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Stories written by marylajolla

Settling the dinosaur-demise debate

Thirty years ago, the idea was put forth that a giant asteroid striking the Earth 65.5 million years ago led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and myriad other life forms on the planet. Other explanations were proposed that favored multiple asteroid impacts, massive volcanic eruptions or other precipitating events. Debate has been lively ever since.

Combating depression with video games

Video games that combine play with exercise (“exergames”) are being investigated as a treatment for seniors with a common form of depression.

In a pilot study, 19 participants with subsyndromal depression (SSD) played an exergame three times a week. The participants ranged in age from 63 to 94 years and played one of five Nintendo Wii sports games: tennis, bowling, baseball, golf or boxing. More than one-third of the participants had a 50 percent or greater reduction of depressive symptoms.

SSD is much more common than major depression in seniors, and is associated with substantial suffering, functional disability, and increased use of costly medical services. Physical activity can improve depression; however, fewer than five percent of older adults meet physical activity recommendations. Exergames offer a novel treatment.

UCSD researcher pens ‘Stem Cells for Dummies’

Early last year, a literary agent phoned Lawrence Goldstein, Ph.D., and asked if he wanted to write a book. But not just any book. The agent wanted him to write “Stem Cells for Dummies.”

Director of the UCSD Stem Cell Program, Goldstein is a professor of cellular and molecular medicine, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and has testified in Sacramento and on Capitol Hill in support of stem cell research and biomedical research funding. Did it concern him that writing a “Dummies” book might be looked upon by his academic colleagues as less than dignified?

Honeybees warn of danger with signal

Honeybees use a waggle dance to communicate to nest mates the location of food and other resources. But what happens when bees sense danger? In a series of experiments, UCSD researchers observed that foraging honeybees attacked by competitors over a food source produced a signal which stopped the waggle dance of nest mates, thereby halting the recruitment of the hive to a dangerous location.

The “stop” signal lasts a tenth of a second, during which the bee vibrates at about 380 times a second, and is frequently accompanied by a head butt or the sender climbing on top of the receiver to deliver the message. Previously, biologists had interpreted this behavior as a “begging call” for food, but now have established its role in producing negative feedback in which actions are stopped for the good of the colony.

The discovery is detailed in the journal Current Biology. News release

Local team involved in unraveling mystery of SIDS

Low levels of serotonin in the brain may be linked to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the leading cause of death among infants 1 month to 12 months of age. The body uses serotonin to regulate breathing and heart rate during sleep. SIDS is the sudden unexpected death of an infant, apparently occurring during sleep, in which the cause of death remains unexplained after a thorough investigation.

Researchers from Harvard and Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego compared tissue samples of 41 SIDS babies with seven babies who died of other causes and five babies hospitalized with low oxygen levels prior to death.

In 35 of the 41 SIDS babies, serotonin levels were found to be 26 percent lower.

Burnham Institute gets $50 million gift; will change name

Few people who have made La Jolla their adopted home have so quickly brought about the lasting community impact of T. Denny Sanford. In less than three years, the South Dakota businessman and philanthropist has invested $100 million in San Diego life-science organizations.

His latest donation is a $50 million pledge to the Burnham Institute for Medical Research. In honor of Sanford’s significant gift, announced Tuesday, the institute was renamed the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute. It follows his 2007 donation that established the institute’s Sanford Children’s Health Research Center.

Synthesis of perplexing compound achieved

In 1993, researchers discovered a chemical compound in a South Pacific sponge with promising anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. But there was a catch. The compound, called palau’amine — because it was found off the island of Palau — consists of a molecular framework with inner connections so contorted and bizarre that, heretofore, chemists thought they couldn’t possibly exist in nature. In addition, the compound is exceedingly fragile and falls apart if exposed to the wrong pH level.

Producing palau’amine in a laboratory became a scientific challenge that captivated chemists worldwide for nearly two decades. Now comes word that a team of scientists from The Scripps Research Institute has succeeded in the quest by inventing new techniques and reagents that allowed it to lay claim to the first synthetically produced palau’amine. The work will appear as the cover article of an upcoming edition of the international journal Angewandte Chemie. (News release

Local researchers to watch in 2010

Sheng Ding, associate professor of chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) was responsible for one of the biggest scientific discoveries reported in 2009: a method to convert adult cells all the way back to the most primitive embryoniclike cells without using the dangerous genetic manipulations associated with previous methods.

The new technique solved one of the most challenging safety hurdles associated with personalized stem cell-based medicine. The life sciences magazine The Scientist named the pioneering discovery the top innovation of 2009 and in addition placed Ding among the top researchers of the year. Keep an eye on Ding and his TSRI lab as well as the San Diego-based company he founded (Fate Therapeutics), which uses the technology platform.

- Time magazine has ranked the mapping of the first human epigenome, led by Salk Institute researcher Joseph Ecker, as the No. 2 scientific discovery of 2009.

Measuring beauty in the female face

Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder but also in the relationship of the eyes and mouth of the beholden. The distance between a woman’s eyes, and the distance between her eyes and her mouth, are key factors in determining how attractive she is to others, according to new psychology research from UCSD and the University of Toronto.

In four separate experiments, researchers asked university students to make paired comparisons of attractiveness between female faces with identical facial features but different eye-mouth distances and different distances between the eyes.

They discovered two ratios; one for length and one for width. Female faces were judged more attractive when the vertical distance between their eyes and the mouth was approximately 36 percent of the face’s length, and the horizontal distance between their eyes was approximately 46 percent of the face’s width.

The findings appear in the journal Vision Research.

Online registry leads to research studies

Interested in volunteering for a medical research study? Find an appropriate match through, the nation’s first disease-neutral volunteer recruitment registry. is a free, secure online way for volunteers to connect with researchers who are conducting studies on health and disease topics. Individuals self-register as potential volunteers for local studies based on their health profile and preferences. Once registered, volunteers are notified electronically by the registry when they are a possible match for a study. Personal information is protected until individuals authorize the release of their contact information for a specific study.

ResearchMatch is the product of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards Consortium, a national network of 46 medical research institutions funded by the National Institutes of Health. The Scripps Translational Science Institute is participating in the ResearchMatch registry.