E. coli bacteria could be the key to new, unnatural drugs.
E. coli bacteria could be the key to new, unnatural drugs. NIAID/CC BY 2.0

It’s a wide and wonderful world out there, and frankly we can’t always keep up with it all. Atlas Obscura’s ‘The Week In…’ is here to help! Each Friday, we track down the interesting things you didn’t even know you missed. This week, we’re getting small and catching up on all the latest developments from the microscopic world.

It’s been a very big week for very small things. Most sensationally, we may have found extraterrestrial bacteria clinging to the walls of the International Space Station, at least if one cosmonaut is to be believed. But the improbable discovery of tiny alien life right in our celestial backyard isn’t the only startling revelation from the microverse to hit the news this week. From a virus shortage to the effect of kindness on baby molecules to unnatural DNA, here’s all the big news your naked eye might have missed.

Let’s Play God!

Genetic scientists revealed this week that they have developed a bacterium that can create proteins not found in nature. To put it in grossly simplistic terms, they have built man-made forms of DNA that can be programmed to spit out proteins that have never been found in the natural world, which could be hugely beneficial in the development of new drugs. While they admit to there being a significant danger to these mutant proteins making it out into delicate natural ecosystems, they tell NPR that their creations aren’t strong enough to survive outside of a lab setting, so there’s nothing to worry about. It’s unclear whether or not they’ve actually seen Jurassic Park. [Nature]

Look at the Genes on That Snowflake

Holding your baby could lead to stronger genes.
Holding your baby could lead to stronger genes. Amanda Mills, USCDCP/Public Domain

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have released a new report that implies that the amount of touch an infant receives has a direct affect on their genetic health. According to the results of the study, infants who were more stressed and received less physical affection had underdeveloped molecular health, which has been linked to negative health effects in later life. Put simply, the children that were cuddled between the ages of 5 weeks to around 4 1/2 years displayed a superior genetic makeup. While the concrete connections between the molecular health of children and their longevity as adults are not fully understood, it is looking increasingly like being cuddled as a child may have far-reaching implications for overall health. [Science Daily]

Finally, We Can Prolong the Lives of Worms

In news that sounds a bit silly now but might be looked back upon as a vital discovery when we are 356, researchers have located a common enzyme that they think contributes to aging and cellular decay in worms. In a recently published study, they found that by inhibiting the RNA polymerase III (Pol III) enzyme in flies and worms, they could extend their lifespans by limiting the enzyme’s negative effects on cells. The best part is that Pol III is found in all kinds of living beings, including humans, which means that future research could lead to similar anti-aging results in humans, giving us a few more years too! If it works, we might actually live long enough to see it in action. [Nature]

Virus Workers, Unite!

From too many germs to not enough, a story in The New York Times this week points out a peculiar stumbling block for the advancement of gene therapy: we have a virus shortage. Gene therapy works by going in and altering cells at the genetic level to correct imbalances or cure abnormalities. The field is at the cutting edge of medical technology, and will likely be the norm someday, but for now it is still pretty experimental and costly. To get their custom genes into target cells, nearly all gene therapy treatments use custom viruses as delivery guys, but unfortunately there aren’t enough viruses to go around, so some biotech companies have begun creating their own virus factories instead of buying them from third parties. While this could lead to quicker and cheaper advances in gene therapy, it could also create a whole new meaning to the term “industrial accident.” [New York Times]

Shoo Fly, You’re Carrying Nauseating Levels of Bacteria

Could this be the next star of an outbreak thriller?
Could this be the next star of an outbreak thriller? Max Pixel/Public Domain

Remember how surprising it was when you found out that dog tongues were actually incredibly clean? Well, a recent study showing that flies carry far more germs and diseases than previously thought is the opposite of that. According to a recent study out of Penn State, flies are carrying hundreds of diseases and other germs on their wings and legs, and dropping them off where they land. Flies found in urban areas were found to be even more contaminated than their rural counterparts. While flies have always been known to be gross, their utility as a disease vector has not been often considered. Hopefully we can stop worrying about outbreak monkeys and start paying attention to the danger of plague flies. [Phys.org]