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Scientists Discover A Process That Regulates Forgetting

Where did I park the car? In a study published last week in the journal Cell, scientists searched through potential genes in the roundworm C. elegans in order to find a likely candidate involved in forgetting. They subsequently discovered a gene that produces a particular protein, called musashi, that was found to be critical for time-dependent memory loss. In a learning task investigating the movement of these animals in response to either attractant or repellant odorants, they found that the genetically modified worms lacking musashi had the same learning abilities as their unmodified counterparts. Then, in a longer experiment, the ability of these animals to retain a particular behaviour over time was tested, and it was discovered that the worms lacking musashi showed a strong increase in memory-retention. In other words, the worms lacking the musashi protein could remember things just as well as the unmodified worms, but they forgot less information.  While it is still early days, it is hoped that further study into this field may yield advances in the discovery of therapeutic targets in certain diseases involving memory loss, such as Alzheimer’s.

What time is my dentist appointment? Did I lock the doors? Oh no, it’s Mom’s birthday tomorrow! We are all very familiar with forgetting. It’s incredibly frustrating, and sometimes it seems like your brain just isn’t working. But it turns out that forgetting is just important as remembering; and it’s actively regulated. Forgetting ensures that unnecessary information is removed from the brain, and is critical for its normal functioning.  Neurons are a type of brain cell, and the connections between these cells that facilitates cellular communication are called synapses. These connections strengthen in the process of learning and memory formation, which was found to be assisted by the protein adducin. Musashi, however, was found to disrupt this by inhibiting the production of certain proteins which facilitate the stabilisation of synaptic connections. The study concluded that a delicate balance between these two pathways is required for memory retention, and that an imbalance may result in altered memory function and could possibly contribute to memory-related disorders.

Researchers examining easily the best preserved mammoth ever found believe it may be possible to clone the individual and bring the extinct species back to life. However, they acknowledge that what would be produced would not be the same creature as what went extinct 4000 years ago. They have also sounded a note of caution on the ethics of such an operation.  The idea of resurrecting extinct species through their DNA has attracted much debate, with the Revive and Restore organization founded to implement the idea. However, mammoths would present a particular problem, since such giant creatures would certainly be a challenge to raise. With extensive evidence that the last members of their species outlasted the Ice Age by thousands of years, the knee-jerk objection that no suitable habitat remains is probably not correct. Moreover, the large herbivores are essential to the ecology of the savannahs, so it is possible that herds of mammoths would change the Arctic tundra to an ecosystem more resistant to melting. On the other hand, the experience of surrogacy to a different species might be considered cruel for the host elephant, and given the high failure rate of cloning this might need to happen many times. Moreover, it is unclear how a natural herd animal would cope with being the first of its kind. More broadly, the revival of even a single extinct species, particularly such a high profile one, would see immediate pressure for the winding back or scrapping of endangered species legislation, possibly leading to the demise of far more species than could be saved by such techniques.

The cold temperatures in which mammoths lived and died mean they are often much better preserved than other species of equivalent age – but a specimen found last year in the Sakha Republic, eastern Siberia, is an exceptional case even for mammoths. “We have dissected the soft tissues of the mammoth – and I must say that we didn’t expect such results. The carcass that is more than 43,000 years old has preserved better than a body of a human buried for six months,” said Viktoria Egorova, of the North-Eastern Federal University. “The tissue cut clearly shows blood vessels with strong walls. Inside the vessels there is haemolysed blood, where for the first time we have found erythrocytes.Muscle and adipose tissues are well preserved.” The blood even preserves the record of what was apparently a drawn-out and painful death. It is thought the mammoth fell into an ice cave and while the top section was eaten by animals, the legs, trunk and some of the internal organs are very well preserved. Scientists from several countries are studying the contents of the stomach to identify the mammoth’s last meal and examining solid fragments that may be kidney stones. The likely collection of intact DNA will provide opportunities to learn more about the ways the mammoth differed from its closest living relative, the Asian elephant. It will also supercharge the discussion about bringing the mammoth back from the dead. “The data we are about to receive will give us a high chance to clone the mammoth,” Radic Khayrullin, vice president of the Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists told The Siberian Times.  Khayrullin was quick to endorse the importance of a considering the implications of such a big move. “We must have a reason to do this, as it is one thing to clone it for scientific purpose, and another to clone for the sake of curiosity,” he said. Team members also pointed out that any such project was likely to take decades. While a cloned mammoth would represent one of the greatest tourist attractions on Earth, the DNA would need to be inserted into an elephant egg, as well as using a living species as a surrogate. Khayrullin noted, “It will be a different mammoth to the one living 43,000 years ago, specially taking into account that there will be interbreeding with a female elephant.” Moreover, no elephant could teach a mammoth baby how to live on the icy Siberian steppes.
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