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This week in Zika: An anniversary, how the virus kills brain cells and more

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One year ago, Brazil reported the first laboratory-confirmed cases of Zika.

The virus had cropped up elsewhere in a few earlier outbreaks, too, but it didn’t seem all that threatening at the time. Zika symptoms were generally pretty mild — or even nonexistent, the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization reported in an epidemiological alert May 7, 2015. The alert made no mention of pregnant women, babies or microcephaly. In fact, it noted: “Complications (neurological, autoimmune) are rare.”

What a difference a year makes.

Now scientists have convincingly tied Zika infection to birth defects, and suspect it’s behind an uptick in neurological disorders in adults, too. But researchers are still figuring out how the virus acts, and how to stop it. A vaccine is in the works, but could take years.

So Zika-fighting tactics have gotten creative. A new billboard in Brazil lures mosquitoes in with spritzes of humanlike scent, and then traps them inside a chamber to die. (It kills hundreds of mosquitoes a day, the billboard’s makers tout, but scientists have yet to weigh in.) Researchers have recently explored other methods to rein in Zika. This and more from recent research:

  • The best weapon against Zika may be a mosquito-infecting bacteria. Mosquitoes harboring Wolbachia pipientis resisted infection from two strains of Zika virus circulating in Brazil, researchers report May 4 in Cell Host & Microbe. And if Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes do get infected, they’re less likely to transmit the virus. Releasing these mosquitoes in the wild could help halt Zika’s spread
  • An antimalarial drug called chloroquine could also work against Zika. When added to human brain cells and mouse minibrains in the lab, the drug helped prevent Zika infection. It also kept minibrains looking somewhat healthy, researchers report May 2 at bioRxiv.org. Chloroquine is a promising candidate for clinical trials, the authors write, because it’s safe for use in pregnant women.
  • lab images of minibrainsZika kills brain cells by cranking up production of a protein that triggers cellular self-destruction, researchers report May 6 in Cell Stem Cell. Scientists knew that infection with the virus could kill cells, shrinking minibrains grown in the lab, but until now, they didn’t understand how. The protein, an immune molecule called TLR3, could act as a target for therapies.
  • A new paper-based Zika test could offer doctors a quick and easy way to detect the virus. The test senses Zika RNA and can differentiate between African and American strains, scientists report May 6 in Cell. Though still in the proof-of-concept stage, the test was able to confirm Zika’s presence in samples from an infected macaque. The news comes on the heels of the FDA’s recent approval of a commercial test for Zika.
Astronomy

Mercury is about to make a rare journey across the face of the sun

By Christopher Crockett 8:53am, May 6, 2016
On May 9, Mercury will make a rare appearance as a small dot passing across the face of the sun.
Plants,, Genetics

Venus flytraps use defensive genes for predation

By Helen Thompson 4:21pm, May 5, 2016
Genetic analysis suggests that Venus flytraps repurposed plant defenses against herbivores to live the carnivore life.
Animals,, Genetics

Why Labrador retrievers are obsessed with food

By Helen Thompson 1:53pm, May 4, 2016
A genetic variant could explain obesity trends seen in Labrador retrievers.
Animals,, Evolution

Male giant water bugs win females by babysitting

By Susan Milius 7:05pm, May 3, 2016
Female giant water bugs prefer males already caring for eggs, an evolutionary force for maintaining parental care.
Particle Physics,, Science & Society

A weasel has shut down the Large Hadron Collider

By Helen Thompson 2:00pm, April 29, 2016
A tiny furball brought Earth’s most powerful particle accelerator to its knees this morning.
Health,, Microbiology

This week in Zika: Haiti hit early, possible monkey hosts, and more

By Meghan Rosen 12:54pm, April 29, 2016
A new test for Zika, how Haiti fits into the outbreak timeline, a look at monkeys that can carry the virus, and more in this week’s Zika Watch.
Astronomy

Japan’s latest X-ray telescope is officially dead

By Christopher Crockett 6:51pm, April 28, 2016
The Japanese space agency has officially declared its latest X-ray telescope a loss.
Plants

Nightshade plants bleed sugar as a call to ants for backup

By Helen Thompson 4:08pm, April 28, 2016
Bittersweet nightshade produces sugary wound goo to lure in ant protectors that eat herbivores, researchers have found.
Planetary Science

Hubble telescope finds small moon orbiting dwarf planet Makemake

By Christopher Crockett 11:31am, April 27, 2016
Hubble Space Telescope images from April 2015 show that the dwarf planet Makemake has a tiny moon.
Science & Society,, Neuroscience

Findings on wobbly memories questioned

By Laura Sanders 3:00pm, April 25, 2016
In contrast to older studies, new results suggest that new memories don’t interfere with older, similar ones.
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