Science  02 May 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6183, pp. 455
  1. Botulinum Poison Test Could Save Precious Days

    Quick check.

    A new chip detects the neurotoxin that produces botulism.


    Using a tiny, reactive chip, researchers have developed a quicker and more sensitive test for one of deadliest poisons known to humans. Until now, testing blood samples for botulinum neurotoxin, which causes botulism, has involved injecting a patient's blood into mice, then watching whether they develop symptoms and die.

    But a group of French researchers has found a new way to detect the most deadly variant, botulinum neurotoxin A. They knew that the A toxin breaks apart a protein called SNAP-25 that allows nerves and muscles to communicate, so they affixed SNAP-25 to a tiny chip and exposed it to blood containing the toxin. Then they added an antibody that reacts with SNAP-25 only if it has been broken down by neurotoxin A. The chip can detect the toxin in a matter of hours, instead of days, and at much lower concentrations than the mouse test, they report in an upcoming issue of Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

    Additional labs will need to confirm the test's effectiveness before it will be ready for use in patients. The group is working to expand the test to other botulinum toxin variants.

  2. Sheep Domestication Caught in the Act


    Sheep were stabled amid houses.


    The domestication of plants and animals, beginning about 10,500 years ago in the Middle East, set humans on the road to complex civilization. But archaeologists rarely find evidence of domestication in action. Researchers studying the 11,000-year-old farming site of Aşıklı Höyük in central Turkey, however, traced the settlement's transition from hunting wild animals to herding sheep, thanks to piles of ancient dung.

    During the key transition period between hunting wild sheep and herding them, which began about 10,200 years ago and unfolded over several centuries, the sheep were stabled between stone and mudbrick houses, as shown by dung deposits found within the village. The authors, who published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, suggest that hunter-gatherers-turned-farmers employed animal herding as a way of resolving the "scheduling conflict" between staying put to tend their fields and roaming afar to hunt wild animals.

  3. MERS Antibodies Identified

    Two groups of scientists have identified antibodies against the deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) virus, which appears to be exploding in Saudi Arabia (p. 457). The findings could help fight the virus in patients or even prevent new infections with MERS, for which no therapies or vaccines exist.

    Wayne Marasco and his team at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston screened a library of 27 billion human antibodies and found seven that could block the important spike protein on the viral surface from binding to its receptor on human cells; Linqi Zhang and colleagues at Tsinghua University in Beijing identified two antibodies that do the same. The papers, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Science Translational Medicine, respectively, are encouraging, says virologist Bart Haagmans of Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, but without a good animal model for MERS, testing the antibodies will be challenging. And identifying patients early enough for the treatment to be useful "may be quite difficult logistically."

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