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Graduate School of Life Sciences

Master for Life Magazine

This magazine is intended for students and teachers and all other persons interested in the Life Sciences Community Utrecht.

The articles are written by Master’s students following the course Communicating Life Sciences taught by Connie Engelberts and facilitated by de Graduates School of Life Sciences.

Previous issues of the magazine can be found here.

Graduate School news
New newsletter GSLS study associations
The four study associations of the GSLS - Mebiose (Biomedical Sciences), Proton (Chemistry), UP (Pharmacy) and UBV (Biology) - have put together the first edition of the new GSLS newsletter. Via this newsletter you will be kept up-to-date about the activities of the different study associations, receive updates from the Life Sciences Representatives and be provided with tips and vacancies that might be interesting for you as a Master's student of the GSLS.
Interested? You can sign up here.

Career services

Do you need some advice about how to start your career? Check out www.uu.nl/careerservices for more information. Upcoming events: Careers day UU (8 February), GSLS Career event (20 March), and Life Cycling (10 April).

Student representation
Problems, complaints, questions about your Master's programme? Contact the Life Sciences Representatives or go to www.facebook.com/GSLSstudents.

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Alcohol consumption leads to anaemia

It is well established that consuming alcohol increases the risk for developing cancer. This is attributed to acetaldehyde production from the body breaking down alcohol. Researchers investigating this mechanism have proposed an additional effect alcohol possibly has on the body, which is alterations in blood cell formation. Recently, Juan Garaycoechea and colleagues from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge UK have provided concrete evidence supporting this.

Previously, it has been indicated that inactivation of two genes responsible for detoxifying acetaldehyde and DNA repair (ALDH2 and FANCD2) in mice not only led to cancer, but also to problems with blood cell formation. Furthermore, it was demonstrated in Japanese children diagnosed with Fanconi anemia to have a sooner onset of bone marrow failure when additionally containing a different form of the ALDH2 gene. This evidence suggested acetaldehyde plays a role in altering blood cell formation.

Dr. Garaycoechea has recently discovered that endogenous acetaldehyde from broken down alcohol contributes to DNA damage in stem cells that engender blood cells (hematopoietic stem cells). He indicated this by knocking out ALDH2 and FANCD2 in mice, which lead to a reduction in hematopoietic stem cells. Furthermore, exposing these knock-out mice to alcohol induced bone marrow failure. With the absence of ALDH2 and presence of FANCD2, a specific DNA repair mechanism called recombination repair was indicated to be significantly more active when these mice were exposed to alcohol. This discovery has demonstrated alcohol consumption’s effect on blood cell formation.

Reported by The New York Times, Dr. Jerry L. Spivak of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine clarified: “Alcohol, in even the smallest quantities, damages bone marrow, where blood cells are produced.”

Not only does alcohol increase your risk for cancer, heart problems, and liver disease, but it appears an increased risk of blood cell depletion is also present. Mind your alcohol!

By Julia Peterson

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“Day zero” –  when Cape Town runs out of water

A scenario pulled straight from an apocalypse movie: Cape Town’s water reserves have a scary expiration date and are expected to last no longer than April 16th, 2018, leaving nearly half a million residents without water running in the taps.

The regional droughts that the region has suffered for three consecutive years have severely impaired the levels in Cape Town’s water-supplying dams.

The city has already started projects to cope with the deficiencies, including groundwater abstraction from aquifers, building water purification and desalination plants, and using pressure management devices and technology. These additional sources are expected to bring in more water into the city’s supply network.

However, unless the residents commit to spending less than 87 liters of water per person per day, Day Zero will bring forth the closure of the taps. This is when the water reserves will fall below the threshold, forcing residents to queue daily to collect 25L rations of water, while armed peacekeepers will be tasked with maintaining order and preventing theft, reports Forbes. The exact date has been revised based on the consumption levels and has been drawn back to April 16th from the initial April 29th and April 21st predictions.

An online platform has been built for monitoring available water levels, tracking the water consumption trends, the projected Day Zero date, and the number of Capetonians committing to saving water and spending below the 87L margin. (For comparison, the average water consumption for household purposes in the Netherlands is upwards of 120L per person a day.) An effort to pressure all residents to observe this limit has been made by publicly displaying the water spending of each household on the Cape Town water map, despite complaints about privacy.

This frightening development may be just one of many upcoming water crises all over the world (not unlike the recent and repetitive California droughts) caused by a mixture of factors such as climate change, water consumption irresponsibility, pollution and overpopulation. The responsibility towards maintaining a habitable Earth for us and for those coming after us falls onto every human on this planet. As this message by Cape Town’s Executive Mayor Patricia de Lille says, “It is up to every resident to do his and her part to save water while we still have water to save.” 

By Despina Stefanoska

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The new male birth control: reversible vasectomy

From the reasonably reliable condom to the invasive vasectomy and the questionable coitus interruptus: the male birth control options are rather limited compared to the female options. A study performed by the California National Primate Research Center has shown some promising results in a monkey model for a novel male contraception called Vasalgel™. These results could lead to a new long-term male option to prevent pregnancy, plus it provides the additional advantage of being reversible.

The efficacy of Vasalgel™ as a potential novel contraceptive for men was evaluated in a study published in the journal of Basic and Clinical Andrology. Vasalgel™ is a long-acting, non-hormonal contraceptive, much like a vasectomy, but with the added advantage that it is reversible. The procedure relies on the injection of a synthetic polymer gel into the vas deferens, or the sperm-carrying tube, whereas this sperm-carrying tube is severed and sealed during a vasectomy procedure. Regular sperm flow can be restored by flushing out the polymer gel with a subsequent injection of sodium bicarbonate.

Efficacy and reversibility
The efficacy of Vasalgel™ has been demonstrated in a study with sixteen adult male rhesus monkeys. The monkeys that received the injections were housed in a free-living, group environment with up to nine other female monkeys. All the male monkeys were housed with females for at least one breeding season, but only half of the males were housed with females for two years. The sixteen rhesus monkeys that were treated with Vasalgel™ had no conceptions. The significance of this study comes from the fact that humans and monkeys have comparable reproductive tracts. The side effects of the Vasalgel™ injections in monkeys were comparable to that of a traditional vasectomy procedure, which included sperm granulomas, mild testicular atrophy and mild inflammations.

This contraceptive effect of Vasalgel™ has also been established in a rabbit model. In addition, a follow-up study in rabbits has shown reversibility in the contraceptive effects of this synthetic polymer gel. When sodium bicarbonate is injected into the rabbit vas deferens, the synthetic polymer will dissolve and allow normal sperm flow.

The next step is to study whether this sodium bicarbonate reversal can also be achieved in the rhesus monkeys. If the reversibility can be determined in rhesus monkeys, then this will be followed by human clinical trials. These are expected to start late 2018 or early 2019. If the results of these clinical trials are positive, Vasalgel™ could become the next male birth control option. The long-term characteristic and especially the reversibility aspect makes it a very appealing alternative. This addition could help alleviate the female contraception responsibilities by shifting it towards a male responsibility.

By Kiran Kanhai

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Ladies, watch out with birth control pills!

A Danish study reveals that current birth control pills containing hormones increase the risk of breast cancer. This study, led by Lina S. Mørch from the Department of Gynecology at the University of Copenhagen, was published on December 2017 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study is significant because the sample used is very broad: 1.8 million Danish women between 15 and 49 years old, who were followed up for about 10 years. The results indicate that the risk of suffering from cancer for women who had followed hormonal contraceptive treatments was 20% higher than for those who hadn’t. These average figures, however, must be clarified as the risk was not the same for everyone. Those who had been taking them for less than one year had 9% more risk, but for those who had followed the treatment for ten years or more the risk increased to 38%.

The age of women also counts. Thus, the risk of breast cancer is much higher in older women. The highest number of cases of cancer in the study was detected among women who had taken contraceptive treatment after their 40s. In addition, among those women who had taken the pill for five years or less the risk significantly decreased once the treatment stopped.

Progestin and estrogen are two hormones widely used in current methods of birth control. The current pills have lower doses of estrogen, which is why the researchers hoped the risk was also lower. This research also suggests that progestin hormone may increase the risk of breast cancer, so the study uncovered that no modern contraceptive is free of risk.

These findings contradict what many people believed so far: that these contraceptive pills developed in the 80's were safer than the first ones, which were first approved in the United States in 1957, exactly 60 years ago.

Birth control pills are a contraceptive method extensively used in the present days. In the light of these findings women will have to decide whether they want to take hormonal contraception for prolonged periods of time, or on the contrary, switch to other non-hormonal contraceptive methods. We are facing an important public health issue, as contraceptives have a great impact on the global population. Therefore, there is an urgent need for scientists to find a contraceptive method safe for everyone as we can not allow our best option to be associated with such risks.

By Lidia Parramon Dolcet

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Immortality is (not) around the corner?

The fact that we age, is something all 8 billion of us inhabiting this planet called Earth have in common. The average lifespan of human beings has already been extended beyond what was deemed possible. However, how far scientists currently are at deriving the ultimate understanding of the mechanisms behind aging, sometimes appears rather mysterious.

At CES 2018 (Las Vegas Convention Center), world’s biggest gathering for tech innovation, the Psychasec booth caused for some controversial news headlines. Showcasing what seemed to resemble vacuum-sealed human bodies, Psychasec attempted to achieve some stirring #brandactivation for an upcoming Netflix special called “Altered Carbon” (set to premier in February). The so-called “fresh sleeves” were destined for implantation with one’s cortical stack and in this way grant a whole second lifetime. Now, what worries me not so much is the question of whether or not immortality is immoral, because I am not a philosophy major. However, what does worry me is blasting out into the ether the existence of a piece of technology that can grant eternal life without notifying the less big-brained of its fiction.

Aging is the natural damage that occurs to healthy tissue resulting from day-to-day activity, leading to a decrease in overall organ functionality. On a molecular scale, DNA damage that accumulates in cells with all different phenotypes eventually leads to an irreparable structure that then has to terminate itself. Modulating the speed at which this accumulation takes place has been widely researched, because avoiding the damage accumulation has shown to be impossible. Also impossible is the removal of information carriers termed ‘cortical stacks’ and transplanting them into new hosts, as presented by Netflix. A feat of this magnitude where brain tissue is sectioned, processed, transported and implanted into a recipient corpus where it integrates and reassumes control is far from realization. However, considerably closer to realization is greatly postponing the expiration date of the body you are born with.

Dr. Peter de Keizer is currently working as assistant professor at the UMC Utrecht in the department of ‘Aging and Senescence’. De Keizer recently gave a talk on the elimination of senescent cell populations that are present in all organs and negatively interfere with the regeneration of damaged tissue. These senescent cell populations have been subjected to an over-accumulation of DNA damage and have entered a state in which no cell cycle activity takes place. What protects these cells from cell death is a protein called FOX04. Researchers set out to develop a drug-molecule that could inactivate the protein and elicit cell death in these cell populations. An inhibitory molecule has been successfully developed and repeatedly shows lifespan extension (~2 years) in rat models and is slowly becoming a household name in the field of aging research.

With regards to achieving immortality, the senescent cell elimination phenomenon is currently the most innovative advancement in the field. Regarding worrying about the pros and cons of this never-ending search for eternal life, I say worry about something more relevant as we are far from close to finding the solution.

By Matthijs van der Moolen

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Vitamin supplements: from A to zinc and how they harm you

Vitamin supplements are indispensable in the current healthy lifestyle. Manufacturers tell us one dose of multivitamin a day improves brain function, hearth fitness, eye health and make many other claims. As such, a lot of us stack up on vitamin supplements when feeling a bit sick or simply as part of the daily routine. There is however little scientific evidence that supports these “health improvements”, and even worse, those vitamin supplements might have exactly the opposite effect in the long run.

In general vitamins, or antioxidants, do indeed fulfil an important role in our cells. Energy production in our mitochondria sometimes creates free radicals. These radicals react aggressively with a wide variety of molecules, disrupting membranes, enzymes and other proteins. Antioxidants are able to neutralize the free radicals and as such protect the cell against these reactive molecules. By taking vitamin supplements you would have more antioxidants in your system and the idea is that this contributes to a higher protection and better health in general.

There are, however, a few issues with the use of these supplements. Back in 1980 scientists already described something called “The Vitamin Craze”. A paper by Victor Herbert reads: “Thousands of people have been misled by deceptive “nutrition information” from nutritionist whose credentials and anecdotal claims fall apart under close scrutiny”. Although both the statement and the author can be considered as relatively extreme, the implied message can still be applied today.

How are these supplements misleading us then? Well the truth is that you probably have no use for additional vitamins - everything you need is in your diet. The Dutch Nutrition Centre (Voedingscentrum) states: (...) a balanced diet contains sufficient vitamins and minerals. There is no need for supplementation and it does not provide an extra health effect”. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule e.g. people with certain diseases, infants and those who do not have access to a balanced diet could benefit from supplementation of certain vitamins. For most of us however, claims like: “vitamins increase your health” are completely unsubstantiated.

So you probably do not need vitamin supplements, but if you take one a day to make up for that apple you sometimes forget, that should be fine right? After all, better safe than sorry. Well maybe taking one a day could already be the sorry part. Manufactures fill their supplements to the brim with all kinds of vitamins. A quick look at the labels shows that vitamins are often present in two or three times the recommended daily intake (RDI). There are even examples of supplements that contain over 4000% RDI of certain antioxidants. Taking one a day means a whole months’ worth of vitamin in one pill. Luckily your body is good at keeping things balanced and most of it will be immediately excreted again. Yet such an extreme overdose seems hardly necessary nor safe.

There are indeed several negative health effects related to the daily intake of vitamin supplements. These effects occur after long term use and it is difficult to conclude a causal relation. Nevertheless, there are indications. For example, the Voedingscentrum states a long-term intake of high dosages of vitamin B6 leads to numbness, tingling or nerve pain in legs and feet. Several papers also described a relation between long term usage of vitamin supplements and an increased risk of certain cancers including breast, lung and prostate. Taking more vitamins than necessary is evidently not without its risk.

All in all, one vitamin pill will probably not directly kill you, but there is no reason to believe it “increases your health” and it might even harm you. One apple a day keeps the doctor away, but if I would eat 40 apples each day it would be considered rather unhealthy, so why wouldn’t the same apply to overfilled vitamin pills? I’ll just stick to one apple and keep the supplements away.

By Stijn Groten

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“Butterfly tongue” predates flowers

While drilling for prehistoric pollen in northern Germany, Timo van Eldijk and Bas van de Schootbrugge from Utrecht University stumbled upon several surprising fossils. On Wednesday, January 10th, they published their discoveries in Science Advances. Their most intriguing discovery: The characteristic, nectar-drinking “tongue” of butterflies and moths existed long before the appearance of the first flowers.

Lead-author and MSc student, Timo van Eldijk, admitted in an interview for the radio-programme ‘Vroege Vogels’ that the fossilised scales were found by accident. His supervisor Dr. Bas van de Schootbrugge, a palaeontologist of Utrecht University, was actually searching for pollen and spores from plants living during the Triassic-Jurassic boundary. After treating the sediment specimens, the researchers noticed the tiny scales between their pollen samples.

Finding these scales is an accomplishment of its own. Fossilized remains of moths and butterflies are rare, as their bodies are often too fragile to fossilize properly. The delicate scales covering their wings and bodies are also incredibly small and therefore very unlikely to be found by accident.

The fossils prove that butterflies and moths are far older than originally thought. The new-found scales are approximately 201 million years old, making them the oldest currently known fossils of butterflies and moths. Furthermore, the finding indicates that butterflies and moths survived both the 4th and the 5th mass extinction events and witnessed the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.

These findings also provide evidence that the Glossata, the suborder of moths and butterflies with the typical nectar-drinking “tongue”, diverged from their plant-chewing ancestors about 70 million years earlier than thought. Several of the fossilized scales are hollow and perforated, which is characteristic for the Glossata. Previously, the Glossata were thought to have diverged around the same time as the appearance of the first flowering plants.

The most surprising about this discovery is that the “tongue” was believed to have evolved as adaptation to feeding on flowers, yet these fossils and their “tongues” date back long before the first flowering plants existed. Since they cannot have fed on flowers, the scientists hypothesise that the ancient Glossata used their “tongue” to drink droplets of water or the sugary droplets secreted by many of the contemporary vegetation.

This unlikely find has forced scientists to reconsider several long-held beliefs and theories about the history and evolution of butterflies and moths. Not only are moths and butterflies older than originally thought, but the Glossata and their “butterfly tongue” even preceded flowers. Even very small fossils can lead to big discoveries.

By Wendy Lichtenauer

Further reading: A Triassic-Jurassic window into the evolution of Lepidoptera.

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