AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: whitebloodcell

The mutation and spread of Cancer caused by changes in Epigenetics

Epigenetics could be the key to understanding how cancer originates, when it mutates, and how it spreads. Researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) believe that different types of cancer are caused by an “on and off” switch in the epigenome. While many scientists believe  that many cancers originate in cells called progenitor cells, they cannot concoct a model that explains  how cancer spreads from the progenitor cell and mutates into many forms as it continues to grow in a person’s body.

One of the lead researchers, Sibaji Sarkar, posited “there should be a general mechanism that initiates cancer progression from predisposed progenitor cells, which likely involves epigenetic changes.” The researchers believe that the theory of an epigenetic switch is supported by the growth of tumors, which go through many different stages. The team believes that if cells can be altered to become cancerous and remain stuck in their stage of growth while they replicate out of control, then there must also be an off switch to this uncontrolled replication. They also suspect that epigenetic changes can determine the rapidity of growth and the mutability of the characteristics of the cancer and tumors.

Although Sarkar’s team has not yet found specific epigenetic code that causes these mutations and growth, he believes that their hypothesis will cause other scientists to focus their attention on the epigenome and find ways to prevent progenitor cells from spreading and mutating into malignant tumors.

This epigenetic research relates to our study of the relationship between the epigenome and cancer. Specifically the absence of an active p53 protein would prevent a certain part of the DNA from being  read and the cell would therefore lack a protein that inhibits the cell cycle. This would cause uninhibited cell division and the spread of cancer.


Methylation of DNA


Forests and their Carbon Dioxide Intake

According to a study conducted by NASA, different types of forests have different intakes of carbon dioxide. The study concludes that of the 2.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide absorbed annually, tropical forests absorb around 1.4 billion metric tons of that amount. This is a greater amount absorbed than the boreal forests of the northern hemisphere. NASA scientist David Schimel characterized these findings as “good news” because the boreal forest absorption rate of carbon dioxide has been declining. However, scientists believe that tropical forests can continue to intake large amounts of carbon dioxide for many more years. Therefore, the fact that tropical forests play a large role in the absorption of carbon dioxide provides hope that nature will continue to limit the net carbon dioxide emissions that humans pour into the atmosphere.

Scientists have concluded that if the rate of absorption of carbon dioxide by forests slows down, then global warming could occur much faster. Previous studies had suggested that boreal forests might absorb more carbon dioxide than their tropical counterparts; however, this study finds that carbon dioxide absorption occurs more frequently at higher temperatures, indicating that tropical forests have the highest intake. The increased human emission of carbon dioxide gives the forests more fuel to grow, a process called carbon fertilization. Conversely, the climate change brought about by increased carbon dioxide emissions has caused water shortages in some areas as well as an increase in temperature, both factors facilitating the spread of wildfires. The burning of wood caused by these fires further increases the carbon dioxide emissions.

Despite the continual problems caused by increased carbon dioxide emissions, this study still provides hope for the near future. Not only can tropical forests continue to absorb high levels of carbon dioxide for many more years, but also this study might serve as a stepping stone for more complex research of emissions on a global scale that could facilitate the discovery a solution to the problem of global warming.


The Ability to Control Genes with Your Thoughts

A research group led by Martin Fussenegger, a professor of Biotechnology and Bioengineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, has developed a method by which brainwaves control the creation of proteins from genes. The technology wirelessly transfers brainwaves to a network of genes that allows the human’s thoughts to control the protein synthesis of the genes. The system uses a uses an electroencephalogram (EEG) headset, which records and transmits a human’s brainwaves and sets it to the implant in the gene culture.

A successful experiment of the system included humans controlling gene implants in mice. When activated by brainwaves, the gene implant culture would light up by an installed LED light. The researches used the human protein SEAP as the protein that would be generated in the culture and diffused into the blood stream of the mice. The humans were categorized by their states of mind: “bio-feedback, meditation and concentration”. The concentrating group caused an average release of SEAP. The meditation group released high concentrations of the protein. Finally, the bio-feedback group produced varying degrees of SEAP, as they were able to visually control the production of the protein as they could view the LED light turning on and off during the production process. The LED light emits infrared light, which is neither harmful to human nor mice cells. The system proved successful in its ability to translate brainwaves into gene control and protein production and its potential for harmless integration into the living tissue of humans.

The research group hopes that in the future a thought-controlled implant could help prevent neurological diseases by recognizing certain brainwaves at an early stage of the disease and translating the brainwaves into the production of proteins and other molecules that would work to counteract the disease.

Lights of ideas

Bioengineered Proteins Are Amphibious Adhesives

A group of researchers from MIT recently published their groundbreaking findings on specially engineered proteins that are able to stick to substances both in and out of water. Using naturally occurring adhesives secreted by mussels as a model for their research, the team combined those proteins with biofilms from certain bacteria to create an especially strong and sticky hybrid.

These new adhesives are much more complex than previously engineered proteins. While other scientists used the E. coli bacteria as a template to engineer proteins that resembled the mussel’s protein, leading researcher Timothy Lu described those methods as unable to “capture the complexity of the natural adhesives”. Therefore, the MIT research team uses several types of bacteria to separately manufacture components of different mussel proteins and then combines them with bacterial curli fibers into one complex adhesive.

There are numerous applications of this discovery. Once the team is able to concoct a method of generating the protein in great quantities, it can be used to repair holes in ships as well as to seal wounds after an accident or surgery. One of the team’s subsequent goals is to create “living glues” composed of bacteria that would react to a breach of a material and repair it through secretion of a protein adhesive. The potential of this discovery is demonstrated by the acclaim of the group’s sponsors, which include The Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.



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