Dispatches from the US

(June 19th, 2015) In this month’s news: US universities lead the number of patent applications; scientists create the first map of airborne pathogens; Science Academies hope to restrict the use of revolutionary gene editing tool and brain regions involved with creativity have been identified.

US universities outrank others in patent applications

As if to allay fears of lagging behind top universities around the world, American universities have bagged the top nine out of ten spots in the list of the number of patents applied by universities. The report, released by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), has the University of California leading the pack with 413 patent applications in 2014 followed by MIT (234), University of Texas (154), Harvard (147) and Johns Hopkins (135). Seoul National University (92) at position ten is the only one outside the US to feature in the top ten, trailing behind Stanford, Columbia, Caltech and the University of Pennsylvania in positions six to nine. But competition for American universities is not far behind as six out of the next ten universities are from Singapore (Nanyang), Japan (Kyoto University, University of Tokyo), Denmark (Technical University of Denmark), South Korea (Korea University) and China (Peking University). Their number of applications has also increased at a higher rate than the one of American universities when compared to 2013.

Telecom companies from the USA and China dominated the list of total applications filed under WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), accounting for almost 87% of some 215,000 applications published.

First ever atlas of airborne microbes in continental USA

Anyone suffering from a horrible allergic reaction to pollen during spring would know the dangers of breathing in airborne particles. But what about substances that are smaller than simple pollen - such as microbes? The air we inhale carries thousands of pathogens but until now there has been no analysis on their specificity and distribution. Scientists from the University of Colorado and the University of San Francisco in collaboration with North Carolina State University and Natural History Museum of Denmark have generated the first ever atlas of airborne bacteria and fungi within the continental United States.

As part of the “Wild Life in Our Homes” project, the scientists asked volunteers to swab dusty surfaces (outside surfaces, upper door trim, etc.,) and send the samples back. Analysing the dust samples revealed an average of 4,700 species of bacteria and more than 1,400 species of fungi from a single swab. In total, they came across 110,000 bacterial and 55,000 fungal species. The data revealed several patterns such as similar composition along east and west coast compared to the interior of the country and homogenous distribution of microbial life in urban places compared to their rural counterparts. This first-of-its-kind study has great implications for the identification of connections between microbial composition of outdoor air and disease outbreaks in plants, animals and humans.

US science academies hope to restrict use of a revolutionary gene editing tool

In April 2015, scientists from Guangzhou, China, published a paper in Protein & Cell, showing their results of editing the DNA in non-viable human embryos using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technique. This kicked up an, already expected, storm over the use of this technique for editing the human genome. Hence, in May, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) announced intent to form a committee and hold an international meeting to discuss the ethical and scientific issues related to the use of CRISPR in human germline editing – the Human Gene Editing Initiative. In June, the 14 members of the advisory group were announced. Among them: David Baltimore, President Emeritus, California Institute of Technology; Jennifer Doudna, one of the discoverers of the CRISPR/Cas system, University of California, Berkeley; Robin Lovell-Badge, Francis-Crick Institute, UK, and Marc Tessier-Lavigne, The Rockefeller University. “The role of the advisory group will be to identify and gather information and advice from the scientific and medical communities that will enable the academies to guide and inform researchers, clinicians, policymakers, and the public,” the press release states. Though the technique has potential to cure debilitating and life threatening genetic disorders, the prospect of altering the genetic makeup of future generations is a major cause for ethical concerns among molecular biologists around the world.

Stanford researchers find pathways and roadblocks to creativity

Creativity plays an important role in our everyday lives. But what makes our brain creative one moment and unimaginative at other times? This has been an unsolved puzzle for many psychologists. One of them is Stanford University’s Allan Reiss. Together with his colleagues and collaborators, he recently found a piece to the puzzle. His work shows that higher activity in the cerebellum, the brain’s movement control centre, promotes creativity while activities in the pre-frontal cortex reduces creativity. “It’s likely that the cerebellum is the coordination centre for the rest of brain, allowing other regions to be more efficient,” Reiss told PsyBlog.

The study had the participants play Pictionary (draw a given word) inside a functional MRI machine, using a non-magnetic drawing board. Though defining creativity using fMRI studies is tricky and debatable, the study has great implications towards a greater understanding of the brain’s cognitive functions. It also gives you an idea how to boost your creative side. “While greater effort to produce creative outcomes involves more activity of executive-control regions, you actually may have to reduce activity in those regions in order to achieve creative outcomes,” Reiss said. Or put more bluntly by the study’s first author, “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.”

Ganesh Vasan

Photo: www.publicdomainpictures.net/Petr Kratochvil

Last Changes: 07.24.2015