Research Roundup: Ancient Polynesian and Native American contact, Arctic phytoplankton, protein link to rare genetic disease

July 15, 2020, 9:58 a.m.

Each week, The Daily’s Science & Tech section produces a roundup of the most exciting and influential research happening on campus or otherwise related to Stanford. Here’s our digest for the week of July 5 – July 11.

Genetic evidence links Polynesians and Native Americans

Scientists have determined from genetic evidence that ancient Polynesians and Native Americans made contact in present-day Colombia hundreds of years ago, concluding a decades-long debate in the field of archaeology, a study published on July 8 in “Nature” reports. Previously, there was much contention as to whether the two groups were connected, given that they were separated by thousands of miles of ocean.

The researchers conducted genetic analyses of more than 800 Indigenous individuals living across Mexico, Polynesia and various South American countries to find evidence of common ancestry. 

“Genomics is at a stage where it can really make useful contributions to answering some of these open questions,” Alexander Ioannidis M.S. ’18, Ph.D. ’18, a postdoctoral research fellow in biomedical data sciences, told Stanford Medicine News. “I think it’s really exciting that we, as data scientists and geneticists, are able to contribute in a meaningful way to our understanding of human history.”

The findings suggest that there were common genetic signals between Native American and Polynesian DNA tracing back centuries.

“If you think about how history is told for this time period, it’s almost always a story of European conquest, and you never really hear about everybody else,” Ioannidis told Stanford Medicine News. “I think this work helps piece together those untold stories — and the fact that it can be brought to light through genetics is very exciting to me.”

Phytoplankton growth increases in the Arctic Ocean

In the Arctic Ocean, the growth of phytoplankton — tiny creatures that cause algae blooms — has increased significantly over the past two decades, a study published on July 10 in “Science” found. This represents a “significant regime shift” as the Arctic waters become warmer due to climate change.

The team studied the net primary production (NPP), a measurement of how quickly plants and algae convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugars for other organisms.

“The rates are really important in terms of how much food there is for the rest of the ecosystem,” earth system science professor Kevin Arrigo told Stanford News. “It’s also important because this is one of the main ways that CO2 is pulled out of the atmosphere and into the ocean.”

The findings suggest the NPP increased by 57% in the Arctic Ocean between 1998 and 2018. As a result, phytoplankton numbers grow more concentrated, potentially leading to more algae blooms.

“There’s going to be winners and losers,” Arrigo told Stanford News. “A more productive Arctic means more food for lots of animals. But many animals that have adapted to live in a polar environment are finding life more difficult as the ice retreats.”

“It’s taking in a lot more carbon than it used to take in but it’s not something we’re going to be able to rely on to help us out of our climate problem,” he added.

Protein identified as possible target in rare genetic disorder

A newly identified protein may be an ideal drug target for Diamond Blackfan anemia, a rare genetic disease that affects red blood cell development, a study published on July 3 in “Nature Communications” found.

One of the difficulties of treating patients with Diamond Blackfan anemia is that the mutation which causes the disease varies across patients.  The researchers approached the issue by examining which faulty cellular mechanisms — protein movement or enzyme activity — patients have in common.

The study identified an enzyme called Nemo-like kinase. In Diamond Blackfan anemia patients, this enzyme is overactive. The team found that slightly inhibiting the kinase activity reversed problems with red blood cell development.

The team is led by pediatrics, hematology and oncology instructor Mark Wilkes and professor Kathleen Sakamoto. Moving forward, they are working to identify potential new drugs to target the protein.

Contact Derek Chen at derekc8 ‘at’

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