nucleotide polymorphisms) previously associated with longevity.

In addition, in two of the datasets where researchers had age-of-onset data for age-related diseases, they found that certain longevity alleles also were significantly associated with reduced risks for cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

“The data and survival analysis provide support for the hypothesis that the genetic makeup of extreme longevity is based on a combination of common and rare variants, with common variants that create the background to survive to relatively common old ages (e.g., into the 80s and 90s), and specific combinations of uncommon and rare variants that add an additional survival advantage to even older ages,” the authors write.

However, while the “yield of discovery” in the study was more substantial than in prior genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of extreme longevity, it remained disappointing, in that the two most significant genotypes discovered “are carried by a very small proportion of the cases included in the analysis,” meaning that much of the genetic variability around extreme lifespan remains unexplained.

“We expect that many more uncommon genetic variants remain to be discovered through sequencing of centenarian samples,” they write. “Larger sample sizes are needed to detect association of rare variants…and therefore promising associations that miss the threshold for genome-wide significance are important to discuss.”

The National Institute on Aging, the National Heart Lung Blood Institute, and the William Wood Foundation funded the work.

Source: Boston University

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Photo: Chill frog in the forest with flowers

Our photo of the day comes from the lush rain forest of Ecuador.

‘Space pups’ on Earth bred from mouse sperm stored on the ISS

SPACE TRAVELLERS: Freeze-dried sperm that was stored in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for nine months has been used to produce healthy mice pups on Earth.

MIT creates bacteria-powered clothing straight out of science fiction

The exercise gear of the future could be covered in living microbial cells capable of expanding and shrinking in response to changes in humidity, thus allowing an athlete’s body to cool down after sensing increases in body heat and sweat, according to a team of researchers at MIT.

In fact, Dr. Wen Wang, a former research scientist at the institute’s Media Lab and Department of Chemical Engineering, and her colleagues designed both a breathable workout suit with flaps that open and close for ventilation and running shoes with a similar breathable quality.

As they reported last week in the journal Science Advances, the moisture-sensitive cells present no danger to the individuals wearing the suit, and act as miniature sensors and actuators, causing built-in flaps to open during intense workouts and close once the body begins to cool down.

These “biohybrid wearables,” they explained in their study, demonstrate that “the hygroscopic and biofluorescent behaviors of living cells” could be combined with “a humidity-inert material” to create “a heterogeneous multilayered structure” that could quickly change shape in response to human sweat. In short, it will automatically provide ventilation when you get too hot.

In a statement, co-author Xuanhe Zhao, an associate professor in mechanical engineering at MIT, called the breakthrough “an example of harnessing the power of biology to design new materials and devices and achieve new functions,” adding that the team believes that such work “will find important applications at the interface between engineering and biological systems.”

Material experience no degradation, even after 100 moisture tests

Dr. Wang and her colleagues drew inspiration for their new biohybrid workout gear by observing how some kinds of living things are capable of altering their structures in response to changes in humidity. They hypothesized that they could harness the ability of yeast, bacteria and other kinds of natural shape-shifters to develop fabrics that could automatically respond to moisture.

First, they took cells belonging to the most common nonpathogenic strain of E. coli – cells which were found to expand or shrink in response to changing humidity. Next, they modified those cells to glow in humid conditions by expressing the green fluorescent protein, then used a technique to print parallel lines of the bacteria onto sheets of latex to create two-layered structures.

The researchers then tested the fabric by exposing it to various conditions. When placed on a hot plate, where it dried out, the bacteria cells began to shrink and the overlying latex layer started to curl up. However, then it was exposed to steam and became more moist, the cells started glowing and expanding, which caused the latex material to flatten out. The material passed 100 such tests with “no dramatic degradation” in overall performance, according to the study authors.

The flaps used in the suit were specially designed to prevent the bacteria cells from coming into contact with the skin, and placed in specific locations based on maps of where the body tends to produce the most heat and sweat, they explained. The researchers also went on to integrate their biohybrid material into the bottom of a prototype running shoe, and hope to eventually work with sportswear makers to bring their designs to the commercial market.


Image credit: MIT

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‘Puffy planet’ has the same density as Styrofoam

Astronomers have discovered a new planet orbiting a star 320 light years from Earth with the same density as Styrofoam. The “puffy planet” may provide opportunities for testing atmospheres that will be useful when assessing future planets beyond our solar system for signs of life.

“It is highly inflated, so that while it’s only one fifth the mass of Jupiter, it is nearly 40 percent larger, making it about as dense as Styrofoam, with an extraordinarily large atmosphere,” says Joshua Pepper, assistant professor of physics at Lehigh University and leader of the study in the Astronomical Journal.

Astronomers have only found two other exoplanets with precisely measured masses and radii that have lower densities than the newly discovered planet, designated KELT-11b.

Artist conception of KELT-11B (Credit: Walter Robinson/Lehigh)

The planet’s host star is extremely bright, allowing precise measurement of the properties of the planet’s atmosphere making it “an excellent test-bed for measuring the atmospheres of other planets,” Pepper says. Such observations help astronomers develop tools to see the types of gases in atmospheres, which will be necessary in the next 10 years when they apply similar techniques to Earth-like exoplanets with next-generation telescopes that are now under construction.

Hunt for life on exoplanets gets new tools

KELT-11b is an extreme version of a gas planet, like Jupiter or Saturn, but is orbiting very close to its host star with an orbital period less than five days. Its host star, KELT-11, has started using up its nuclear fuel and is evolving into a red giant, so the planet will be engulfed by its star in the next hundred million years and won’t survive.

The unusual exoplanet was discovered by the KELT (Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope) survey, which uses two small robotic telescopes, one in Arizona and the other in South Africa. The low-cost telescopes scan the sky night after night, measuring the brightness of about five million stars. Researchers search for stars that seem to dim slightly at regular intervals, which can indicate a planet is orbiting that star and eclipsing it.

They then use other telescopes to measure the gravitational “wobble” of the star–the slight tug a planet exerts on the star as it orbits—to verify that the dimming is due to a planet and to measure the planet’s mass.

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“When we initiated the KELT project, it was with the hope that we would find exoplanets like KELT-11b, whose atmospheres are puffy and whose host stars are very bright,” says Keivan Stassun, professor of physics at Vanderbilt University.

“Just the right combination to permit lots of starlight to percolate through a thin atmosphere, eventually telling us what these other-worldly atmospheres are made of and even what their weather patterns are like.”

The KELT telescopes are specifically designed to discover scientifically valuable planets orbiting very bright stars. KELT-11 is the brightest star in the southern hemisphere known to host a transiting planet and the sixth brightest transit host discovered to date.

Scott Gaudi, associate professor of astronomy at Ohio State University, is a coauthor of the study. The National Science Foundation and NASA funded the work, along with support from a number of participating universities and foundations.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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