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Living in the Future: June 3, 2013

This week: Easing diabetes through nanoparticles, yoghurt and cognition, and “orphan crop” genomes go open source.

Type-I Diabetes is a disease associated with a lack of sufficient insulin production in the body, and most people with diabetes must monitor their blood sugar levels, and inject themselves with extra insulin. A new development may mitigate that need significantly; scientists at the University of North Carolina have designed an injectable nanoparticle that automatically releases insulin when blood sugar rises too high. In studies with mice, a single injection sufficed for 10 days of monitor-free blood sugar regulation. In humans, this could significantly reduce the number of injections needed. The nanoparticles rely on creation of a mild acid in glucose-rich environments to release insulin, a similar method to how the pancreas regulates blood sugar levels.

You’ve heard the expression, “You are what you eat”. Due to a recent study, it appears that phrase may have to change to “You think like your gut bacteria eat”. Scientists at UCLA have expressed surprise at the recent results of a human-trial study, where women who ate yoghurt filled with “pro-biotic” bacteria twice a day. The results of that study revealed a strange correlation: the women who ate the yoghurt showed an increase in bloodflow to the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, an area that affects cognition, with an offset in bloodflow to the part of the brain that regulates body sensation. This particular study only showed a possibility of gut bacteria affecting cognition, but it may indicate that what we eat affects how we think more directly than we ever thought!

Speaking of eating food, while the “big five” food companies have patents and proprietary secrets over major world crops, there are many crops whose genetic code has remained unresearched and unremarked. Many of these “orphan crops” are primary food crops for African countries, and lack of study has meant a lack of genetic information available to farmers. But the Agriculture director of the Mars corporation hopes to change that. Following in a 2010 decision to make the genetic code of chocolate available to everyone, Howard-Yana Shapiro is planning to work with American and Chinese scientists to sequence and make public the genetic makeup of crops like yams, millet, tef, cassava, and sweet potatoes. Making these genetic sequences available would help farmers identify the best plants to cross for stronger and healthier plants, not to modify the genes directly.