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Top stories: A softer side to computers, fruit for thought, and home is where the mouse is

Scientists turn mammalian cells into complex biocomputers

Computer hardware is getting a softer side. A research team has come up with a way of genetically engineering the DNA of mammalian cells to carry out complex computations, in effect turning the cells into biocomputers. The group hasn’t put those modified cells to work in useful ways yet, but down the road researchers hope the new programming techniques will help improve everything from cancer therapy to on-demand tissues that can replace worn-out body parts.

 

Is fruit eating responsible for big brains?

Ask any biologist what makes primates special, and they’ll tell you the same thing: big brains. Those impressive noggins make it possible for primates from spider monkeys to humans to use tools, find food, and navigate the complex relationships of group living. But scientists disagree on what drove primates to evolve big brains in the first place. Now, a new study comes to an unexpected conclusion: fruit.

When did humans settle down? The house mouse may have the answer

Sometime about 10,000 years ago, the earliest farmers put down their roots—literally and figuratively. Agriculture opened the door to stable food supplies, and it let hunter-gatherers build permanent dwellings that morphed into complex societies. But how that transition played out is a contentiously debated topic. Now, a new study shows that our path to domesticity zig-zagged between periods of sedentary life and a roaming, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The evidence? The presence—and absence—of the common house mouse.

Underground labs in China are devising potent new opiates faster than authorities can respond

The opium poppy is no longer the starting point for many street drugs in the United States, where deaths involving natural and synthetic opiates hit 33,091 in 2015. New compounds like fentanyl—a painkiller about 100 times more potent than morphine—are coming from underground labs in China, where authorities are just beginning to cooperate with U.S. drug enforcement agencies to combat the scourge. Meanwhile, those same labs are cooking up new, unregulated versions of fentanyl, some of them even more potent than the original.

Trump wants 2018 NIH cut to come from overhead payments

The Trump administration could slash $5.8 billion from the 2018 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), yet still fund at least as much research by eliminating overhead payments to universities and research institutions, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tom Price told lawmakers this week. The hearing, before the appropriations subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives that oversees the HHS budget, included several questions about the 18% cut to NIH’s $31.7 billion budget that President Donald Trump has proposed. Cuts of that size have outraged biomedical research groups and drawn opposition from both Democrats and many Republicans in Congress.