A male’s genome contains information that can help scientists guess his surname, American and Israeli researchers have discovered. The findings have serious implications for data privacy; intelligence services around the world are bound to be interested.
In the study published in the journal Science, researchers have developed a formula for an algorithm that can discover men’s surnames by looking at the Y chromosome, the male chromosome. The Y chromosome, which is transmitted from father to son from generation to generation, includes markers called short tandem repeats, which form a kind of fingerprint.
The researchers, headed by Dr. Yaniv Erlich of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, fed 40 markers into a computer and compared them to Y-chromosome sequences on websites. In the United States, there are companies that show people’s genome sequences derived from saliva samples; this makes it possible to determine a person’s origins and locate relatives around the world.
“Even though there isn’t a unified database of all genetic sequences on the Internet, comparing a subject’s Y chromosome with information from existing databases could help locate his family,” says Israeli team member Eran Halperin, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology.
In addition to the Whitehead Institute, the research was carried out by experts at Harvard, MIT and the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, California.
The researchers and doctoral student David Golan of Tel Aviv University’s statistics department developed the formula for the algorithm, which was tested on 911 men in the United States. The numbers were compared to Internet databases containing genetic sequences of 135,000 men with the most common surnames in the United States, most of them of European origin. The algorithm identified the surname 12 percent of the time, a success rate it later boosted to 18 percent.
The researchers, for example, applied the algorithm to the genome sequence of American geneticist Craig Venter, the head of a research institute in San Diego who was one of the first to sequence the human genome.
In the U.S.-Israeli experiment, the algorithm identified the Venter surname, and after crossing the data with other discoveries, figured out his age. Knowing that he lives in California, the researchers showed that only one other person in the state shares the unique spots on his chromosomes.
The researchers also scanned Y chromosomes of 10 residents of Utah, without knowing their last names; the algorithm helped them figure out the surnames of five of them, all of them Mormons.
“The identification technique could have a number of useful applications such as locating relatives and identifying corpses in natural disasters,” says Halperin. “But the research also reveals a fundamental problem: If a person publishes his genome on the Internet, even when this is done anonymously, his identity is pretty much exposed.”
Halperin adds that the ability to find a surname is based only on the Y chromosome, one of the body’s 46 chromosomes. The study also raises questions about sharing genetic information from various sources.
“We take a positive view of sharing genetic information on public databases – with permission, of course,” says Halperin. “Sharing information is essential to science, and there are many advantages to users of these services. But it’s important that all organizations involved in the data sharing be aware of the possible exposure and weigh their decisions accordingly.”
Erlich adds: “The obvious conclusion from the study is that biometrics can produce unexpected situations. We believe legislators must proceed with great caution when they plan such databases.”
Yet Israel today is one of the 10 safest countries to drive in. Recent statistics from the official National Road Safety Authority put the number of deaths caused by car accidents in 2012 at about 290. That’s the lowest number in 50 years . “I am still rubbing my ears,” Yaakov Sheinin, director of the National Road Safety Authority, said upon getting the good news.
In 2004, for the fifth year in a row, about 500 Israelis were killed on the road — that’s 12.7 fatalities per billion kilometers traveled, about 2.5 times as many as in Britain at that time. Distressed by the trend, in 2005, the government formed a committee on road safety, with Sheinin as its head. The year after that the independent road safety authority was created, and immediately it began implementing plans to identify the common causes of accidents, fix roads and shorten ambulances’ response times, among other things.
That worked. By 2012, 5.6 Israelis were killed for every billion kilometers traveled. That’s a 56 percent decline since 2004, explains Sheinin, if you consider that in the meantime the number of cars in Israel grew by 35 percent and the number of kilometers traveled by Israeli drivers increased by more than 30 percent.
Israel is not exactly exceptional in this: The number of fatal car accidents has been dropping across developed countries. In 30 of 33 countries studied by the International Transport Forum there was a “dramatic drop in road deaths” between 2000 and 2009.
But if Israel is riding a safety tide, it is riding it high, with even better results than most other countries. Australia, Canada, the United States, France and Japan were all ahead of it 10 years ago; now, they are all behind.
As to be expected, many groups in Israel are claiming credit for this success. Most deserve it, including the government agencies that heavily invested in infrastructure and road improvements; nongovernmental organizations like Or Yarok (Green Light), which shamed the government into action; the police, for devising smarter policies to curtail the most dangerous driving; the hospitals that improved their trauma units; car manufacturers worldwide, which have made cars increasingly safe; and the Israeli public, for changing its ways.
Wait. Why exactly have angry, chatty, reckless Israelis calmed down at the wheel? I asked the sociologist Shlomo Fischer and he speculated that Israelis may be less aggressive as economic, political and racial tensions within Israel abate (the current election campaign certainly has been comparatively civil). Fischer also said that as economic disparities lessen, the middle class increasingly concerns itself with everyday matters like personal safety.
When I asked Sheinin the same question, he was dismissive: He thought it was based on the faulty premise that Israelis have a specific “mentality” that supposedly explains their supposedly wild behavior. As a counterargument, he offered this nugget of data: Did you know that more people who ride in the front of cars wear their seatbelts in Israel than anywhere else in the world?
This, for Sheinin, is evidence that there was never anything intrinsically Israeli about careless driving — and so with education and policing, Israelis’ driving habits could improve. The Israeli driver of old didn’t just vanish; he drove away, wearing a seatbelt.
Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have discovered a new pathway by which cells in the body become cancerous. The discovery is expected to facilitate the development of new treatment methods that could block this process and prevent the spread of cancerous growths as well as new diagnostic tools to distinguish between normal and malignant tumors.
In their article in the scientific journal “Cell Reports,” the researchers describe a gene found in every cell of the body that manufactures an enzyme called S6K1. This enzyme appears in two forms, one long and one short. It is the latter variant of the enzyme, which like all enzymes is a protein, that is involved in the process of tumor formation.
While the long variant of the S6K1 enzyme is composed of more than 500 different amino acids, the short form contains only 300. In the article, “S6K1 Alternative Splicing Modulates Its Oncogenic Activity and Regulates mTORC1,” the short variation, or isoform, of the protein is described for the first time. Healthy cells contain a relatively small number of this form of S6K1, which the researchers discovered encourages nearby cells to become cancerous. The research team, led by Ph.D. candidate Vered Ben-Hur and adviser Dr. Rotem Karni of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada, Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem, demonstrated that an additional protein found in the body, SRSF1, depresses the activity of the long variation of S6K1 and activates its short form – the one implicated in the cancer process.
The short variation of S6K1 activates the signaling pathway between cells. This pathway encourages nearby cells to divide in an unregulated manner and thereby become cancerous, spreading and invading various tissues within the body.
The researchers identified the short variform of S6K1 first in mice and then in cell cultures taken from women with breast cancer. They later found significant levels of the short variation in cultures taken from people with lung cancer and from people with cancer of the colon. “We found that the pathway we have described is very important and that it takes place in nearly all types of cancerous tumors,” Karni said.
In a related discovery, the researchers found that in laboratory conditions the long variation of S6K1 actually depresses tumor activity and even prevents healthy cells from becoming cancerous, just the reverse of the effect of this enzyme’s short version. “We showed that the [S6K1] protein causes damage when it is truncated, whereas damage to the long form could actually intensify the disease,” Karni explained.
The researchers have not yet identified the environmental factors affecting the production of either the short or the long variations of the S6K1 enzyme, but the assumption is that environmental factors that have been associated with the development of cancer, such as prolonged exposure to sun or to known carcinogens, could accelerate the production of the short form. Further study will be needed to test this hypothesis.
The research team is now working on turning the short form of S6K1 into its long form and then testing whether this could prevent or at least slow the growth of cancerous tumors.
“We are developing materials that could switch off the splicing mechanism in order to create more of the long form of the protein and fewer of the short ones,” Karni said, adding, “Today we can do this in the laboratory, and the intention is to develop a drug therapy based on this discovery.”
The team has already determined that new cancer drugs, recently approved for use in Europe, can affect the activity of the short form of S6K1.
A common microbe that leads to childhood strep throat, long seen as an irritating but easily treatable virus, can have menacing long-term effects on brain function, Israeli researchers have discovered.
The same germ that causes the sore-throat and fever-inducing sickness in childhood, the researchers found, can manifest in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder marked by repeated and intrusive thoughts that can trigger hording, obsessions and intensely repetitive behavior.
The results of the study, which was conducted on young rats, will pave the way for the development of new OCD treatments.
Scientists have been examining the connection between OCD and childhood diseases, including throat infections, for more than 20 years. This most current study, however, led by Prof. Daphna Joel, head of the psychobiological department in the Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at Tel Aviv University, pinpointed the route that caused an outbreak of the disorder in rats. After exposure to streptococcus A, the microbe that causes strep throat, the rats displayed OCD behavior.
In the study, which was conducted as part of the doctoral thesis of Lior Brimberg of the Department of Psychology, and in cooperation with Prof. Madeleine Cunningham of the University of Oklahoma, the rats were injected with streptococcus A microbes. They developed antibodies to the microbe, and were later injected with a substance that would simulate the transfer of antibodies to the brain. The researchers found that after penetrating the brain, the antibodies attached themselves to three regions in the brain, and were also connected to changes in the level of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Compared to a control group of rats that had not been exposed to the microbe, the researchers noticed changes in the behavior of the rats in the research group. Among other things, they diagnosed disturbances in the rats’ balance and coordination, which were reflected in difficulties in moving toward the cage on a board and in using their forelegs to pick up food served to them.
They also observed standard obsessive behaviors among the rats in the research group: When you sprinkle water on rats’ stomachs, they tend to groom themselves, but the rats in the research group engaged in self grooming for a prolonged period of time, in an obsessive manner.
The findings were recently published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
The research was groundbreaking in its ability to highlight the link between a childhood illness and an adult disorder, Joel said.
“It’s almost impossible to show how strep can lead to OCD in humans ― almost all of us, even very young children, have been exposed to the bacterium at one time or another,” she said. “Therefore the description of the model in rats is of great significance.”
In a later experiment, the researchers noticed that the streptococcus antibodies became bound to dopamine D1 and D2 receptors in the brain, a finding that will likely aid in development of treatments for OCD.
“We have yet to examine whether the antibodies cause the activation or the blocking of the receptors, but their effect on the receptors will help in the development of new medications for OCD, which is liable to be caused by the route described,” Joel said.
In the 1980s, the scientific community first realized that most sufferers of obsessive disorders, which are marked by prolonged hand washing and overly meticulous attention to cleanliness, had previously suffered from strep throat. They also found that the same group carried a high concentration of antibodies to the streptococcus A microbe in their blood. The phenomenon was later named PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcus), which appears several weeks to three months after the strep throat. The phenomenon includes another disorder attributed to the infection, the appearance of tics.
The research findings emphasize the importance of proper treatment of strep throat in children, with use of antibiotics in the case of a streptococcus A infection. Even more crucially, the researchers call on parents to be alert to the development of OCD in children after an acute sore throat.
Joel implores parents to give their children a low dosage of antibiotics in addition to psychiatric medications if they suspect a disorder has developed as a result of strep throat.
Researchers remain undecided on whether or not the OCD caused by strep throat will disappear with time or turn into a chronic condition, and as such have not yet ruled on whether or not antibiotic treatments should be for a limited time period or for a lifetime.
An Israel-based company, IceCure Medical, has developed a revolutionary system to treat breast cancer.
The patients could be treated without surgery following the development of a technique which destroys tumors by turning them into a ball of ice.
Now, doctors have begun treating women suffering from breast cancer, in trials, using a super-cooled needle tip to repeatedly freeze then defrost tumors, which has the ultimate effect of killing the harmful tissue.
The technique can be completed in about 15 minutes, and provide an alternative to surgery, which often requires women to stay in hospital for up to one week, and leaves them with scars.
The device has already been approved for use in the United States, with IceCure hoping for European approval next year.
One in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime, with the rate rising.
A question debated by many in the religious society for generations will be brought up for public discussion for the first time in a first annual halachic conference for women organized by the Puah Institute: Does Judaism encourage sexual pleasure?
Many religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews perceive the sexual urge as a symbol of material (or even brutish) passion, and believe that a person aspiring for spiritual elevation should overcome this urge, or at least “settle for less.”
The Puah Institute, which helps couples dealing with fertility problems, seeks to uproot this perception which its rabbis believe is inspired by Christianity. According to the institute’s rabbis, pleasure is a mitzvah.
Under the title, “Femininity, Relations and Motherhood,” the Puah conference will present two conflicting worldviews – one maintaining that the desire to enjoy sexual relations harms their sanctity, and the other asserting that sex is an inseparable part of the mitzvah.
The rabbis’ conclude that the ideal situation is when each partner focuses on efforts to satisfy the other, thereby both benefit, without any feelings of guilt or selfishness.
In addition, the institute will soon open a first course of its kind, in collaboration with Bar-Ilan University, aimed at training women as counselors who will guide couples facing sexual performance difficulties. These women are defined as counselors rather than therapists, as they are not recognized as sexologists.
Men were first trained for the job about two years ago, but over time rabbis realized that in some cases it would be immodest for a man to help a woman in this field.
Rabbi Menachem Burstein, head of the Puah Institute, explains the need for sexual counseling and guidance by rabbis. According to Burstein, couples who receive medical treatment seek his advice on relevant halachic questions, but he is not required to get involved in every stage. Sexual therapy which is not based on the Halacha, however, involves countless problems – making it impossible.
“A surrogate, for example, is customary in every treatment today, but there is no way to allow it,” he demonstrates. “On the other hand, there is an opposite phenomenon in which people fail to cooperate with their therapist because they are afraid of halachic problems.
“Had they been treated by a male or female rabbi, they would have known that in their condition there are many things that could be allowed for the sake of the treatment.”
Rabbi Burstein confirms that many religious couples with sexual performance difficulties (sensitivity, pre-ejaculation, etc) avoid going to counseling when the issue is not a clearly medical one or a fertility problem, due to the religious perception that pleasure is not important and perhaps even wrong. According to the rabbi, many philosophers and halachic rulers share a different opinion.
Part of the counselors’ training and work is dedicated to dealing with this perception, which will be at the center of next week’s conference in Jerusalem. In addition, the Puah Institute uses further methods to become more accessible to the public, in a bid to overcome the psychological and social barriers faced by religious and haredi couples seeking sex therapy.
One of the initiators of the counselors’ course is Dr. Hannah Katan, a well-known gynecologist and sexologist in the religious sector and a member of the Israeli Society of Sex Therapy, who sees a certain openness towards the issue in recent years.
“The wide public often wonders if treating sexual dysfunction is problematic from a religious perspective, but the ‘onah’ mitzvah means that a husband is obligated to please his wife,” she says. “Rabbis today encourage people to see professionals. The issue is being taken care of because it’s all about strengthening the Jewish home.”
Dr. Katan explains that sex therapists from the wide public and observant patients often speak “different languages,” in addition to halachic problems which make the treatment more difficult. That is the main reason, she says, for training counselors who come from the same world of values and can understand the patient better.
The academic coordinator of the counselors’ course is Dr. David Ribner, chairman of Sex Therapy Training Program at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Social Work. The main need for such a course, he explains, stems from the fact that religious couples facing problems in that area usually go to a rabbi or instructor rather than to a professional, and therefore rabbis and educators must be provided with basic and up-to-date knowledge.
Dr. Ribner, who has a private sex therapy clinic, says he has witnessed a significant change in the religious and haredi public’s attitude toward sexual pleasure over the past 40 years.
“Today there is much more openness than before, and anyone working in this field can see it,” he says. “In the past, couples would seek treatment only if they had fertility problems, and today rabbis encourage them to seek treatment for other issues as well, because mutual pleasure has an important part in a relationship.
“The current problem is the lack of professional sources of information – therefore the counselors’ course is so important.”