This Way Up Part 1

Sighs matter, gene editing crops, driverless cars, Twitter woes, 'neurostatins', and how your microbiome could make you more malaria resistant.

Sigh science

NMB neurons from ventral side of the brainstem

NMB neurons from ventral side of the brainstem Photo: (Peng Li)

The average human sighs 12 times per hour; that's once every five minutes. And it's not just a sign of frustration, sadness or exasperation. The fact is that we need to sigh to make sure we're breathing properly, that's why the new generation of artificial respirators come with an added feature; an inbuilt sigh generator! Professor Jack Feldman of UCLA and his team have just identified the part of the brain that transforms a normal breath into a sigh, a discovery that could help to treat people with breathing disorders.

Gene editing crops

Robin McKie

Robin McKie Photo: Supplied

There's been a lot of coverage of gene editing over the past few weeks; from the UK scientist who's just got the green light to edit human embryos to understand why IVF success rates are so low, to editing the genes of mosquitoes in the hope of stopping the spread of the Zika virus. 

All over the world, governments, regulators and communities are weighing up the pros and cons of this emerging and relatively simple technology.

From a medical perspective the idea of editing out genes that cause genetic diseases is appealing, with 7.9 million children born each year with a serious birth defect of a genetic origin.  

Gene editing can also be used in agriculture; trials are underway to edit the genomes of crops for drought and disease resistance as well as creating strains of plants to create medicines and self-fertilising crops.

Meanwhile, here in New Zealand, the Environmental Protection Authority which is the government agency responsible for regulating genetically modified organisms, is currently reviewing the law in this area. Although no one has yet requested it to rule specifically on whether organisms created using gene editing technology would be considered GMOs, current case law suggests they would. 

Now European authorities are about to reach a decision on whether gene edited crops should be considered genetically modified organisms. Robin McKie is the Science Editor of The Observer and he's been following the case

Tech: driverless cars and Twitter woes

Google Self-driving car

Google Self-driving car Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin Photo: Supplied

Technology news with our tech correspondent Peter Griffin and there's trouble in Twitter-land. User numbers have stopped growing and it's now worth just a third of the US$32 billion valuation it had when it listed 2 years ago. 

Plus the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US says it regards the computer onboard driverless cars just like a human driver. So you won't need a human driver overseeing things behind the controls too. 

Science: neurostatins and malarial microbiome

Lactobacillus casei

Lactobacillus casei Photo:

Malaria symptoms ruled by microbiome

The severity of malaria symptoms could be determined by the bugs colonising your bowel.

Malaria affects more than 200 million people each year and kills up to one million of them, mostly children. But why some individuals are more severely affected by the disease than others is a mystery.

Now a study by University of Tennessee scientist Nicolas Villarino and his colleagues, writing in the journal PNAS, suggests that the bacteria living in your bowel (or your microbiome) might be the answer.

Using laboratory mice, the team found that bacteria strains 'bifidobacteria' and 'lactobacilli' occurred most frequently in mice that were the most malaria resistant.

Dr Chris Smith of The Naked Scientists told This Way Up's Simon Morton that in subsequent experiments, the researchers showed that mice could also 'inherit' resistance or susceptibility from another mouse's gut bacteria.

The researchers speculate that the intestinal microbes are either directly manipulating the mouse's immune system, or are suppressing the growth of other microbes that might make the animals malaria susceptible.

The findings mirror similar observations among children in Burkina Faso, leading the researchers to observe that this "suggests the possibility that probiotic modulation of the gut microbiota in mice to control severe malaria may work in humans."

This Way Up Part 2

Are there fewer moths about? How asthma inhalers work, and why microbes shaped human history.

Moths: are there less about?

Listener Jo is worried about moths and thinks she's seeing less of them around. So are there really fewer moths around these days? Robert Hoare of Landcare Research is a moth specialist and the author of 'A Photographic Guide to Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand'.

Moth specialist Robert Hoare at Nelson Lakes catching micromoths

Moth specialist Robert Hoare at Nelson Lakes catching micromoths Photo: Supplied

Plate from 'New Zealand Moths and Butterflies' by George Vernon Hudson (1898)

Plate from 'New Zealand Moths and Butterflies' by George Vernon Hudson (1898) Photo: Public Domain


Drugs: asthma inhalers and how they work

Asthma inhalers

Asthma inhalers Photo: (Pewari- CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

About one in six New Zealanders has asthma, while one in four New Zealand children has the respiratory disease that causes symptoms including coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

That gives us one of the highest asthma rates in the world. There's currently no cure for it so most sufferers try to avoid triggers like dust and pollen, and use steroid-based treatments.

But if you have an asthma attack, when the airways in the lungs become irritated and swollen, you'll probably need to puff on an asthma reliever or a bronchodilator.

John Ashton of the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology at the Otago School of Medical Sciences looks at how the popular asthma reliever Ventolin works.

How microbes have shaped the earth

For billions of years the microbes had the Earth, and all that was on it, pretty much to themselves.

Not that they did a lot with it that was very ostentatious or visible. They completely failed to develop private property rights, a legal system, retail shopping malls, or organised society as we know it.

One thing they did do, and did very well as they sat there in the primordial soup quietly evolving, was develop an ability to oxygenate the planet. A more oxygenated world ushered in the arrival of the first aerobic animals about 645 million years ago, and then us humans around 3 million years ago.

Paul Falkowski studies how the humble microbe has shaped human history in his book 'Life's Engines' (Princeton University Press).

Paul Falkowski

Paul Falkowski Photo: Supplied