This Week in Science – October 7, 2016

By Justine Jiang

Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to Japanese Scientist on Autophagy

Molecular biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi is the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine. Ohsumi was awarded for his work in identifying the mechanism behind an essential cell process called autophagy, or “self-eating.” The research was published in the 1990s, and ultimately transformed our understanding of basic cellular processes.

Using baker’s yeast, Ohsumi pinpointed genes that controlled how cells disposed of its debris. Similar mechanisms were also seen in other functions of the cell, particularly during starvation, when cells were found to consume their own proteins for fuel. Now, autophagy is known as the fundamental process of all living cells - Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other disorders all originate from a disruption in the process.

Hitoshi Nakatogawa, a biologist who has worked with Ohsumi for a decade, told Nature, “Ohsumi never overlooks anything even in the most banal kind of experiment. He doesn't care about whether it will lead to something useful, whether a breakthrough can be expected, whether it will lead to more funding. He just follows his curiosity.”

Scoring System Proposed for Antibody Quality Control

Antibodies are notoriously hard to make and purify for research and therapeutic use - according to articles published earlier this year, they’re the main culprit for irreproducibility of experiments in the scientific community. This week, biomedical experts proposed a scoring system to ensure their quality and reliability, reported Nature.

This scoring system was proposed during a workshop hosted by the Global Biological Standards Institute. Because of their ability to bind to specific molecules, antibodies show great promise for tracking and measuring expression levels, and their production and use has skyrocketed. But due to the industry’s exponential growth, it has become impossible to differentiate origins and makeup of antibodies on the market. Additional studies were done to test the accuracy of antibodies, with alarming results showing a high probability of binding to non-target molecules, resulting in deceptive data and millions of grant dollars lost.

Researchers hope that implementing a scoring system will give the assurance they need for their experiments, but definitions for rankings still need to be created and standardized.

Bigger Brain Means Longer Yawns

Researchers at the State University of New York have found a correlation between the length of a yawn and neuron density in a subject’s brain. In the paper published in Biology Letters, 109 individuals were selected from 19 different species, and through the duration of their yawns, scientists could predict the weight of a species’ brain and the density of their cortical neurons.

Yawning acts as a thermoregulatory mechanism - the act of jaw stretching and inhalation of air allows greater blood flow into the brain. Andrew Gallup told Stat, “Longer and/or [more] powerful yawns should provide greater physiological effects,” and the study was based on this premise. The study also found some unexpected results: camels came in second behind humans in terms of yawn length, followed by dogs.

Gallup plans to conduct more research in the future, furthering our understanding on yawning.