The FIRSTS: mRNA from one cell can travel to another cell and be translated there (2006)

I’m interrupting the series on cognitive biases (unskilled-and-unaware, superiority illusion, and depressive realism) to tell you that I admit it, I’m old. -Ish. Well, ok, I’m not that old. But this following paper made me feel that old. Because it invalidates some stuff I thought I knew about molecular cell biology. Mind totally blown.

It all started with a paper freshly published (two days ago) and that I’ll cover tomorrow. It’s about what the title says: mRNA can travel between cells packaged nicely in vesicles and once in a target cell can be made into protein there. I’ll explain – briefly! – why this is such a mind-blowing thing.

Central_dogma - Copy
Fig. 1. Illustration of the central dogma of biology: information transfer between DNA, RNA, and protein. Courtesy of Wikipedia, PD

We’ll start with the central dogma of molecular biology (specialists, please bear with me): the DNA is transcribed into RNA and the RNA is translated into protein (see Fig. 1). It is an oversimplification of the complexity of information flow in a biological system, but it’ll do for our purposes.

DNA needs to be transcribed into RNA because RNA is a much more flexible molecule and thus can do many things. So RNA is the traveling mule between DNA and the place where its information becomes protein, i.e. ribosome. Hence the name mRNA. Just kidding; m stands for messenger RNA (not that I will ever be able to call that ever again: muleRNA is stuck in my brain now).

There are many kinds of RNA: some don’t even get out of the nucleus, some are chopped and re-glued (alternative splicing), some decide which bits of DNA (genes) are to be expressed, some are busy housekeepers and so on. Once an RNA has finished its business it is degraded in many inventive ways. It cannot leave the cell because it cannot cross the cell membrane. And that was that. Or so I’ve been taught.

Exceptions from the above were viruses whose ways of going from cell to cell are very clever. A virus is a stretch of nucleic acids (DNA and/or RNA) and some proteins encapsulated in a blob (capsid). Not a cell!

In the ’90s several groups were looking at some blobs (yes, most stuff in biology can be defined by the all-encompassing and enlightening term of ‘blob’) that cells spew out every now and then. These were termed extracellular vesicles (EV) for obvious reasons. Turned out that many kinds of cells were doing it and on a much more regular basis than previously thought. The contents of these EVs varied quite a bit, based on the type of cells studied. Proteins, mostly, and maybe some cytoplasmic debris. In the ’80s it was thought that this was one way for a cell to get rid of trash. But in 1982, Stegmayr & Ronquist showed that prostate cells release some EVs that result in sperm cell motility increase (Raposo & Stoorvogel, 2013) so, clearly, the EVs were more than trash. Soon it became evident that EVs were another way of cell-to-cell communication. (Note to self: the first time intercellular communication by EVs was demonstrated was in 1982, Stegmayr & Ronquist. Maybe I’ll dig out the paper to cover it sometime).

So. In 2005, Baj-Krzyworzeka et al. (2006) looked at some human cancer cells to see what they spew out and for what purpose. They saw that the cancer cells were transferring some of the tumor proteins packaged in EVs to monocytes. For devious purposes, probably. And then they made to what it looks to me like a serious leap in reasoning: since the EVs contain tumor proteins, why wouldn’t they also contain the mRNA for those proteins? My first answer to that would have been: “because it would be rapidly degraded”. And I would have been wrong. To my credit, if the experiment wouldn’t take up too many resources I still would have done it, especially if I would have some random primers lying around the lab. Luckily for the world, I was not in charge with this particular experiment and Baj-Krzyworzeka et al. (2005) proceeded with a real-time PCR (polymerase chain reaction) which showed them that the EVs released by the tumor cells also contained mRNA.

Now the 1 million dollar, stare-in-your-face question was: is this mRNA functional? Meaning, once delivered to the host cell, would it be translated into protein?

Six months later the group answered it. Ratajcza et al. (2006) used embryonic stem cells as the donor cells and hematopoietic progenitor cells as host cells. First, they found out that if you let the donors spit EVs at the hosts, the hosts are faring much better (better survival, upregulated good genes, phosphorylated MAPK to induce proliferation etc.). Next, they looked at the contents of EVs and found out that they contained proteins and mRNA that promote those good things (Wnt-3 protein, mRNA for transcription factors etc.). Next, to make sure that the host cells don’t show this enrichment all of a sudden out of the goodness of their little pluripotent hearts but is instead due to the mRNA from the donor cells, the authors looked at the expression of one of the transcription factors (Oct-4) in the hosts. They used as host a cell line (SKL) that does not express the pluripotent marker Oct-4. So if the hosts express this protein, it must have come only from outside. Lo and behold, they did. This means that the mRNA carried by the EVs is functional (Fig. 2).

128-1 - Copy
Fig. 2. Cell-to-cell mRNA transfer via extracellular vesicles (EVs). DNA is translated into RNA. A portion of RNA is transcribed into protein and another portion remains untranscribed. Both resultant protein and mRNA can get packaged into a vesicle: either a repackage into a microvesicle (a budding off of the cell membrane that shuttles cargo to and forth, about the size of 100-300nm) or packaged in a newly formed exosome (<100 nm) inside a multivesicular endosome (the yellow circle). The cell releases these vesicles in the intercellular space. The vesicles dock onto the host cell’s membrane and empty their cargo.

What bugs me is that these papers came out in a period where I was doing some heavy reading. How did I miss this?! Probably because they were published in cancer journals, not my field. But this is big enough you’d think others would mention it. (If you’re a recurrent reader of my blog, by now you should be familiarized with my stream-of-consciousness writing and my admittedly sometimes annoying in-parenthesis-meta-cognitions :D). One cannot but wonder what other truly great discoveries are out there already that were missed. Frankly, I should probably be grateful to this blog – and my friend GT who made me do it – because without nosing outside my field in search of material for it I would have probably remained ignorant of this awesome discovery. So, even if this is a decade old discovery for you, for me is one day old and I am a bit giddy about it.

This is a big deal because in opens up not a new therapy, or a new therapy direction, or a new drug class, but a new DELIVERY METHOD, the Holy Grail of Pharmacopeia. You just put your drug in one of these vesicles and let nature take its course. Of course, there are all sorts of roadblocks to overcome, like specificity, toxicity, etc. Looks like some are already conquered as there are several clinical trials out there that take advantage of this mechanism and I bet there will be more.

Stop by tomorrow for a freshly published paper on this mechanism in neurons.

127 - Copy


1) Baj-Krzyworzeka M, Szatanek R, Weglarczyk K, Baran J, Urbanowicz B, Brański P, Ratajczak MZ, & Zembala M. (Jul. 2006, Epub 9 Nov 2005). Tumour-derived microvesicles carry several surface determinants and mRNA of tumour cells and transfer some of these determinants to monocytes. Cancer Immunology, Immunotherapy, 55(7):808-818. PMID: 16283305, DOI: 10.1007/s00262-005-0075-9. ARTICLE

2) Ratajczak J, Miekus K, Kucia M, Zhang J, Reca R, Dvorak P, & Ratajczak MZ (May 2006). Embryonic stem cell-derived microvesicles reprogram hematopoietic progenitors: evidence for horizontal transfer of mRNA and protein delivery. Leukemia, 20(5):847-856. PMID: 16453000, DOI: 10.1038/sj.leu.2404132. ARTICLE | FULLTEXT PDF 


Raposo G & Stoorvogel W. (18 Feb. 2013). Extracellular vesicles: exosomes, microvesicles, and friends. The Journal of Cell Biology, 200(4):373-383. PMID: 23420871, PMCID: PMC3575529, DOI: 10.1083/jcb.201211138. ARTICLE | FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 13 January 2018


The FIRSTS: the Dunning–Kruger effect (1999) or the unskilled-and-unaware phenomenon

Much talked about these days in the media, the unskilled-and-unaware phenomenon was mused upon since, as they say, immemorial times, but not actually seriously investigated until the ’80s. The phenomenon refers to the observation that incompetents overestimate their competence whereas the competent tend to underestimate their skill (see Bertrand Russell’s brilliant summary of it).


Although the phenomenon has gained popularity under the name of the “Dunning–Kruger effect”, it is my understanding that whereas the phenomenon refers to the above-mentioned observation, the effect refers to the the cause of the phenomenon, namely that the exact same skills required to make one proficient in a domain are the same skills that allow one to judge proficiency. In the words of Kruger & Dunning (1999),

“those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it” (p. 1132).

Today’s paper on the Dunning–Kruger effect is the third in the cognitive biases series (the first was on depressive realism and the second on the superiority illusion).

Kruger & Dunning (1999) took a look at incompetence with the eyes of well-trained psychologists. As usual, let’s start by defining the terms so we are on the same page. The authors tell us, albeit in a footnote on p. 1122, that:

1) incompetence is a “matter of degree and not one of absolutes. There is no categorical bright line that separates ‘competent’ individuals from ‘incompetent’ ones. Thus, when we speak of ‘incompetent’ individuals we mean people who are less competent than their peers”.

and 2) The study is on domain-specific incompetents. “We make no claim that they would be incompetent in any other domains, although many a colleague has pulled us aside to tell us a tale of a person they know who is ‘domain-general’ incompetent. Those people may exist, but they are not the focus of this research”.

That being clarified, the authors chose 3 domains where they believe “knowledge, wisdom, or savvy was crucial: humor, logical reasoning, and English grammar” (p.1122). I know that you, just like me, can hardly wait to see how they assessed humor. Hold your horses, we’ll get there.

The subjects were psychology students, the ubiquitous guinea pigs of most psychology studies since the discipline started to be taught in the universities. Some people in the field even declaim with more or less pathos that most psychological findings do not necessarily apply to the general population; instead, they are restricted to the self-selected group of undergrad psych majors. Just as the biologists know far more about the mouse genome and its maladies than about humans’, so do the psychologists know more about the inner workings of the psychology undergrad’s mind than, say, the average stay-at-home mom. But I digress, as usual.

The humor was assessed thusly: students were asked to rate on a scale from 1 to 11 the funniness of 30 jokes. Said jokes were previously rated by 8 professional comedians and that provided the reference scale. “Afterward, participants compared their ‘ability to recognize what’s funny’ with that of the average Cornell student by providing a percentile ranking. In this and in all subsequent studies, we explained that percentile rankings could range from 0 (I’m at the very bottom) to 50 (I’m exactly average) to 99 (I’m at the very top)” (p. 1123). Since the social ability to identify humor may be less rigorously amenable to quantification (despite comedians’ input, which did not achieve a high interrater reliability anyway) the authors chose a task that requires more intellectual muscles. Like logical reasoning, whose test consisted of 20 logical problems taken from a Law School Admission Test. Afterward the students estimated their general logical ability compared to their classmates and their test performance. Finally, another batch of students answered 20 grammar questions taken from the National Teacher Examination preparation guide.

In all three tasks,

  • Everybody thought they were above average, showing the superiority illusion.
  • But the people in the bottom quartile (the lowest 25%) dubbed incompetents (or unskilled), overestimated their abilities the most, by approx. 50%. They were also unaware that, in fact, they scored the lowest.
  • In contrast, people in the top quartile underestimated their competence, but not by the same degree as the bottom quartile, by about 10%-15% (see Fig. 1).

126 Dunning–Kruger effect1 - Copy

I wish the paper showed scatter-plots with a fitted regression line instead of the quartile graphs without error bars. So I can judge the data for myself. I mean everybody thought they are above average? Not a single one out of more than three hundred students thought s/he is kindda… meah? The authors did not find any gender differences in any experiments.

Next, the authors tested the hypothesis about the unskilled that “the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else’s” (p. 1126). And they did that by having both the competents and the incompetents see the answers that their peers gave at the tests. Indeed, the incompetents not only failed to recognize competence, but they continued to believe they performed very well in the face of contrary evidence. In contrast, the competents adjusted their ratings after seeing their peer’s performance, so they did not underestimate themselves anymore. In other words, the competents learned from seeing other’s mistakes, but the incompetents did not.

Based on this data, Kruger & Dunning (1999) argue that the incompetents are so because they lack the skills to recognize competence and error in them or others (jargon: lack of metacognitive skills). Whereas the competents overestimate themselves because they assume everybody does as well as they did, but when shown the evidence that other people performed poorly, they become accurate in their self-evaluations (jargon: the false consensus effect, a.k.a the social-projection error).

So, the obvious implication is: if incompetents learn to recognize competence, does that also translate into them becoming more competent? The last experiment in the paper attempted to answer just that. The authors got 70 students to complete a short (10 min) logical reasoning improving session and 70 students did something unrelated for 10 min. The data showed that the trained students not only improved their self-assessments (still showing superiority illusion though), but they also improved their performance. Yeays all around, all is not lost, there is hope left in the world!

This is an extremely easy read. I totally recommend it to non-specialists. Compare Kruger & Dunning (1999) with Pennycook et al. (2017): they both talk about the same subject and they both are redoubtable personages in their fields. But while the former is a pleasant leisurely read, the latter lacks mundane operationalizations and requires serious familiarization with the literature and its jargon.

Since Kruger & Dunning (1999) is under the paywall of the infamous APA website (infamous because they don’t even let you see the abstract and even with institutional access is difficult to extract the papers out of them, as if they own the darn things!), write to me at specifying that you need it for educational purposes and promise not to distribute it for financial gain, and thou shalt have its .pdf. As always. Do not, under any circumstance, use a sci-hub server to obtain this paper illegally! Actually, follow me on Twitter @Neuronicus to find out exactly which servers to avoid.

REFERENCE: Kruger J, & Dunning D. (Dec. 1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6):1121-1134. PMID: 10626367. ARTICLE

P.S. I personally liked this example from the paper for illustrating what lack of metacognitive skills means:

“The skills that enable one to construct a grammatical sentence are the same skills necessary to recognize a grammatical sentence, and thus are the same skills necessary to determine if a grammatical mistake has been made. In short, the same knowledge that underlies the ability to produce correct judgment is also the knowledge that underlies the ability to recognize correct judgment. To lack the former is to be deficient in the latter” (p. 1121-1122).

By Neuronicus, 10 January 2018

The FIRSTS: The roots of depressive realism (1979)

There is a rumor stating that depressed people see the world more realistically and the rest of us are – to put it bluntly – deluded optimists. A friend of mine asked me if this is true. It took me a while to find the origins of this claim, but after I found it and figured out that the literature has a term for the phenomenon (‘depressive realism’), I realized that there is a whole plethora of studies on the subject. So the next following posts will be centered, more or less, on the idea of self-deception.

It was 1979 when Alloy & Abramson published a paper who’s title contained the phrase ‘Sadder but Wiser’, even if it was followed by a question mark. The experiments they conducted are simple, but the theoretical implications are large.

The authors divided several dozens of male and female undergraduate students into a depressed group and a non-depressed group based on their Beck Depression Inventory scores (a widely used and validated questionnaire for self-assessing depression). Each subject “made one of two possible responses (pressing a button or not pressing a button) and received one of two possible outcomes (a green light or no green light)” (p. 447). Various conditions presented the subjects with various degrees of control over what the button does, from 0 to 100%. After the experiments, the subjects were asked to estimate their control over the green light, how many times the light came on regardless of their behavior, what’s the percentage of trials on which the green light came on when they pressed or didn’t press the button, respectively, and how did they feel. In some experiments, the subjects were wining or losing money when the green light came on.

Verbatim, the findings were that:

“Depressed students’ judgments of contingency were surprisingly accurate in all four experiments. Nondepressed students, on the other hand, overestimated the degree of contingency between their responses and outcomes when noncontingent outcomes were frequent and/or desired and underestimated the degree of contingency when contingent outcomes were undesired” (p. 441).

In plain English, it means that if you are not depressed, when you have some control and bad things are happening, you believe you have no control. And when you have no control but good things are happening, then you believe you have control. If you are depressed, it does not matter, you judge your level of control accurately, regardless of the valence of the outcome.

Such illusion of control is a defensive mechanism that surely must have adaptive value by, for example, allowing the non-depressed to bypass a sense of guilt when things don’t work out and increase self-esteem when they do. This is fascinating, particularly since it is corroborated by findings that people receiving gambling wins or life successes like landing a good job, rewards that at least in one case are demonstrably attributable to chance, believe, nonetheless, that it is due to some personal attributes that make them special, that makes them deserving of such rewards. (I don’t remember the reference of this one so don’t quote me on it. If I find it, I’ll post it, it’s something about self-entitlement, I think). That is not to say that life successes are not largely attributable to the individual; they are. But, statistically speaking, there must be some that are due to chance alone, and yet most people feel like they are the direct agents for changes in luck.

Another interesting point is that Alloy & Abramson also tried to figure out how exactly their subjects reasoned when they asserted their level of control through some clever post-experiment questioners. Long story short (the paper is 45 pages long), the illusion of control shown by nondepressed subjects in the no control condition was the result of incorrect logic, that is, faulty reasoning.

In summary, the distilled down version of depressive realism that non-depressed people see the world through rose-colored glasses is slightly incorrect. Because only in particular conditions this illusion of control applies, and that is overestimation of control only when good things are happening and underestimation of control when bad things are happening.

Of course, it has been over 40 years since the publication of this paper and of course it has its flaws. Many replications and replications with caveats and meta-analyses and reviews and opinions and alternative hypotheses have been confirmed and infirmed and then confirmed again with alterations, so there is still a debate out there about the causes/ functions/ ubiquity/ circumstantiality of the depressive realism effect. One thing seems to be constant though: the effect exists.

I will leave you with the ponders of Alloy & Abramson (1979):

“A crucial question is whether depression itself leads people to be “realistic” or whether realistic people are more vulnerable to depression than other people” (p. 480).

124 - Copy

REFERENCE: Alloy LB, & Abramson LY (Dec. 1979). Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: sadder but wiser? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108(4): 441-485. PMID: 528910. ARTICLE | FULLTEXT PDF via ResearchGate

By Neuronicus, 30 November 2017

The FIRSTS: Dinosaurs and reputation (1842)

‘Dinosaur’ is a common noun in most languages of the Globe and, in its weak sense, it means “extinct big-sized reptile-like animal that lived a long-time ago”. The word has been in usage for so long that it can be used also for describing something “impractically large, out-of-date, or obsolete” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). “Dinosaur” is a composite of two ancient Greek words (“deinos”, “sauros”) and it means “terrible lizard”.

But, it turns out that the word hasn’t been in usage for so long, just for a mere 175 years. Sir Richard Owen, a paleontologist that dabbled in many disciplines, coined the term in 1842. Owen introduced the taxon Dinosauria as if it was always called thus, no fuss: “The present and concluding part of the Report on British Fossil Reptiles contains an account of the remains of the Crocodilian, Dinosaurian, Lacertian, Pterodactylian, Chelonian, Ophidian and Batrachian reptiles.” (p. 60). Only later in the Report does he tell us his paleontological reasons for the baptism, namely some anatomical features that distinguish dinosaurs from crocodiles and other reptiles.

“…The combination of such characters, some, as the sacral ones, altogether peculiar among Reptiles, others borrowed, as it were, from groups now distinct from each other, and all manifested by creatures far surpassing in size the largest of existing reptiles, will, it is presumed, be deemed sufficient ground for establishing a distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles, for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria.” (p.103)

At the time he was presenting this report to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, other giants of biology were running around the same halls, like Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley. Indisputably, Owen had a keen observational eye and a strong background in comparative anatomy that resulted in hundreds of published works, some of them excellent. That, in addition to establishing the British Museum of Natural History.

Therefore, Owen had reasons to be proud of his accomplishments and secure in his influence and legacy, and yet his contemporaries tell us that he was an absolutely vicious man, spiteful to the point of obsession, vengeful and extremely jealous of other people’s work. Apparently, he would steal the work of the younger people around him, never give credit, lie and cheat at every opportunity, and even write lengthy anonymous letters to various printed media to denigrate his contemporaries. He seemed to love his natal city of Lancaster and his family though (Wessels & Taylor, 2015).

121Richard-owen _PD
Sir Richard Owen (20 July 1804 – 18 December 1892). PD, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Owen had a particular hate for Darwin. They had been close friends for 20 years and then Darwin published the “Origin of Species”. The book quickly became widely read and talked about and then poof: vitriol and hate. Darwin himself said the only reason he could think of for Owen’s hatred was the popularity of the book.

Various biographies and monographers seem to agree on his unpleasant personality (see his entry in The Telegraph,, Encylopaedia Britannica, BBC. On a side note, should you be concerned about your legacy and have the means to persuade The Times to write you an obituary, by all means, do so. In all the 8 pages of obituary written in 1896 you will not find a single blemish on the portrait of Sir Richard Owen.

This makes me ponder on the judgement of history based not on your work, but on your personality. As I said, the man contributed to science in more ways than just naming the dinosaur and having spats with Darwin. And yet it seems that his accomplishments are somewhat diminished by the way he treated others.

This reminded me of Nicolae Constantin Paulescu, a Romanian scientist who discovered insulin in 1916 (published in 1921). Yes, yes, I know all about the controversy with the Canadians that extracted and purified the insulin in 1922 and got the Nobel for it in 1923. Paulescu did the same, even if Paulescu’s “pancreatic extract” from a few years earlier was insufficiently purified; it still successfully lowered the glicemic index in dogs. He even obtained a patent for the “fabrication of pancrein” (his name for insulin, because he obtained it from the pancreas) in April 1922 from the Romanian Government (patent no. 6255). The Canadian team was aware of his work, but because it was published in French, they had a poor translation and they misunderstood his findings, so, technically, they didn’t steal anything. Or so they say. Feel free to feed the conspiracy mill. I personally don’t know, I haven’t looked at the original work to form an opinion because it is in French and my French is non-existent.

Annnywaaaay, whether or not Paulescu was the first in discovering the insulin is debatable, but few doubt that he should have shared the Nobel at least.

Rumor has it that Paulescu did not share the Nobel because he was a devout Nazi. His antisemitic writings are remarkably horrifying, even by the standards of the extreme right. That’s also why you won’t hear about him in medical textbooks or at various diabetes associations and gatherings. Yet millions of people worldwide may be alive today because of his work, at least partly.

How should we remember? Just the discoveries and accomplishments with no reference to the people behind them? Is remembering the same as honoring? “Clara cells” were lung cells discovered by the infamous Nazi anatomist Max Clara by dissecting prisoners without consent. They were renamed by the lung community “club cells” in 2013. We cannot get rid of the discovery, but we can rename the cells, so it doesn’t look like we honor him. I completely understand that. And yet I also don’t want to lose important pieces of history because of the atrocities (in the case of Nazis) or unsavory behavior (in the case of Owen) committed by our predecessors. I understand why the International Federation of Diabetes does not wish to give awards in the name of Paulescu or have a Special Paulescu lecture. Perhaps the Romanians should take down his busts and statues, too. But I don’t understand why (medical) history books should exclude him.

In other words, don’t honor the unsavories of history, but don’t forget them either. You never know what we – or the future generations – may learn by looking back at them and their actions.

123 - Copy.jpg

By Neuronicus, 19 October 2017


1) Owen, R (1842). “Report on British Fossil Reptiles”. Part II. Report of the Eleventh Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; Held at Plymouth in July 1841. London: John Murray. p. 60–204. Google Books Fulltext 

2) “Eminent persons: Biographies reprinted from the Times, Vol V, 1891–1892 – Sir Richard Owen (Obituary)” (1896). Macmillan & Co., p. 291–299. Google Books Fulltext

3) Wessels Q & Taylor AM (28 Oct 2015). Anecdotes to the life and times of Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) in Lancaster. Journal of Medical Biography. pii: 0967772015608053. PMID: 26512064, DOI: 10.1177/0967772015608053. ARTICLE

Midichlorians, midichloria, and mitochondria

Nathan Lo is an evolutionary biologist interested in creepy crawlies, i.e. arthropods. Well, he’s Australian, so I guess that comes with the territory (see what I did there?). While postdoc’ing, he and his colleagues published a paper (Sassera et al., 2006) that would seem boring for anybody without an interest in taxonomy, a truly under-appreciated field.

The paper describes a bacterium that is a parasite for the mitochondria of a tick species called Ixodes ricinus, the nasty bugger responsible for Lyme disease. The authors obtained a female tick from Berlin, Germany and let it feed on a hamster until it laid eggs. By using genetic sequencing (you can use kits these days to extract the DNA, do PCR, gels and cloning, pretty much everything), electron microscopy (real powerful microscopes) and phylogenetic analysis (using computer softwares to see how closely related some species are) the authors came to the conclusion that this parasite they were working on is a new species. So they named it. And below is the full account of the naming, from the horse’s mouth, as it were:

“In accordance with the guidelines of the International Committee of Systematic Bacteriology, unculturable bacteria should be classified as Candidatus (Murray & Stackebrandt, 1995). Thus we propose the name ‘Candidatus Midichloria mitochondrii’ for the novel bacterium. The genus name Midichloria (mi.di.chlo′ria. N.L. fem. n.) is derived from the midichlorians, organisms within the fictional Star Wars universe. Midichlorians are microscopic symbionts that reside within the cells of living things and ‘‘communicate with the Force’’. Star Wars creator George Lucas stated that the idea of the midichlorians is based on endosymbiotic theory. The word ‘midichlorian’ appears to be a blend of the words mitochondrion and chloroplast. The specific epithet, mitochondrii (′chon.drii. N.L. n. mitochondrium -i a mitochondrion; N.L. gen. n. mitochondrii of a mitochondrion), refers to the unique intramitochondrial lifestyle of this bacterium. ‘Candidatus M. mitochondrii’ belongs to the phylum Proteobacteria, to the class Alphaproteobacteria and to the order Rickettsiales. ‘Candidatus M. mitochondrii’ is assigned on the basis of the 16S rRNA (AJ566640) and gyrB gene sequences (AM159536)” (p. 2539).

George Lucas gave his blessing to the Christening (of course he did).

119-midi - Copy1 - Copy.jpg

Acknowledgements: Thanks go to Ms. BBD who prevented me from making a fool of myself (this time!) on the social media by pointing out to me that midichloria are real and that they are a mitochondrial parasite.

REFERENCE: Sassera D, Beninati T, Bandi C, Bouman EA, Sacchi L, Fabbi M, Lo N. (Nov. 2006). ‘Candidatus Midichloria mitochondrii’, an endosymbiont of the tick Ixodes ricinus with a unique intramitochondrial lifestyle. International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, 56(Pt 11): 2535-2540. PMID: 17082386, DOI: 10.1099/ijs.0.64386-0. ABSTRACT | FREE FULLTEXT PDF 

By Neuronicus, 29 July 2017

The FIRSTS: Increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere results in global warming (1896)

Few people seem to know that although global warming and climate change are hotly debated topics right now (at least on the left side of the Atlantic) the effect of CO2 levels on the planet’s surface temperature was investigated and calculated more than a century ago. CO2 is one of the greenhouse gases responsible for the greenhouse effect, which was discovered by Joseph Fourier in 1824 (the effect, that is).

Let’s start with a terminology clarification. Whereas the term ‘global warming’ was coined by Wallace S. Broecker in 1975, the term ‘climate change’ underwent a more fluidic transformation in the ’70s from ‘inadvertent climate modification’ to ‘climatic change’ to a more consistent use of ‘climate change’ by Jule Charney in 1979, according to NASA. The same source tells us:

“Global warming refers to surface temperature increases, while climate change includes global warming and everything else that increasing greenhouse gas amounts will affect”.

But before NASA there was one Svante August Arrhenius (1859–1927). Dr. Arrhenius was a Swedish physical chemist who received the Nobel Prize in 1903 for uncovering the role of ions in how electrical current is conducted in chemical solutions.

S.A. Arrhenius was the first to quantify the variations of our planet’s surface temperature as a direct result of the amount of CO2 (which he calls carbonic acid, long story) present in the atmosphere. For those – admittedly few – nitpickers that say his views on the greenhouse effect were somewhat simplistic and his calculations were incorrect I’d say cut him a break: he didn’t have the incredible amount of data provided by the satellites or computers, nor the work of thousands of scientists over a century to back him up. Which they do. Kind of. Well, the idea, anyway, not the math. Well, some of the math. Let me explain.

First, let me tell you that I haven’t managed to pass past page 3 of the 39 pages of creative mathematics, densely packed tables, parameter assignments, and convoluted assumptions of Arrhenius (1896). Luckily, I convinced a spectroscopist to take a crack at the original paper since there is a lot of spectroscopy in it and then enlighten me.

118Boltzmann-grp - Copy
The photo was taken in 1887 and shows (standing, from the left): Walther Nernst (Nobel in Chemistry), Heinrich Streintz, Svante Arrhenius, Richard Hiecke; (sitting, from the left): Eduard Aulinger, Albert von Ettingshausen, Ludwig Boltzmann, Ignaz Klemenčič, Victor Hausmanninger. Source: Universität Graz. License: PD via Wikimedia Commons.

Second, despite his many accomplishments, including being credited with laying the foundations of a new field (physical chemistry), Arrhenius was first and foremost a mathematician. So he employed a lot of tedious mathematics (by hand!) together with some hefty guessing along with what was known at the time about Earth’s infrared radiation, solar radiation, water vapor and CO2 absorption, temperature of the Moon,  greenhouse effect, and some uncalibrated spectra taken by his predecessors to figure out if “the mean temperature of the ground [was] in any way influenced by the presence of the heat-absorbing gases in the atmosphere” (p. 237). Why was he interested in this? We find out only at page 267 after a lot of aforesaid dreary mathematics where he finally shares this with us:

“I certainly not have undertaken these tedious calculations if an extraordinary interest had not been connected with them. In the Physical Society of Stockholm there have been occasionally very lively discussions on the probable causes of the Ice Age”.

So Arrhenius was interested to find out if the fluctuations of CO2 levels could have caused the Ice Ages. And yes, he thinks that could have happened. I don’t know enough about climate science to tell you if this particular conclusion of his is correct today. But what he managed to accomplish though was to provide for the first time a way to mathematically calculate the amount of rise in temperature due the rise of CO2 levels. In other words, he found a direct relationship between the variations of CO2 and temperature.

Today, it turns out that his math was incorrect because he left out some other variables that influence the global temperature that were discovered and/or understood later (like the thickness of the atmosphere, the rate of ocean absorption  of CO2 and others which I won’t pretend I understand). Nevertheless, Arrhenius was the first to point out to the following relationship, which, by and large, is still relevant today:

“Thus if the quantity of carbonic acid increased in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression” (p. 267).

118 Arrhenius - Copy

P.S. Technically, Joseph Fourier should be credited with the discovery of global warming by means of increasing the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in 1824, but Arrhenius quantified it so I credited him. Feel fee to debate :).

REFERENCE: Arrhenius, S. (April 1896). XXXI. On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground, The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science (Fifth Series), 49 (251): 237-276. General Reference P.P.1433. doi: FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 24 June 2017

The FIRSTS: Magnolia (1703)

It is April and the Northern Hemisphere is enjoying the sight and smell of blooming magnolias. Fittingly, today is the birthday of the man who described and named the genus. Charles Plumier (20 April 1646 – 20 November 1704) was a French botanist known for describing many plant genera and for preceding Linnaeus in botanical taxonomy. His (Plumier’s) taxonomy was later incorporated by Linnaeus and is still in use today.

Plumier traveled a lot as part of his job as Royal Botanist at the court of Louis XIV. Don’t envy him too much though because the monk order to which he belonged, the Minims, forced him to be a vegan, living mostly on lentil.

Among thousands of other plants described was the magnolia, a genus of gorgeous ornamental flowering trees that put out spectacularly big flowers in the Spring, usually before the leaves come out. Plumier found it on the island of Martinique and named it after Pierre Magnol, a contemporary botanist who invented the concept of family as a distinct taxonomical category.

plate 1703 - Copy
Excerpts from the pages 38, 39 and plate 7 from Nova Plantarum Americanum Genera by Charles Plumier (Paris, 1703) describing the genus Magnolia.

Interestingly enough, Plumier named other plants either after famous botanists like fuchsia (Leonhard Fuchs) and lobelia (Mathias Obel) or people who helped his career as in begonia (Michel Begon) and suriana (Josephe Donat Surian), but never after himself. I guess he took seriously the humility tenet of his order. Never fear, the botanists Joseph Pitton de Tournefort and the much more renown Carl Linnaeus named an entire genus after him: Plumeria.

Of interest to me, as a neuroscientist, is that the bark of the magnolia tree contains magnolol which is a natural ligand for the GABAA receptor.

116 - Copy

REFERENCE: Plumier, C. (1703). Nova Plantarum Americanum Genera, Paris. FULLTEXT courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library

By Neuronicus, 20 April 2017



The FIRSTS: Melatonin (1958)

By the late 18th and beginning of 19th century, some scientists were busily investigating how animals get their colors and how do they change colour in response to the environment. They identified several types of chromatophores, i.e. cells that contain pigments. Biological pigments are called melanins (don’t confuse them with melatonin). One of these cells is the melanophore which contains black pigments, called this way in the very typical scientist unimaginative style because “melas” in Greek means black or dark and “phoros” means carrier.

A couple of these scientists, McCord & Allen (1917), thought that the pineal gland from the brain might contain some substance that might interact with the melanophores. How did they get this idea is unclear from their paper; seems like a logical outcome of their contemporaries’ discussions and experiments, though they do not explain it in detail. They hint of other experiments where various glands have been fed to amphibians and then noticed their color change. So McCord & Allen obtained cow brains, extracted the pineal glands and fed them to tadpoles. Within 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the concentration, the tadpoles fed with pineal extract changed color from dark to light (see picture).

mccord1917 - Copy
Excerpt from McCord & Allen (1917, doi: 10.1002/jez.1400230108) showing the change in tadpole skin appearance after application of bovine pineal gland extract.

Fast forward now to 1958 when an MD PhD called Aaron B. Lerner with an interest in dermatology thought that whatever was responsible for the skin color changes in the McCord & Allen (1917) paper might be useful in treating skin diseases. But first he had to extract the substance from the pineal glands and he and his colleagues had better tools for this task than the mere alcohol and acetone of his brethren of 40 years ago.

Lerner et al. (1958) made full use of the then-recently discovered paper chromatography and some standard biochemistry techniques for the time like Soxhlet extraction and fluorescence spectroscopy and discovered a substance that can lighten frog skin color and can inhibit the melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH). “It is suggested that this substance be called melatonin” (p. 2587). Lerner and his colleagues also isolated the MSH and cryoglobulin.

Changing skin color is one of melatonin’s minor roles; its main function is to regulate circadian rhythms like sleep and awake cycles in animals (it has an oxidative stress protection in plants). Melatonin, in animals, is produced by the pineal gland only, more during the night, less during the day. Pineal gets information about the day/night cycles from the eyes. In some countries melatonin is sold as an over the counter soporific, i.e. sleeping pill.

Melatonin - Copy


1) McCord CP & Allen FP (Jan 1917). Evidences associating pineal gland function with alterations in pigmentation. Journal of Experimental Zoology, Part A, 23 (1):  207–224, DOI: 10.1002/jez.1400230108 ARTICLE 

2) Lerner AB, Case JD, Takahashi Y, Lee TH, & Mori W (May 1958). Isolation of Melatonin, the Pineal Gland Factor that Lightens Melanocytes. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 80 (10), p. 2587–2587, DOI: 10.1021/ja01543a060 ARTICLE (although JACS gives access only to the first page of a paper, the fact that this article is only half a page makes their endeavour useless in this case)

By Neuronicus, 18 March 2017



100% Effective Vaccine

A few days ago I was reading random stuff on the internet, as is one’s procrastination proclivity, catching up after the holiday, and I exclaimed out loud: “They discovered an 100% effective Ebola Vaccine!”. I expected some ‘yeay’-s or at least some grunts along the lines of ‘that’s nice’ or ‘cool’. Naturally, I turned around from my computer to check the source of unaccustomed silence to the announcement of such good news or, at least, to make sure that everybody is still breathing and present in the room. What met my worried glare was a gloom face and a shaking head. That’s because news like that are misleading, because, duh, it finally dawned on me, there is no such thing as ‘100% effective vaccine’.

And yet…, and yet this is exactly what Henao-Restrepo et al. (2016) say they found! The study is huge, employing more that 10 000 people. Such a tremendous endeavor has been financed by WHO (World Health Organization) and various departments from several countries (UK, USA, Switzerland, South Africa, Belgium, Germany, France, Guinea, and Norway) and, I’m assuming, a lot of paid and unpaid volunteers. I cannot even imagine the amount of work and the number of people that made this happen. And the coordination required for such speedy results!

The successful vaccine in rodents and non-human primates, called the recombinant, replication-competent, vesicular stomatitis virus-based vaccine expressing the glycoprotein of a Zaire Ebolavirus (rVSV-ZEBOV) has been taken to the Republic of Guinea and rapidly administered to volunteers who were in contact with somebody that had Ebola symptoms. And their contacts. I mean the contacts and the contacts of contacts of the Ebola patient. Who were contacted by the researchers within 2 days of a new Ebola case based on the patient’s list of contacts. And of contacts of contacts. Is not that complicated, honest.

After vaccinations, the “vaccinees were observed for 30 min post-vaccination and at home visits on days 3, 14, 21, 42, 63, and 84” (p.4). Some volunteers received the vaccine immediately, others after 3 weeks. No one who received the vaccine immediately developed Ebola, which lead the researchers to claim that the vaccine is 100% effective. Only 9 from the delayed vaccination group developed Ebola within 10 days of vaccination, but the researchers figured that these people probably contacted Ebola prior to the vaccination, since the disease requires typically about 10 days to show its ugly  horns.

So this is great news. Absolutely great. Even if, as always, I could nitpick thorough the paper, squabble over the “typically” 10-day incubation period, and cock an eyebrow at the new-fangled ring vaccination design as opposed to the old-fashioned placebo approach. Even after these minor criticisms this is – I repeat – GREAT NEWS!

P.S. Don’t ever say that the UN didn’t do anything for you.


Reference: Henao-Restrepo AM, Camacho A, Longini IM, Watson CH, Edmunds WJ, Egger M, Carroll MW, Dean NE, Diatta I, Doumbia M, Draguez B, Duraffour S, Enwere G, Grais R, Gunther S, Gsell PS, Hossmann S, Watle SV, Kondé MK, Kéïta S, Kone S, Kuisma E, Levine MM, Mandal S, Mauget T, Norheim G, Riveros X, Soumah A, Trelle S, Vicari AS, Røttingen JA, Kieny MP. (22 Dec 2016). Efficacy and effectiveness of an rVSV-vectored vaccine in preventing Ebola virus disease: final results from the Guinea ring vaccination, open-label, cluster-randomised trial (Ebola Ça Suffit!). Lancet. pii: S0140-6736(16)32621-6. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(16)32621-6. PMID: 28017403 [Epub ahead of print] ARTICLE | FREE FULLTEXT PDF | Good Nitpicking in The Conversation

By Neuronicus, 18 January 2017



The FIRSTS: The Name of Myelin (1854)

One reason why I don’t post more often is that I have such a hard time deciding what to cover (Hint: send me stuff YOU find awesome). Most of the cool and new stuff is already covered by big platforms with full-time employees and I try to stay away of the media-grabbers. Mostly. Some papers I find so cool that it doesn’t matter that professional science journalists have already covered them and I too jump on the wagon with my meager contribution. Anyway, here is a glimpse on how my train of thought goes on inspiration-less days.

Inner monologue: Check the usual journals’ current issues. Nothing catches my eye. Maybe I’ll feature a historical. Open Wikipedia front page and see what happened today throughout history. Aha, apparently Babinski died in 1932. He’s the one who described the Babinski’s sign. Normally, when the sole of the foot is stroked, the big toe flexes inwards, towards the sole. If it extends upwards, then that’s a sure sign of neurological damage, the Babinski’s sign. But healthy infants can have that sign too not because they have neurological damage, but because their corticospinal neurons are not fully myelinated. Myelin, who discovered that? Probably Schwann. Quick search on PubMed. Too many. Restrict to ‘history”. I hate the search function on PubMed, it brings either to many or no hits, no matter the parameters. Ah, look, Virchow. Interesting. Aha. Find the original reference. Aha. Springer charges 40 bucks for a paper published in 1854?! The hell with that! I’m not even going to check if I have institutional access. Get the pdf from other sources. It’s in German. Bummer. Go to Highwire. Find recent history of myelin. Mielinization? Myelination? Myelinification? All have hits… Get “Fundamental Neuroscience” off of the shelf and check… aha, myelination. Ok. Look at the pretty diagram with the saltatory conduction! Enough! Go back to Virchow. Does it have pictures, maybe I can navigate the legend? Nope. Check if any German speaking friends are online. Nope, they’re probably asleep, which is what I should be doing. Drat. Refine Highwire search. Evrika! “Hystory of Myelin” by Boullerne, 2016. Got the author manuscript. Hurray. Read. Write.

Myelinated fibers, a.k.a. white matter has been observed and described by various anatomists, as early as the 16th century, Boullerne (2016) informs us. But the name of myelin was given only in 1854 by Rudolph Virchow, a physician with a rich academic and public life. Although Virchow introduced the term to distinguish between bone marrow and the medullary substance, paradoxically, he managed to muddy waters even more because he did not restrict the usage of the term mylein to … well, myelin. He used it also to refer to substances in blood cells and egg’s yolk and spleen and, frankly, from the quotes provided in the paper, I cannot make heads or tails of what Virchow thought myelin was. The word myelin comes form the Greek myelos or muelos, which means marrow.

Boullerne (2016) obviously did a lot of research, as the 53-page account is full of quotes from original references. Being such a scholar on the history of myelin I have no choice but to believe her when she says: “In 1868, the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) used myelin (myéline) in what can be considered its first correct attribution.”

So even if Virchow coined the term, he was using it incorrectly! Nevertheless, in 1858 he correctly identified the main role of myelin: electrical insulation of the axon. Genial insight for the time.


I love historical reviews of sciency stuff. This one is a ‘must-have’ for any biologist or neuroscientist. Chemists and physicists, too, don’t shy away; the paper has something for you too, like myelin’s biochemistry or its birefringence properties.

Reference: Boullerne, AI (Sep 2016, Epub 8 Jun 2016). The history of myelin. Experimental Neurology, 283(Pt B): 431-45. doi: 10.1016/j.expneurol.2016.06.005. ARTICLE

Original Reference: Virchow R. (Dec 1854). Ueber das ausgebreitete Vorkommen einer dem Nervenmark analogen Substanz in den thierischen Geweben. Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie und für klinische Medicin, 6(4): 562–572. doi:10.1007/BF02116709. ARTICLE

P.S. I don’t think is right that Springer can retain the copyright for the Virchow paper and charge $39.95 for it. I don’t think they have the copyright for it anyway, despite their claims, because the paper is 162 years old. I am aware of no German or American copyright law that extends for so long. So, if you need it for academic purposes, write to me and thou shall have it.

By Neuronicus, 29 October 2016