Scientists Sequence DNA of Century-Old Pediatric Tumors

iStock
iStock

In a development that may lead to better treatments for modern-day childhood cancers, researchers have found a way to reveal the genetics of tumor samples dating back to the 1920s. The team published their findings in The Lancet.

The good thing about rare childhood cancers is that they’re rare, which means that few children will get them. But the bad thing is that that same rarity produces very few samples, which makes them harder to study, which in turn makes them near-impossible to treat with any scientific confidence.

“The treatment regimens for children with rare cancers are essentially made up,” lead author Sam Behjati of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute told Nature. “If you’ve got three or four patients nationally, how are you ever going to conduct a reasonable clinical trial?”

The ideal situation—more tumor samples but fewer sick kids—may be less paradoxical than it sounds, as Behjati and his colleagues have figured out a way to grab genetic information from old tissue samples. And when we say old, we mean really old.

The Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London—which was saved from closure shortly after it opened thanks to a fundraiser by Charles Dickens—has been collecting samples from young patients since the mid-19th century, long before we had the technology to preserve them in any useful way. Then, in the early 20th century, scientists started dousing their samples in a chemical called formalin and embedding them in paraffin wax. The technique worked so well that researchers still use formalin-fixed paraffin-embedding (FFPE) today.

DNA is delicate stuff, and it tends to fall apart over time. Previous researchers have had some luck extracting DNA from FFPE tissue samples, but the oldest of these was only 32 years old.

The authors of the recent paper wondered if they could sample older specimens. They pulled three potential tumor samples from the hospital’s archives dating to the 1920s. One had been tentatively diagnosed as a lymphoma; one as a skeletal muscle cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma; and another as a blood-vessel tumor called cellular capillary hemangioma.

They scraped a tiny bit of tissue from each and ran them through a comprehensive genetic sequencing program.

The old-school preservation technique had done its job “remarkably,” the authors write, and each old sample’s genetic code matched the profile of its modern-day counterpart. This development “paves the way” for studying rare tumors, they say, and could shed light on the long-ago mutations that led to the cancers we face today.

[h/t Nature]

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

A Dracula Ant's Jaws Snap at 200 Mph—Making It the Fastest Animal Appendage on the Planet

Ant Lab, YouTube
Ant Lab, YouTube

As if Florida’s “skull-collecting” ants weren’t terrifying enough, we’re now going to be having nightmares about Dracula ants. A new study in the journal Royal Society Open Science reveals that a species of Dracula ant (Mystrium camillae), which is found in Australia and Southeast Asia, can snap its jaws shut at speeds of 90 meters per second—or the rough equivalent of 200 mph. This makes their jaws the fastest part of any animal on the planet, researchers said in a statement.

These findings come from a team of three researchers that includes Adrian Smith, who has also studied the gruesome ways that the skull-collecting ants (Formica archboldi) dismember trap-jaw ants, which were previously considered to be the fastest ants on record. But with jaw speeds of just over 100 miles per hour, they’re no match for this Dracula ant. (Fun fact: The Dracula ant subfamily is named after their habit of drinking the blood of their young through a process called "nondestructive cannibalism." Yikes.)

Senior author Andrew Suarez, of the University of Illinois, said the anatomy of this Dracula ant’s jaw is unusual. Instead of closing their jaws from an open position, which is what trap-jaw ants do, they use a spring-loading technique. The ants “press the tips of their mandibles together to build potential energy that is released when one mandible slides across the other, similar to a human finger snap,” researchers write.

They use this maneuver to smack other arthropods or push them away. Once they’re stunned, they can be dragged back to the Dracula ant’s nest, where the unlucky victims will be fed to Dracula ant larvae, Suarez said.

Researchers used X-ray imaging to observe the ants’ anatomy in three dimensions. High-speed cameras were also used to record their jaws snapping at remarkable speeds, which measure 5000 times faster than the blink of a human eye. Check out the ants in slow-motion in the video below.

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