Manchester’s week in science: 9th-14th March

Rodent evolution driven by monsoon rains:

3984800314_6ffcd925d5_zWe know that environmental pressures play a pivotal role in the evolution of species and, what could be more life changing than the presence, or absence, of seasonal monsoon rains?

Findings published this week in the Nature journal ‘Scientific Reports’ reveal how Asia’s monsoons have played a key role in mammalian evolution and highlight implications for conservation in areas affected by these rains.

Researchers from the University of Manchester, the University of Bristol, the Chinese Academy of Science and Harvard University have uncovered proof that waxing and waning monsoon rains played a key role in the evolution of many species of Asian rodent. Monsoon variations were shown to drive changes in tooth and head shape in these rodents over a period of 24 million years and appeared to be responsible for driving several species into extinction.

Dr Fabien Knoll, a senior researcher at The University of Manchester, said:  “It was natural to assume that a mighty climatic phenomenon like the monsoon would play a part in evolution, but until now there has never been any decisive evidence thereof. We have now found that.”

Changes in the density of the forest canopy and vegetation are driven by the rains and, in turn, drive survival of rodents who depend on this vegetation for cover. Researchers found that, during periods of weaker monsoon rain, cover was reduced and environmental pressures favoured species with teeth and limbs best suited for digging – meaning these animals had a better chance of hiding from predators.

Dr Knoll added: “We used rodents in this study because they are the most common mammals in the fossil record, they evolved rapidly and are very sensitive to any changes in their habitat.”

The authors of this study added: “We suggest that the variations in the monsoon intensity have impacted the evolution of most, if not all, mammals living in this region, although this remains to be proved convincingly (using our methodology or others) and the pattern would probably vary from group to group.”

The social and personal cost of redundancy: 

7189456105_cd0fb558a5_zWe spend on average 60% of our lives in formal employment. That’s a significant proportion of our adult lives and our happiness over this period is very important for both our physical and mental wellbeing.

A recent study, fresh out of the University of Manchester, has found that people who face redundancy during their working lives often loose more than just an income. This work, conducted by social scientist Dr James Laurence, found that people who loose their jobs can be less willing to trust others for up to a decade after being ‘laid-off’. This loss of trust has a negative impact on both the individual and society as a whole.

Dr Laurence, an ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) Future Research Leaders Fellow at The University of Manchester, said: “People’s willingness to trust others tends to remain largely stable over their lifetime. However, this work shows that trauma, like redundancy, can shift people’s outlook on the world and this change persists long after the experience occurred.

“Society is still recovering from one of the longest recessions this century and much has been discussed in counting the economic costs of that. This study looks at the social costs of recession.”

“Even a single experience of redundancy can lead to depressed trust and what is particularly concerning is that people reported less willingness to trust others even after they got another job. The study shows that the experience of redundancy can scar an individual’s trust in others. This has important implications not just for the person involved but for society as a whole as trust can have significant benefits, from health and happiness, to social cohesion, efficient democratic governance and economic development.”

New insights turning cancer treatment on its head:

5198316042_8f10ef9433_zEveryone makes mistakes and scientists are no exception – indeed, there are often times when new evidence arrises which can totally alter our understanding of how things work. Just such a revelation has occurred recently in Manchester, as scientists working to understand cancer have discovered that a molecule, long thought to promote tumour growth, in fact suppresses growth. This work suggests that interventions aimed at increasing activity of this molecule may have therapeutic benefit.

Protein kinase C (PKC), a family of enzymes facilitating a range of cellular processes, has long been thought to induce the development of tumours. Indeed, PKCs were shown to be activated by cancer-causing phorbol esters. However, therapeutics aimed at blocking activity of these kinases have had little success. A recent study exploring the effect of mutations in PKC on tumour growth has shed light on why this might be the case.

Dr John Brognard, from the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute at The University of Manchester – part of the Manchester Cancer Research Centre – said: “Despite phorbol esters being known to cause cancers, we’ve seen frustratingly little progress when targeting PKCs to stop tumour growth.”

The Manchester group, in collaboration with scientists from the University of California, studied mutations in the PKC in human cancer cells. They discovered that most these mutations caused the enzyme to loose its function, making it less active within the cell. With this knowledge, they attempted to correct these mutations in bowel cancer cells and found a reduction in tumour growth.

“Clinical trials have so far been working on the incorrect assumption that PKC enzymes cause cancer growth. This new insight from our studies has turned current thinking on its head. Looking ahead, instead of blocking PKC activity, new therapies should instead be targeting mechanisms to restore its activity,” added Dr Brognard.

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