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Science Papers Examine Role of Autism-Linked Gene in Birds, Genetic Signatures of COVID-19 Outcomes

Knocking down an autism-linked gene in young zebra finches prevents the songbirds from learning new songs, according to a new study appearing in Science Advances, providing new insights into the genetics of autism. The gene FOXP1 is a major autism spectrum disorder (ASD) risk gene and is linked to language impairment and intellectual disability. To further investigate the role of this gene in ASD, researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center knocked it down in juvenile male zebra finches, which express the gene in many of the same brain regions as mammals — including ones that are known to be important in song learning. The scientists find that disruption of FOXP1 prevents the birds from learning songs from adult finches, although it does not interrupt their learning how to vocally imitate a previously memorized song. The findings demonstrate that "characterization of how ASD-linked genes affect different aspects of vocal imitation can offer insights into their roles in neurodevelopmental disorders," the study's authors write.

By sequencing RNA from COVID-19 nasal swab and blood samples, a group led by scientists from the University of California, San Francisco, has uncovered genetic signatures that could help predict disease severity and clinical outcomes. As reported in Science Advances, the investigators sequenced 286 nasopharyngeal (NP) swab and 53 whole-blood samples from 333 patients with COVID-19 and controls. While upregulation of interferon-associated pathways was observed in both hospitalized patients and outpatients, more robust inflammatory responses were found in hospitalized patients with more clinically severe illness. Using the sequencing data, the researchers develop a 19-gene diagnostic classifier that can discriminate SARS-CoV-2 infection from other acute respiratory illnesses with around 85 percent overall accuracy using NP swab samples. They also identify a panel of differentially expressed genes associated with more severe COVID-19 disease. While additional validation is needed, the findings may lead to a new approach to diagnosing SARS-CoV-2 infection in presymptomatic or asymptomatic individuals during the incubation period, as well as in generating classifiers to evaluate and predict COVID-19 severity, the study's authors write.

The Scan

Guidelines for Ancient DNA Work

More than two dozen researchers have developed new ethical guidelines for conducting ancient DNA research, which they present in Nature.

And Cleared

A UK regulator has cleared former UK Prime Minister David Cameron in concerns he should have registered as a consultant-lobbyist for his work with Illumina, according to the Financial Times.

Suit Over Allegations

The Boston Globe reports that David Sabatini, who was placed on leave from MIT after allegations of sexual harassment, is suing his accuser, the Whitehead Institute, and the institute's director.

Nature Papers on Esophageal Cancer, Origin of Modern Horses, Exome Sequencing of UK Biobank Participants

In Nature this week: genetic and environmental influences of esophageal cancer, domestic horse origin traced to Western Eurasian steppes, and more.