Editors' Choice

Science  13 Jun 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6189, pp. 1239
  1. Neuroscience

    Making excitatory synapses slow (or fast)

    1. Peter Stern

    Glutamate release in a neuronal synapse.


    Glutamate is the most widely used neurotransmitter in the brain. Glutamate receptors in the mammalian brain are macromolecular complexes assembled from a pool of different proteins. Several proteins in these complexes, including cornichon homolog 2 (CNIH2), are known to influence the workings of certain glutamate receptors of the AMPA type, but their precise roles are unknown. Boudkkazi et al. recorded synaptic transmission between hippocampal neurons and inhibited CNIH2 expression with small interfering RNAs to investigate the role CNIH2 plays at different synapses. They found that CNIH2 profoundly affected the timing of synaptic transmission—CNIH2 slowed things down, whereas its absence sped things up. Such careful kinetic regulation is necessary because speed is more important for some tasks, whereas reliability, the successful transmission of a signal across the synapse, is more important for others.

    Neuron 82, 848 (2014).

  2. Neurological Disease

    Skin may hold the key for Parkinson's

    1. Pamela J. Hines

    In Parkinson's disease, a degenerative movement disorder of the central nervous system, a protein called phosphorylated alpha-synuclein builds up in neurons, damaging the brain. The disease is hard to diagnose early or monitor over time because the protein builds up so slowly and so deep inside the brain. Doppler et al. now report that patient skin samples hold key insights. The authors detected phosphorylated alpha-synuclein in autonomic and sensory nerves found in the skin samples in 16 out of 31 people diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and in 0 out of 35 healthy volunteers. Because skin is far more accessible than brain tissue, these observations could lead to diagnostic tests to identify and follow the progression of Parkinson's disease.

    Acta Neuropathol. 10.1007/s00401-014-1284-0 (2014).

  3. Education

    Active learning: The twilight of Chem 101?

    1. Melissa McCartney

    Should professors continue to use traditional lectures in undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classrooms? Freeman et al. performed a meta-analysis of 225 studies that evaluated how students performed in traditional lecture classes as compared to in courses with at least some active learning. Traditional lecturing led to a 55% increase in student failure rates, they found, whereas active learning increased examination performance by approximately half a letter grade. Besides supporting active learning as the preferred teaching format in science classrooms, these results call into question the practice of using traditional lecture courses as control groups in research studies that evaluate new teaching methods.

    Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 10.1073/pnas.1319030111 (2014).

  4. Cell Metabolism

    “Tricking” the body to burn calories

    1. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

    Activating immune cells in fat can convert tissue from white fat, which stores energy, to something resembling brown fat, which burns it. Until now, the only way known to “brown” white fat was with exposure to cold. In one of two new studies in mice, Qiu et al. found that activating macrophages, a type of immune cell, helps brown white fat. Meanwhile, Rao et al. found that boosting levels of a hormone induced in muscle or after cold exposure helps activate the macrophages, brown fat, and improve glucose tolerance. The research opens up potential new strategies for tackling obesity and diabetes, because it could lead to ways of increasing energy expenditure.

    Cell 10.1016/j.cell.2014.03.065 (2014).

  5. Rare Genetic Diseases

    A role for Mom's genes in Prader-Willi syndrome

    1. Beverly A. Purnell

    Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by intellectual impairment, behavioral and learning disabilities, and other features, occurs in about 1 in 15,000 to 25,000 births. In most cases, the syndrome results when cells fail to express a part of chromosome 15 inherited from the father, but Steltzer et al. now show a maternal contribution as well. Cells taken from patients, they found, expressed higher amounts of genes from a specific section of chromosome 14, but only those genes inherited from the mother. The cells turned on those maternal genes by suppressing a long non-coding RNA and by modifying histones—proteins that regulate gene expression. Understanding what makes genes turn on and off inappropriately in individuals with Prader-Willi syndrome may help illuminate the causes of this disease and point the way toward treatments.

    Nat Genet. 10.1038/ng.2968 (2014).

  6. Economics

    Expertise: Sometimes blinding and costly

    1. Brad Wible

    Underwater Indonesian seaweed farmer.


    Experts trying to solve global challenges often call for new technologies and access to information, but they might do better to take a harder look at what they've been doing all along, to see whether they've missed some simple solution that could make a dramatic difference. Building on literature in economics and learning sciences, Hanna et al. studied Indonesian seaweed farmers and found that, despite years of experience that showed the importance of factors such as the spacing of pods during planting, the farmers hadn't noticed that adjusting pod size might be useful as well. This work may help improve the way technologies and training are deployed, in agriculture and beyond.


  7. Astrophysics

    One shot for stardom and a clean sweep

    1. Margaret M. Moerchen

    In galactic regions experiencing lively bouts of star formation, we sometimes find tidy spheres of massive stars without residual gas. These young star associations offer astronomers an enhanced, dense environment in which to study star formation, quite unlike our own more sedate solar neighborhood. How these clusters formed has been a longstanding puzzle. Previous observational evidence suggested that a parent gas cloud could fragment into many cores, forming stars that energize and sweep away the remaining gas. Banerjee and Kroupa have now reproduced the central young cluster in NGC 3603 with a simulation involving just one episode of star birth, supporting that hypothesis. According to the authors, this scenario can explain the formation of clusters such as the Pleiades and Orion as well.

    Astrophys. J. 787, 158 (2014).

  8. Biofilms

    Broad-spectrum bug biofilm buster

    1. Caroline Ash

    The deadly pathogen Staphylococcus aureus.


    Imagine slime growing on your heart valves. Such infections, which happen all too often and are often deadly, can be eradicated by blocking stress responses in biofilm-producing bacteria—that is, fighting the bacteria's defenses. Unfortunately, however, there are no approved biofilm-busting drugs yet, so Fuente-Núñez et al. went looking for one. They knew that small positively charged synthetic peptides can stop biofilm formation in many antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens, such as Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, and Salmonella. When they performed a screening assay of small peptides, they found a candidate that acts on an important stress pathway. Bacteria use the pathway to synthesize the signaling nucleotide ppGpp. Without ppGpp, the bacteria have trouble forming biofilms and even staying alive. The candidate, peptide 1018, binds directly to ppGpp and degrades it, stopping deadly pathogens in their tracks.

    PLOS Biol. 10, e1004152 (2014).

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