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The Sheet
Research blog of the Otago Department of Biochemistry

Plastic Honeybees

Photo of a large, plastic, toy honeybee.

Plastic honeybee (available from anwo.com).

Bees are plastic!

Well, they’re not actually made out of plastic (at least not usually), I mean the other meaning of plastic: easily shaped or moulded.

One set of genes can develop into one of a variety of slightly different bodies, depending on what environment those genes are exposed to. This plasticity is part of how an organism adapts to changes in their environment.

In other words, bees can change their bodies when something in their environment changes. And this happens without the bees changing their genes. Continue reading

Turning inflammation on, one step at a time

Hand with an inflamed middle finger.

Inflammation – the body’s reaction to a hangnail (Wikimedia Commons).

One of the amazing things your body does is to protect itself against disease. When bacteria or viruses invade your body, or you cut yourself, your white blood cells and the substances they produce will protect you, and start healing the damage. The affected area swells up and hurts. This process is called inflammation.

However, when something goes wrong and a body can’t turn off the inflammation response, or it turns on at the wrong time, inflammation can cause arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, and can even lead to cancer. Continue reading

Stress relief – cell style

Cartoon of stressed cell.Everywhere you look there’s something to stress you: Trump-induced stressing over the end of the world, working insane hours to gain a toe-hold on the housing ladder or to keep food on the table, kids screaming, keeping up with social media, etc…

It’s not just your body as a whole that has to deal with stress. Your cells do too. But what your cells consider to be stressful is probably not at the top of your list of things you worry about. Continue reading

The little rascal – high heart disease risk

Oil droplets in water.

Oil droplets in water: lipids and water don’t mix.

We all know that eating too much bad food and not exercising puts us at risk of cardiovascular disease. But did you know there is another risk factor that increases the risk of heart disease in more than 1 in 5 people, that is determined by a person’s genetics, doesn’t respond to diet or exercise, and currently has no treatment?

This risk factor is a high level of lipoprotein(a) in the blood.

Lipoproteins are packages for carrying lipids (a fancy word for fats and oils) in the blood. Lipids do not mix well with water or blood, therefore they have to be packaged up with special proteins so they can be moved in the blood stream around the body. Continue reading

Watching evolution at work

Salmonella bacterium

A Salmonella bacterium (www.medicalgraphics.de)

Wayne Patrick, a senior lecturer in the Otago Department of Biochemistry, is a devoted fan of evolution and proteins. He and his former PhD student, Matilda Newton, along with colleagues in Sweden, have been looking at changes that happen as an organism evolves, not just in the genes, but also in the machinery of cells, the proteins.

Thanks to Darwin and others we know a great deal about evolution, but there is still a lot to learn, particularly the nitty-gritty at the molecular level. We need to understand how evolution works, not just to understand how people and other creatures came into existence, but for many reasons, especially to improve our understanding and treatment of diseases. Continue reading