What is a Synapse?

  — By: Markel Olabarria, postdoc at Columbia University Synapse is where the conversation between two neurons takes place. One neuron talks while the other listens. The message is a chemical message, called neurotransmitter (yellow dots), and it is stored in a kind of balloon, called vesicles (in red). When the time comes, these balloons rush to the surface and release the neurotransmitter into the space between the two neurons. Once outside, the neurotransmitter reaches the receptors (yellow structures) of the next neuron and in this way the message is passed along. This process occurs very rapidly: it can happen as fast as in milliseconds (a thousandth of a second). If we consider all synapses in our brain, we can say it takes place continuously, with no rest, throughout our lives. Every activity we do, even the simplest one, requires the synapses in action. Whether we read a book, engage in a conversation, sleep, eat or practice our favorite sport, synapses are constantly passing the message to make all of this possible. Please follow and like...

Know Science at the March for Science

by Chiara Bertipaglia, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University and KnowScience editor   Yesterday, Saturday 22nd April 2017, on Earth Day, Know Science marched together with thousands of protesters at the March for Science in New York City. We are incredibly proud to have joined such a big event. We felt relieved to be part of a lively community of science supporters that care about science and realize how fundamental it is to society. Following the statement issued by our founder and president Dr. Simona Giunta, we manifested to express our deep concern about recent political orders that undermine the independence of scientific research and jeopardize scientific funding. We hope that all the science supporters that joined the satellite marches in more than 600 cities from all 7 continents have been successful in shaking the conscience of those that get to decide about science funding.   Please follow and like...


VACCINES, AMONG URBAN LEGENDS AND COLLECTIVE PSYCHOSIS by Alessandro Zancla, MD   An anti-vaccination philosophy has spread for long among people, supported by blogs and websites that have taken advantage of people’s fears and susceptibility. As a consequence of this, we may risk destroying the progress reached in more than two hundred years of scientific research. This anti-vaccination attitude thrives thanks to general disinformation, a false sense of safety against infectious diseases and lack of historical memory, and it is starting to produce its results: in some areas of developed countries vaccine coverage levels risk being insufficient to guarantee adequate protection. Maybe we forgot too quickly that not many years ago diseases such as Diphtheria, Poliomyelitis, Pertussis and Rubella were a daily hazard, and so were the deaths they would cause and the serious consequences they would leave in the survivors (mainly children). Perhaps we physicians have some responsibility in this too. We evidently failed to reassure and inform the public proficiently, but believe me when I say it is terribly hard to speak convincingly against fears and persuasions that are stuck in the deepest irrational psychological sphere of mankind, especially when people are not willing to get informed. Sometimes a doctor proposing a vaccination is treated like a salesman you quickly want to get rid of. Trust me, it is not nice at all. When a doctor proposes a vaccine to a patient he only does so because he believes that it is useful and that the risks-to-benefits ratio is favorable to the vaccination, otherwise he would not.   I think it is time to clear a few...

Genetic loot transformed little viruses into giants

by Giorgia Guglielmi Giant viruses are the sperm whales of the microscopic world, dozens of times larger than typical viruses. They’re also richer in genes and much more complex—so much so, in fact, that scientists have speculated whether they evolved from ancient single-celled organisms. But the discovery of a novel group of giant viruses, reported today in Science, indicates that was likely not the case. These mammoth viruses, named Klosneuviruses, started out similar in size to their tiny, simpler brethren, and increased in complexity by gradually pilfering genes from the cells they infected. Compared to other known viruses, the newfound giants contain a more complete set of molecules able to translate genetic instructions into proteins. The researchers found that the genes that produce these protein-making molecules do not derive from an individual organism but rather from several single-celled algae—Klosneuviruses’ favorite hosts. This suggests that, over the course of evolution, Klosneuviruses—and probably other giant viruses—repeatedly gained new genes from the cells they took over. Over billions of years, this genetic larceny turned them into something unique: a cell-like virus that straddles the line between living and non-living.   Publication: Frederik Schulz, Natalya Yutin, Natalia N. Ivanova, Davi R. Ortega, Tae Kwon Lee, Julia Vierheilig, Holger Daims, Matthias Horn, Michael Wagner, Grant J. Jensen, Nikos C. Kyrpides, Eugene V. Koonin, Tanja Woyke. Giant viruses with an expanded complement of translation system components. Science, 2017; 356 (6333): 82 http://science.sciencemag.org/content/356/6333/82     Giorgia Guglielmi is a graduate student in the MIT Program in Science Writing and a freelance science journalist based in Cambridge, MA. She received a PhD in Biology from the European Molecular...

Zika hijacks host cells’ skeleton, persists in a wide range of tissues for weeks

By Giorgia Guglielmi       Scientists moved one step closer to understanding how Zika virus takes hold of host cells, and where and for how long it lurks inside the body. A new study, published in Cell Reports, showed that Zika reshapes the cell’s skeleton to fortify hollow structures where it makes daughter viruses. When scientists used a drug that makes the cell’s structural fibers immovable, the virus was unable to make copies of itself. These drugs might provide a therapeutic option against Zika. To develop new Zika therapies, it’s crucial to know where and when the virus is present within the organism. To address this issue, researchers studied Zika’s spread in infected macaques. The results are detailed in PLOS Pathogens. Zika infected a wide range of tissues, including peripheral nervous system, joints, and muscles, and it persisted in those tissues up to five weeks. What’s more, Zika was found in the reproductive tract of infected animals. The virus’ persistence in reproductive organs might be key to its sexual transmission. It could also explain why Zika infection during pregnancy is associated with crippling birth defects such as abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.   Giorgia Guglielmi is a graduate student in the MIT Program in Science Writing and a freelance science journalist based in Cambridge, MA. She received a PhD in Biology from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, where she studied how embryos get their final shape.   Please follow and like...
NASA announces 7 new planets in the universe, 3 of which in habitable zones

NASA announces 7 new planets in the universe, 3 of which in habitable zones

By Chiara Bertipaglia, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University and KnowScience editor On Wednesday 22nd February NASA announced the discovery of 7 rocky planets just 39 light years (235 trillion miles) away from the Earth. The study, published in the scientific journal Nature, is fruit of collaboration between astronomers at the University of Liege in Belgium and NASA’s laboratories at Caltech in California. These 7 exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system) appear to be rocky and are part of the TRAPPIST-1 system, meaning they all orbit around the same star called TRAPPIST-1. The TRAPPIST-1 system was discovered just a year ago by the Transiting Planets and Planetesimal Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile reporting, at the time, only 2 planets around the star. TRAPPIST-1 is an ultracool dwarf, a type of star emitting infrared light, impossible to see by naked eye. It is 10 times smaller than the sun and much dimmer and colder since it produces nearly a thousand times less radiation.  It was therefore an ideal candidate to be studied by the infrared space telescope Spitzer, which was launched in space in the Summer of 2003 to explore the corners of the universe that are inaccessible to normal optical telescopes. To properly record the light emitted by TRAPPIST-1, Spitzer had to be modified directly “in space” by astronauts, said Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC, during the press conference of last Wednesday. It was worth it, since the new modifications allowed to record the presence of 5 more planets. The 7 planets appear to orbit relatively close to the star, 20-200 times closer than the...
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