Top stories: A Nobel for hungry cells, a CRISPR patent battle, and the science of yawns

(Left to right): Daisuke Tashiro/Wikimedia Commons; Akiko Matsushita/Associated Press; Stephen Alvarez/National Geographic Creative

Top stories: A Nobel for hungry cells, a CRISPR patent battle, and the science of yawns

Nobel honors discoveries on how cells eat themselves

This year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi, a cell biologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Frontier Research Center, for his work on autophagy, the process in which cells degrade and recycle cellular components. Understanding autophagy is key to unlocking treatments for diseases like cancer, diabetes, and Huntington disease.

This protein is mutated in half of all cancers. New drugs aim to fix it before it’s too late

The p53 protein sounds the alarm to kill cells with DNA damage, preventing them from becoming cancerous. Of the nearly 1.7 million people diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States alone, about half have mutated versions of p53. But it has been nearly impossible to get a good look at the protein in action. Now, one computational biologist is using supercomputers to view the quivering activity of millions of p53 atoms as they wrap themselves around DNA strands, an essential part of the cellular destruction dance. Some simulations are also revealing something else: a fingerhold for a potential cancer-treating drug.

Dramatic twists could upend patent battle over CRISPR genome-editing method

The 9-month-old patent battle over CRISPR, a novel genome-editing tool that could have immense commercial value, has taken two surprising twists. Last week, attorneys for the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the research organizations vying for CRISPR rights, submitted motions that could let it win even if it loses. And this week, a new player in the drama, a French biopharmaceutical company called Cellectis, may have made the whole fight moot, revealing it has just been issued patents that it says broadly cover genome-editing methods, including CRISPR.

The bigger your brain, the longer you yawn

Scientists still don’t agree on why we yawn or where it came from. So in a new study, scientists watched YouTube videos of 29 different yawning mammals, including mice, kittens, foxes, hedgehogs, walruses, elephants, and humans. (Here is a particularly cute montage used in the study.) They discovered a pattern: Small-brained animals with fewer neurons in the wrinkly outer layer of the brain, called the cortex, had shorter yawns than large-brained animals with more cortical neurons. The study lends support to a long-held hypothesis that yawning has an important physiological effect, such as increasing blood flow to the brain and cooling it down.

‘Game-changing’ study suggests first Polynesians voyaged all the way from East Asia

It was only 3000 years ago that humans first set foot on Fiji and other isolated islands of the Pacific, having sailed across thousands of kilometers of ocean. Yet the identity of these intrepid seafarers has been lost to time. They left a trail of distinctive red pottery but few other clues, and scientists have confronted two different scenarios: The explorers were either farmers who sailed directly from mainland East Asia to the remote islands, or people who mixed with hunter-gatherers they met along the way in Melanesia, including Papua New Guinea. Now, the first genome-wide study of ancient DNA from prehistoric Polynesians has boosted the first idea: that these ancient mariners were East Asians who swept out into the Pacific.

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