A View from Emily Singer
Biomedical News in Brief
GM cows that produce human milk, meditating away pain, and the genes behind your love affair with caffeine.
Cows that Produce Human-like Milk
Scientists from China Agricultural University have genetically engineered cows to produce human-like milk. According to an article in the Telegraph,
The scientists behind the research believe milk from herds of genetically modified cows could provide an alternative to human breast milk and formula milk for babies, which is often criticised as being an inferior substitute.
China is now leading the way in research on genetically modified food and the rules on the technology are more relaxed than those in place in Europe.
The cows produced milk containing a human antimicrobial protein that helps protect newborns from bacterial infections as well as a protein known to boosts infants’ immune systems. The research was published in the Public Library of Science One.
Professor Ning Li, the scientist who led the research and director of the State Key Laboratories for AgroBiotechnology at the China Agricultural University, told the Telegraph that the GM milk tastes stronger than normal milk and that it would be as safe to drink as milk from ordinary dairy cows.
“We aim to commercialize some research in this area in coming three years,” he told the Telegraph. “For the ‘human-like milk’, 10 years or maybe more time will be required to finally pour this enhanced milk into the consumer’s cup.”
Mediation to Control Pain
Meditating can significantly reduce pain, possibly by reducing activity in part of the brain responsible for sensation, according to research published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience.
In the study, researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brain of 15 volunteers as a device heated a small area of their skin to a painful 120° Fahrenheit. The volunteers, who had never previously meditated, then took 20-minute meditation classes and were scanned again, this time meditating when experiencing the painful heat.
According to a release from the center,
Meditation significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is crucially involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is. The scans taken before meditation training showed activity in this area was very high. However, when participants were meditating during the scans, activity in this important pain-processing region could not be detected.
“This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
“We found a big effect - about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent.”
Genes for Caffeine Fiends
Researchers found that mutations in two different genes, one involved in the metabolism of caffeine and the other involved in regulating that gene, influence how much caffeine people drink. According to a press release from the National Institutes of Health, “Individuals with the highest-consumption genotype for either gene consumed ~40 mg more caffeine than those with the lowest-consumption genotype, equivalent to the amount of 1/3 cup of caffeinated coffee, or 1 can of cola.”
To identify the genes, researchers scanned the genomes of nearly 50,000 people who had participated in previous studies analyzing caffeine intake. While it’s not yet clear why mutations in these genes would lead to great caffeine intake, it’s possible that these people metabolize caffeine so quickly that they drink a lot of it to maintain their buzz.
According to an article on ScienceNow, twin studies have shown that genetics accounts for between 43% and 58% of the variability in coffee-drinking habits. However, these two variants are responsible for just a small fraction—less than 1%—of the variation in caffeine intake among the subjects, suggesting that rarer variants, which this study didn’t search for, are still out there.
When trying to tease out the genetics of behaviors such as overeating or alcoholism, researchers commonly ask whether the genes at play are ones that regulate how a substance is metabolized or ones that mediate the body’s response. With caffeine, there is now a clear answer: “It’s in the liver, not in your brain,” says [Neil Caporaso of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland].
That’s a marked difference from smoking, the only other consumption behavior that has been linked to certain genes, says Abraham Palmer, a pharmacogeneticist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who studies how genes regulate the effects of amphetamine. The genes linked with smoking were ones that regulated nicotine receptors in the brain. This study’s results are “really a contrast” and for that reason “very interesting,” he says.
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