Genes & Cells

Mouse fur yields insights into genetics of camouflage, plus more in this week’s news

Cleft palates linked to genes, environment
A baby’s risk of being born with a cleft palate may depend on both the baby’s genes and whether mom smoked, drank or took vitamins during pregnancy, a new study shows. Researchers examining genetic risk combined with maternal smoking, drinking and vitamin use found that environmental factors can interact with certain genes to raise or lower risk of the malformation, reported Johns Hopkins University genetic epidemiologist Terri Beaty February 20 at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Binge drinking and smoking early in pregnancy interact with some genes to raise the risk of clefts. Multivitamins interact with other genes to protect against clefts. “It’s not just the effect of the genes alone,” Beaty says, “you have to consider the circumstances.” —Tina Hesman Saey

Color-me mouse
Florida beach mice have a protein called Agouti to thank for the white fur that helps them blend in with pale sands. Agouti also sets up the pattern of brown backs and white tummies that helps other deer mice hide in fields, scientists from Harvard University report in the Feb. 25 Science.  The study shows that Agouti stops pigment-producing cells from maturing and coloring the fur. Small changes in the levels of the protein in skin may lead to a variety of color patterns and may have been important in the evolution of camouflage. —Tina Hesman Saey

Fast-forward aging
Stem cells growing in a lab may give clues to how blood vessels and arteries age. Scientists have created embryonic-like stem cells from children with a rare, fatal premature aging disease called Hutchinson-Guilford progeria syndrome. Children with the disease age eight to 10 times faster than normal. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., and colleagues report online February 23 in Nature that they have coaxed the stem cells to make smooth muscle cells like those found in veins and arteries. The team also found a new link between a protein mutated in the disease and another aging factor. Researchers in Singapore reported making similar stem cells in the Jan. 7 Cell Stem Cell. —Tina Hesman Saey

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