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Turning microbiome research into a force for health




The microbiome comprises trillions of microorganisms living on and inside each of us. Historically, some researchers have guessed at its role in human health, but in the last decade or so genetic sequencing techniques have illuminated this galaxy of microorganisms enough to study in detail.

As researchers unravel the complex interplay between our bodies and microbiomes, they are beginning to appreciate the full scope of the field’s potential for treating disease and promoting health.

For instance, the growing list of conditions that correspond with changes in the microbes of our gut includes type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and a variety of cancers.

“In almost every disease context that’s been investigated, we’ve found different types of microbial communities, divergent between healthy and sick patients,” says professor of biological engineering Eric Alm. “The promise [of these findings] is that some of those differences are going to be causal, and intervening to change the microbiome is going to help treat some of these diseases.”

Alm’s lab, in conjunction with collaborators at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, did some of the early work characterizing the gut microbiome and showing its relationship to human health. Since then, microbiome research has exploded, pulling in researchers from far-flung fields and setting new discoveries in motion. Startups are now working to develop microbiome-based therapies, and nonprofit organizations have also sprouted up to ensure these basic scientific advances turn into treatments that benefit the maximum number of people.

 “The first chapter in this field, and our history, has been validating this modality,” says Mark Smith PhD ’14, a co-founder of OpenBiome, which processes stool donations for hospitals to conduct stool transplants for patients battling gut infection. Smith is also currently CEO of the startup Finch Therapeutics, which is developing microbiome-based treatments. “Until now, it’s been about the promise of the microbiome. Now I feel like we’ve delivered on the first promise. The next step is figuring out how big this gets.”

An interdisciplinary foundation

MIT’s prominent role in microbiome research came, in part, through its leadership in a field that may at first seem unrelated. For decades, MIT has made important contributions to microbial ecology, led by work in the Parsons Laboratory in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and by scientists including Institute Professor Penny Chisholm.

Ecologists who use complex statistical techniques to study the relationships between organisms in different ecosystems are well-equipped to study the behavior of different bacterial strains in the microbiome.

Not that ecologists — or anyone else — initially had much to study involving the human microbiome, which was essentially a black box to researchers well into the 2000s. But the Human Genome Project led to faster, cheaper ways to sequence genes at scale, and a group of researchers including Alm and visiting professor Martin Polz began using those techniques to decode the genomes of environmental bacteria around 2008.

Those techniques were first pointed at the bacteria in the gut microbiome as part of the Human Microbiome Project, which began in 2007 and involved research groups from MIT and the Broad Institute.

Alm first got pulled into microbiome research by the late biological engineering professor David Schauer as part of a research project with Boston Children’s Hospital. It didn’t take much to get up to speed: Alm says the number of papers explicitly referencing the microbiome at the time could be read in an afternoon.

The collaboration, which included Ramnik Xavier, a core institute member of the Broad Institute, led to the first large-scale genome sequencing of the gut microbiome to diagnose inflammatory bowel disease. The research was funded, in part, by the Neil and Anna Rasmussen Family Foundation.

The study offered a glimpse into the microbiome’s diagnostic potential. It also underscored the need to bring together researchers from diverse fields to dig deeper.

Taking an interdisciplinary approach is important because, after next-generation sequencing techniques are applied to the microbiome, a large amount of computational biology and statistical methods are still needed to interpret the resulting data — the microbiome, after all, contains more genes than the human genome. One catalyst for early microbiome collaboration was the Microbiology Graduate PhD Program, which recruited microbiology students to MIT and introduced them to research groups across the Institute.

As microbiology collaborations increased among researchers from different department and labs, Neil Rasmussen, a longtime member of the MIT Corporation and a member of the visiting committees for a number of departments, realized there was still one more component needed to turn microbiome research into a force for human health.

“Neil had the idea to find all the clinical researchers in the [Boston] area studying diseases associated with the microbiome and pair them up with people like [biological engineers, mathematicians, and ecologists] at MIT who might not know anything about inflammatory bowel disease or microbiomes but had the expertise necessary to solve big problems in the field,” Alm says.

In 2014, that insight led the Rasmussen Foundation to support the creation of the Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics (CMIT), one of the first university-based microbiome research centers in the country. CMIT is based at the MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES).

Tami Lieberman, the Hermann L. F. von Helmholtz Career Development Professor at MIT, whose background is in ecology, says CMIT was a big reason she joined MIT’s faculty in 2018. Lieberman has developed new genomic approaches to study how bacteria mutate in healthy and sick individuals, with a particular focus on the skin microbiome.

Laura Kiessling, a chemist who has been recognized for contributions to our understanding of cell surface interactions, was also quick to join CMIT. Kiessling, the Novartis Professor of Chemistry, has made discoveries relating to microbial mechanisms that influence immune function. Both Lieberman and Kiessling are also members of the Broad Institute.

Today, CMIT, co-directed by Alm and Xavier, facilitates collaborations between researchers and clinicians from hospitals around the country in addition to supporting research groups in the area. That work has led to hundreds of ongoing clinical trials that promise to further elucidate the microbiome’s connection to a broad range of diseases.

Fulfilling the promise of the microbiome

Researchers don’t yet know what specific strains of bacteria can improve the health of people with microbiome-associated diseases. But they do know that fecal matter transplants, which carry the full spectrum of gut bacteria from a healthy donor, can help patients suffering from certain diseases.

The nonprofit organization OpenBiome, founded by a group from MIT including Smith and Alm, launched in 2012 to help expand access to fecal matter transplants by screening donors for stool collection then processing, storing, and shipping samples to hospitals. Today OpenBiome works with more than 1,000 hospitals, and its success in the early days of the field shows that basic microbiome research, when paired with clinical trials like those happening at CMIT, can quickly lead to new treatments.

“You start with a disease, and if there’s a microbiome association, you can start a small trial to see if fecal transplants can help patients right away,” Alm explains. “If that becomes an effective treatment, while you’re rolling it out you can be doing the genomics to figure out how to make it better. So you can translate therapeutics into patients more quickly than when you’re developing small-molecule drugs.”

Another nonprofit project launched out of MIT, the Global Microbiome Conservancy, is collecting stool samples from people living nonindustrialized lifestyles around the world, whose guts have much different bacterial makeups and thus hold potential for advancing our understanding of host-microbiome interactions.

A number of private companies founded by MIT alumni are also trying to harness individual microbes to create new treatments, including, among others, Finch Therapeutics founded by Mark Smith; Concerto Biosciences, co-founded by Jared Kehe PhD ’20 and Bernardo Cervantes PhD ’20; BiomX, founded by Associate Professor Tim Lu; and Synlogic, founded by Lu and Jim Collins, the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science at MIT.

“There’s an opportunity to more precisely change a microbiome,” explains CMIT’s Lieberman. “But there’s a lot of basic science to do to figure out how to tweak the microbiome in a targeted way. Once we figure out how to do that, the therapeutic potential of the microbiome is quite limitless.”



Thieves Stole About $450,000 from Crypto Trader at Knifepoint

Republished by Plato



A Hong Kong woman has fallen victim to a gang of robbers after conducting a crypto transaction worth almost $450,000.

Gang of Four Steal $450K From Hong Kong Crypto Trader

According to a report by the South China Morning Post, a female crypto trader was held at knifepoint by a gang of thieves, who stole HK $3.5 million ($448,700) from the victim.

As part of the robbery operation, one of the thieves posed as a prospective cryptocurrency buyer. The woman had earlier conducted different crypto transactions for the man, ranging between HK$600,000 and HK$700,000.

Hong Kong authorities stated that the trader sold Tether (USDT) tokens to the man via her iPhone and was later lured to an office to receive payment in cash. Shortly after receiving the money, other members of the gang held the trader at knifepoint to steal the money and her iPhone.

Authorities were able to get wind of the robbery after the victim contacted her husband with a second phone, who in turn called the police. Meanwhile, authorities are conducting a search for the gang.

The woman’s uncle, who escorted her to the location of the transaction, also told the police that he saw four men fleeing the scene of the crime.

The details of the attack also closely resemble another incident from earlier in January when a gang of four robbers stole HK $3 million from another crypto trader. In the earlier case, the hoodlums also posed as prospective buyers, completed a few transactions to gain trust before pouncing on their victim.

Armed Robbers and Kidnappers on the Prowl for Crypto Owners

Physical crypto-related thefts are reportedly a regular occurrence in Hong Kong, with the number of such incidents doubling between 2019 and 2020. Indeed, the growing value of cryptocurrencies seemingly provides incentives for armed robbers looking for victims.

Back in 2018, a police officer in India was among a group of people arrested in connection with the kidnapping and extortion of a businessman to the tune of over $49 million.

CryptoPotato compiled a list of crypto security tips for investors and traders to safeguard their wallets and crypto. One of the important things to consider is keeping your holdings private and be very careful when it comes to peer-to-peer transactions.

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3 key reasons why Polkastarter (POLS) price rallied 500% since December

Republished by Plato



Polkastarter (POLS) is a cross-chain token pool and auction protocol built on the Polkadot (DOT) blockchain. It launched in October of 2020 as a way for projects to raise capital in a decentralized environment and since January the token has rallied 500% to a new high at $1.78.

Three possible reasons for the recent growth of POLS are the strong rally seen from Polkadot, strategic partnerships and exchange listings and an expanding list of token launches via auctions.

POLS/USDT 4-hour chart. Source: TradingView

The rise of Polkadot

The rising popularity of the Polkadot network is arguably the most significant influencer on the price of POLS. Similar to Kusama, Polkastarter’s association with Polkadot could attract additional user and investor attention.

POLS price vs. Social engagement. Source: LunarCrush

Polkadot’s rally began on Dec. 27, 2020, and it culminated on Jan.15 as DOT saw a 75% price increase in one week. POLS strong rally also reignited on Dec. 27 and followed a similar trajectory to DOT.

Now that DOT has flipped XRP to become the fourth-largest cryptocurrency by market cap, further price strength for Polkadot has the potential to have a positive impact on the overall performance of Polkastarter.

Exchange listings and partnerships

Prior to Jan. 14 POLS was only available on Uniswap and Poloniex. At the time its liquidity was limited and high ETH gas fees also complicated matters for those thinking about trading the token.

After the Huobi exchange announced plans to list POLS on Jan. 14, its trading volume increased from an average of $2 million to $22 million overnight.

Now the POLS community is working on being listed at OKEx and a recent tweet from the project informed supporters that the project only needs 2,000 more votes to qualify.

Listing POLS on another high-volume exchange has the potential to further boost the token’s price as more people will have access to one of the fastest-growing Polkadot based projects.

Successful auctions and token launches

Similar to the initial coin offerings (ICO) that occurred in 2017 and 2018, Polkastarter is gaining momentum due to its ability to attract capital heavy investors looking for the opportunity to get first access to the newest blockchain projects.

Polkastarter’s protocol is designed to enable cross-chain token pools and auctions as a method of raising capital in a decentralized fashion. To date, the platform has conducted 12 separate Initial Decentralized exchange Offerings (IDOs) with 20 different pools consisting of both public and private offerings. To date, only one pool failed to sell out.

The strong rally seen from DOT has only increased the desire of projects wanting to develop on top of Polkadot in order to capitalize on its growing popularity as well as avoid the challenges associated with building on Ethereum.

List of initial decentralized exchange offerings on Polkastarter. Source: Polkastarter

Tosdis, the most recent IDO conducted on Polkastarter, tweeted the following after its successful auction as an example of the platform’s growing popularity:

“We are really delighted to announce that our IDO on Polkastarter is sold out. POLS pool was sold out in record 30 seconds. After fixing some overloading and gas issues, the public pool was sold out in 90 minutes. We are overwhelmed by the support. Thank you and Stay tuned.”

Polkadot’s rise, successful IDOs on the Polkastarter platform and the listing of POLS on new exchanges have helped propel the value of the token to new highs and investors are optimistic that these strong fundamentals will push the price higher.

In addition to these fundamental factors, Ether’s (ETH) recent surge to a new all-time high has many analysts calling for the start of a new ‘altcoin season’. According to Raoul Pal, the CEO and co-founder of Real Vision Group and Global Macro Investor, traders are likely to plow into “higher risk alts” after Ether secures a new all-time high.

If this prediction does come to pass, it could also mean even brighter days are ahead for the Polkastarter ecosystem.


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Latest CME Report Reveals Growing Appetite for Bitcoin Amongst Institutions

Republished by Plato



  • Bitcoin has been consolidating within the $30,000 region throughout the past few days and weeks
  • Bulls and bears have largely reached an impasse, with buyers and sellers both being unable to spark any trend
  • This comes as large institutional inflows show some signs of tapering, with these buyers largely being viewed as the ones responsible for the recent market-wide surge
  • The latest Commitment of Traders (CoT) report from the CME reveals a striking trend – institutions are increasingly adding to their long exposure
  • This seems to invalidate the notion that institutions are slowing their accumulation habits and may point to an imminent wave two of buying from these parties

Bitcoin has seen mixed price action as of late, with the selling pressure in the upper-$30,000 region slowing its ascent as bulls and bears largely reach an impasse.

Where the crypto market trends in the mid-term may depend largely, if not entirely, on whether or not Bitcoin can continue stabilizing or break above $40,000.

Any strong rejection here could cause the crypto to see some notable losses that potentially lead altcoins to follow suit and selloff as well.

One positive trend that seems to bode well for Bitcoin’s outlook is growing long-exposure from institutions using the CME.

This trend suggests that institutions are still pouring money into the market.

Bitcoin Stagnates as Consolidation Phase Persists

At the time of writing, Bitcoin is trading up just under 2% at its current price of $36,700. This marks a notable decline from daily highs of nearly $38,000 set just a couple of hours ago.

The entire market retraced with BTC, but ETH and other altcoins are all trading up significantly from where they were just a few days ago.

Institutional Traders Are Increasingly Long on BTC

One positive trend for Bitcoin is the growing presence of institutions in the market, which is a large part of why it has been rallying so heavily throughout the past few months.

Although they may be bidding less aggressively on BTC as it hovers around its all-time highs, data from the CME’s latest Commitment of Trader’s report indicates that long interest for BTC amongst institutions is steadily climbing.

“12 – January CME $BTC Commitments of Traders (COT) report – Open Interest: 12,039 up 6.5%”


Image Courtesy of Unfolded. Source: TradingView.

The coming few days should shine some light on whether or not the constant rejection seen by Bitcoin in the upper-$30,000 region will have any impacts on its mid-term trend.

Featured image from Unsplash.
Charts from TradingView.


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