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April 16, 2024

Science news in review: Feb. 18

By SONYA ZHANG | February 18, 2024



A new study reveals smoking’s long-lasting effects on immune system function and genetic activity even after individuals have quit smoking. 

As the midterm season begins to pick up, we recommend taking a breather and reading about this week’s biggest headliners in science and technology: Smoking causes even more harm than previously anticipated, SpaceX is launching a spacecraft to reach the moon, scientists discovered a reason behind long-lasting allergies and newly engineered beef-rice may help address food insecurity.

Permanent effects of smoking extend beyond the lungs

Smoking has long been known to cause long-term respiratory illness. Building on top of existing literature, a recent study published in Nature found that smoking can have a persistent impact on the immune system even after individuals have quit smoking.

A team of researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris used blood samples from 1,000 healthy individuals in Brittany, France and exposed them to agents that are known to activate the immune system. They then measured the agents’ impact on cytokine production, which can reflect inflammatory responses in the body.

The study revealed that cigarette smoking, even after quitting, may have a significant impact on cytokine responses comparable to the effects of age, sex and genetics. The team noted correlations between smoking, cytokine responses and DNA methylation patterns, suggesting alterations in genetic activity due to smoking-induced chemical modifications.

SpaceX and a possibly historic moon landing

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 1:05 a.m. EST from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, Feb. 15, carrying a spacecraft heading for the moon. It has been estimated to make a soft landing on Thursday, Feb. 22.

If successful, this mission could mark the first U.S. soft moon landing since the Apollo era and the historic debut of a commercial vehicle on the lunar surface. Soft landing means a slow and controlled descent of a spacecraft on the lunar surface that aims to minimize damage to the spacecraft. The spacecraft, developed by Intuitive Machines, is a part of NASA's Artemis campaign, which aims to bring the first woman and first person of color to the moon to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before.

The mission is being conducted under a contract with NASA and is part of NASA's recent shift toward utilizing commercial partnerships for space exploration.

The reason behind long-lasting allergies and the discovery of a new immune cell

Two independent groups of researchers identified a specialized immune cell called type 2 memory B cell (MBC2) which contributes to long-term allergies in humans for years — often over a lifetime.

Our immune system is responsible for initiating protective responses to possibly dangerous pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Allergies start in the immune system. When someone is exposed to an allergen like pollen, the immune system can overreact by producing antibodies that can initiate symptoms such as itching. 

In general, memory B cells are responsible for holding a memory of a specific antigen, allowing one’s body to quickly produce antibodies to defend against repeated infections. 

The newly discovered MBC2 cells are specialized to produce antigens specific to proteins often found in common allergens and maintain the memory of allergens. This finding may lead to treatments to eliminate long-term allergies.

Beef... rice? A new laboratory grown food

Lab-grown meat products have been on the rise as a possible alternative to the environmentally harmful process of raising livestock.

Earlier this week, a South Korean research team published their findings in Matter. Using a standard technique of growing animal cells in an extracellular scaffold, this group of researchers was able to culture beef on a porous scaffold of rice, creating a unique hybrid called beef-rice that has more protein and fat than regular rice.

The team hopes their work will be used to address food insecurity and reduce the environmental impact of raising livestock by providing a nutritious alternative to regular beef. If scientists can further boost the nutritional value of beef-rice and scale up production to make it more affordable, the new food could become a sustainable and cost-effective alternative to regular meat products.

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