Processed meats and cancer, a germy Space Center, a gene-shuffling malaria parasite and a global microbiome proposal. This week in Abstract Science.

Bacon! BACON!

(Washington Post, Peter Whoriskey, 10/26/15)

After reviewing decades of research, a World Health Organization panel said this week that bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause cancer and that red meat probably does, too. The findings, culled from animal as well as clinical studies, are tough and controversial, even within the panel. The decision was not unanimous. The WHO panel cited studies suggesting that an additional 3.5 ounces of red meat every day raises the risk of colorectal cancer by 17 percent; eating an additional 1.8 ounces of processed meat daily raises the risk by 18 percent, according to the research cited. Still, compared to carcinogens such as cigarettes, the magnitude of the danger appears small, experts said. The research into a possible link between eating red meat and cancer has been the subject of scientific debate for decades, with colorectal cancer being a long-standing area of concern. But by concluding that processed meat causes cancer, and that red meat “probably” causes cancer, the WHO findings go well beyond the tentative associations that some other groups have reported.

Germs in the ISS?

(Science, Jon Cohen, 10/26/15)

A new study has found that microorganisms from human skin are boldly going where few have gone before. Researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently uncovered compelling evidence that bacteria is present throughout the International Space Station, which could cause serious harm to astronauts. In the most comprehensive hunt for bacteria and fungi ever done of the ISS, the team sequenced genetic material plucked from dust found in equipment that returned to Earth: an air filter used for 40 months and two used vacuum cleaner bags. The findings appeared this week in Microbiome. Scientists used deep-sequencing methods and clinically removed cells that did not have an intact membrane, increasing the likelihood that the DNA came from viral bacteria and fungi, not dead bug parts. Then they compared DNA sequences derived from the ISS with vacuum bag dust collected over several months at two JPL clean rooms, which have about 50 people in them each day.

The Malaria Waltz

(Scientific American, Veronique Greenwood, 10/27/15)

P. falciparumis the world’s most dangerous malaria parasite, causing 600,000 deaths every year and killing more children under the age of 5 than any other infectious disease on the planet. For decades, scientists have been trying to find an effective vaccine, but their efforts have been impeded by the organism’s quick-footed way its genes evade the immune system. New evidence published this week in Nature Communications describe in detail how the gene shuffles its vargenes—offering fresh hope that vaccines could be developed to fight these them. The scientists used network analysis, which involves drawing links between nodes that have something in common to generate a diagram with underlying patterns, to track the history of malaria parasites. (The Scientific American article originally appeared in Quanta Magazine.)

The Global Microbiome

(Nature, Nicole Dubilier, Margaret McFall-Ngai, Liping Zhao, 10/28/15)

We’ve all heard the saying, “It Takes A Village.” On the heels of a US-centric announcement this week proposing the creation of a Unified Microbiome Initiative to study the activities of the Earth’s microbial ecosystems, a trio of scientists from the US, Germany and China have taken the idea one step further and called for an International Microbiome Initiative (IMI) supported by funding agencies and foundations around the world. Their rationale, outlined in this excellent commentary, said an international effort would ensure the sharing of standards across borders and disciplines, and bring cohesion to the multitude of microbiome initiatives that exist.

—Compiled by Senior Scientific Writer Regina McEnery