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Science Beat

by Will Houston

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STFNew strain of avian flu begins to spread through China

Last week in China, a strain of the bird flu labeled H7N9 virus killed six of the 21 Chinese citizens reported to have contracted the disease. Though the spread of the disease may seem minimal, many flu researchers say the number of cases is relatively large for the early stage of the outbreak. The first case of a H7N9 was reported in mid-February and has since been confirmed in several locations nationwide.

The Shanghai Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported no evidence suggesting the disease can spread among human beings. Current cases have occurred from contact with infected birds. However, Shanghai officials are taking every necessary precaution to prevent further spread of the disease. Last Thursday, more than 20,000 birds at a market in Songjiang were slaughtered after a report of an infected pigeon. Though these precautions seem drastic, local authorities say it was necessary because of hidden symptoms of the H7N9 strain in birds. Unlike previous strains such as H5N1, birds infected with the H7N9 strain display no signs of illness, making detection and tracking of the disease much more arduous.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with China to further quell the spread of the disease and has told U.S. citizens to be on the lookout for any symptoms. The CDC created diagnostic kits for Chinese and U.S. citizens, and hopes to create a vaccine should the disease begin to spread among humans.

The emergence of this new, and possibly deadly, strain alludes to the H5N1 bird flu outbreak of 2003, which killed about 60 percent of the 622 people infected. Researchers are unsure how the H7N9 virus will compare to H5N1, but many are worried that the new strain is adapting to infect mammals.

The outbreak of the H7N9 virus in China will be an important story to follow for the SDSU students attending the study abroad course this summer in Xiamen, China. The two-week course will focus on the spread of infectious diseases and global change in China.


Three-year study provides evidence on the origins of life

For millennia, human beings have asked the unsolvable question, “Why are we here?” One approach to answering this perplexing inquiry is with another question: “How did we get here?”

A three-year study by Florida State University College of Medicine structural biologist Michael Blaber and his research team sought to peel back the mystery to discover just how life came to be more than 3.5 billion years ago.

Blaber’s study suggests 10 amino acids that may have existed before Earth’s environment was able to sustain life, were able to form proteins that could fold in high-salt environments. The proteins formed by these prebiotic amino acids would then be capable of carrying out basic metabolic activities for the first organisms on the Earth.

The results of Blaber’s study are among many other theories concerning the origin of life. Many of these theories suggest ribonucleic acid molecules were the original building blocks of life. Other theories suggest life only adapted to high-salt environments and were created in high-temperature environments such as hydrothermal vents in the ocean. Blaber said life took a much different path than was previously thought.

“There are numerous niches that life can evolve into,” Blaber said in a press release. “For example, extremophiles are organisms that exist in high temperatures, high acidity, extreme cold…and so on. For life to exist in such environments it is essential that proteins are able to adapt in those conditions. In other words, they have to be able to fold.”

Recent evidence of the presence of amino acids in comet fragments suggest the building blocks of life were brought from the cosmos. Of the 20 common amino acids, 10 are created through biotic pathways and the other 10 were created through chemical processes predating the origin of life. Blaber used this piece of information to experiment on the different ways these amino acids formed peptide bonds. From this, he was able to create a protein from 12 of the amino acids that are capable of folding.

Should Blaber’s theory hold true, scientists across the globe will have to rethink the process that led to life’s arrival.

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