Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have been exploring the ways SARS-CoV-2 mutates at the spike protein to evade antibodies. Coronaviruses have an error-checking system that keeps them more stable from mutation than other RNA viruses, but it turns out the proofreader doesn’t notice deletions. So there are certain segments in the spike protein sequence that can be removed without eliminating binding and replication, and we can see these same deletions again and again as we look through the genomic databases, with the virus slowly evolving to avoid our immune response. This is one of the selective pressures that makes a virus less deadly over time, as it sacrifices some of its binding affinity for immune evasion.
Last summer, our plum tree was overburdened with fruit, to the point where I had to prop up limbs to keep them from breaking, so a few weeks ago I was out there figuring out where to prune it, like some big spike protein sticking out of the earth. The combination became this week’s SciKu.
the plum tree
for lines to cut
In science news this week, researchers at the University of Lund put a butterfly in a wind tunnel for the first time to study the aerodynamics of their flight. It’s often been assumed that their flat floppy wings were an inefficient way to fly, but nature is often more than what it seems.
It turns out that the clapping action of their wings shoots a jet of air backward, propelling them 28% faster than they’d be able to fly otherwise. Yes, like jetpacks!
These short bursts of irregular motion make them much more difficult to catch as prey for swooping birds. Predicting where the butterfly will be as they strike is like a batter trying to hit a knuckleball. Which should be no surprise—baseball players like Willie Stargell have long compared hitting the pitch to catching a butterfly with tweezers.
It’s another great lesson from nature about the quality of our assumptions.
answers to the question
of one hand clapping
This week’s sciku takes me back 20 years to my job as a group home counselor. We were trying to help adults with schizophrenia manage their lives and illnesses more independently, but the medication, which was so necessary, also made it difficult.
Antipsychotic medication needs cross the blood-brain barrier to work, but when you swallow a pill, only a small fraction makes it through. As a result, the effective dose is much larger than it would be otherwise, leading to very unpleasant side effects—from weight gain and fatigue to diabetes and eventually organ toxicity. Many patients had to take multiple drugs hoping to counteract the side-effects. And once they found a combination that worked, it would only last a while before they had to start over with an entirely new regimen due to the accumulating toxicity. It was rough—but still better than the hell of psychosis.
So I was thrilled to learn that researchers at McMaster University have developed a nasal spray using extremely fine particles of corn starch to deliver antipsychotic medication more directly into the brain, sneaking it through a hidden door along the olfactory nerve. The corn starch breaks down into simple sugar, but gradually, allowing it to be time-released with a 75% lower effective dose. Instead of taking medication multiple times each day, patients will only have to use a nasal spray once every three days, with far fewer side effects. The difference this will make for people’s quality of life is huge.
And that’s what I love about reading science news. Unlike what we call “The News,” where negativity bias is exploited for clicks, science incentivizes the good—it’s mostly mysteries solved, problems fixed, new questions to ponder. And there’s something new every week. This time with a bonus one-liner.
the men line up
for their meds
more drizzle than mist refilling the pill box
Good news to start the new year from the Wistar Institute, where scientists have developed a novel approach for fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The new class of antibiotics, IspH inhibitors, use a double-pronged strategy, killing bacteria while also flagging them to be targeted by the immune system’s cytotoxic T cells—like a fleeing bank robber covered in red dye. That way, if any of individual bacterium evolve to resist to the antibiotic, they’ll be hunted down by the body’s immune system before they can escape and become a new resistant strain.
“The end of antibiotics” has been touted as a looming crisis since I was in grade school, but this is why I’ve never been very worried about it. As an organizational system, human society is very good at incentivizing and so solving slow-moving problems. As problems become worse, the rewards for solving them become bigger, and we’re a very clever species. What we don’t do well is move quickly or incentivize responsibility, so the real crises are usually shocks and sudden collapses. When it comes to civilization’s future, I worry about viruses and CMEs and the petrodollar, but not things like this. We’re good at solving problems when they arrive gradually.
This week’s tiny sciku winds this into a little knot, with a nod towards our New Year’s resolutions.
This week’s #sciku is more of a senryū. NIH researchers were able to isolate “nanobodies” against SARS-Cov-2 in a llama named Cormac. The immune systems of camelids produce unusually tiny antibodies, about a tenth the size of our own. Basically these are just the binding domain that sticks to the virus and not the tail that flags it for the rest of the immune system. Because these nanobodies are so small, they’re easy to synthesize and can be aerosolized in a nasal spray.
It would need be tested (extensively, in my opinion), but in theory we could inhale a squirt before higher-risk activities (like holiday dinners) to create a temporary barrier in our nose and lungs against becoming infected.
When I was a kid, my grandmother’s house backed up to a zoo. After holiday dinners, all the kids would go down the hill, cross some railroad tracks, and look at the animals from the back of their enclosures. The closest were the llamas, and they’d chase us as we ran back and forth along the fence, until they’d finally become annoyed enough to start spitting. PETA would not approve, but we were kids, and it was fun.
The third layer to this little senryū, I should say, doesn’t apply to my family now—we all get along just fine!
the angry llama spray—