BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: genetics (Page 1 of 3)

Spotlight: Sharon Strauss and Evolution of Organisms in Barren Habitats

Sharon Strauss is an evolutionary ecologist at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) where she has been conducting research on the evolution of plants and the ways in which they interact with other species. As a woman in a STEM environment, Strauss has faced opposition due to her gender. It took her 5 years longer than the regular time trajectory to obtain a job in her field, subtle obstacles such as invitations to work with groups, and also simply not being taken seriously or personally asked to contribute to group conversations. Although she has faced challenges, Strauss has done phenomenal research on the ecology and evolution of plants and her efforts, both her research and her job as a professor, have been rewarded.

One of her largest and most well known projects was called Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. During this project, she and her team were studying how wildlife adapted to a barren environment. During this expedition, Strauss and her team explored the possible connection between attack rates and visibility. They followed 160 seedlings of a few different species from the genus Streptanthus and observed how they grew and what their current condition was depending on the amount of bare ground and leaf coloration. Additionally, they formed small clay models of caterpillars to act as an undefended population of prey in order to measure attack rates on visible animal species. They measured this by checking the area around the caterpillars to see if there were beak or tooth marks of a predator attempting to eat it. Strauss was able to conclude that attacks on both animals and plants were connected to how apparent or visible they were in their environment. For this reason, certain plants and animals had adapted by changing their color in order to blend into their barren environment.

Since this project mainly involved studying adaption and evolution, it is not very similar to anything we have learned in class yet. However, there is a connection between evolution and genes, which we are currently learning about. Every organism that sexually reproduces passes genes down to their offspring via the sperm and the egg. The physical features of the offspring are determined by the genes they are composed of. Typically, these genes are passed down by the parents to the offspring; however, it is also possible for an error in DNA replication to occur or exposure to chemical or radiation damage that can cause a mutation. This connects to evolution since there will always be variety within a population. A certain trait could prove to be more successful in survival than another so gradually, over many generations, that trait will be passed down since the members of the population that have that gene have a higher chance at surviving and reproducing as proposed in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

I admire the hard work and the effort that Sharon Strauss has put into her career and passion to get where she is now and to have achieved what she has. Despite the barriers that were placed in front of her, she continued on since biology was her passion. I also have a passion for biology, specifically zoology, and as a girl, I may face similar obstacles. Even if I change my mind or find a new passion, I hope to carry the same spirit that Sharon Strauss did to push through any barriers that I may face.

Melanin: Breaking Down Barriers

In a post written by Susan Eckert (teacher) and Shannon Huhn (student), the complex and complicated construct of race is broken down to reveal the true essence of society: genetics and the genetics of the skin. 

Skin is one of the most important parts of our body. Firstly, as we studied in our immune system unit, we know that the skin protects us from sickness and from possible foreign invaders through the non-specific/innate bodily response. Specifically, however, our skin protects us from damage caused by UV light all because of melanin. 

Although we may be familiar with this term as it is oftentimes involved in the conversation of race, research shows that the concept of race is not actually backed by science and the genetics of melanin. Before we can get into this conversation, we must learn about the science behind melanin. Importantly, our bodies contain cells called Melanocytes that produce the pigment called melanin. Through the process of melanogenesis, tyrosine is oxidized, which as we know from class means that it is losing electrons, and enzymes are utilized to produce two kinds of melanin: eumelanin which causes the skin to be dark, and phaeomelanin which causes the skin to be light. Although all of our bodies have the same amount of melanocytes, our skin color is determined by how much eumelanin and/or phaeomelanin is produced. 

 

With this knowledge, it is easier to engage in conversation on race. Throughout history, skin color has been used to fuel general racial inequalities. Darker skin, whose genetic purpose is to be able to absorb more light, has been wrongfully associated with inferiority while lighter skin, whose genetic purpose doesn’t involve absorbing a lot of light, has been associated with superiority, both based on the grounds of their appearances. Making these assumptions based solely on the physical color of the skin without acknowledging or thinking about the explanatory science should automatically negate these wrongful and incorrect accusations. According to Tiskoff and Kidd, “Humans are ∼98.8% similar to chimpanzees at the nucleotide level and are considerably more similar to each other”. Of course, we must take into consideration the confidence level and margin of error in this statistic, but nevertheless, the percentage is high, showing that race doesn’t make one inferior/superior as we are all essentially the same except for minor genes which produce specific skin colors. In general, it comes down to the production of pigments all based on necessary function.

We must combine what we know about melanin, genetics, skin, and race to move forward in our society. Although all are socially and genetically unique, we are all human on a genetic and molecular level. Conducting research and getting down to the science of various topics carries the necessary substantial weight to create change. What would you like to research next?

Mutation in the Nation

We constantly think of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a single virus, one enemy that we all need to work together to fight against. However, the reality of the situation is the SARS-CoV-2, like many other viruses, is constantly mutating. Throughout the last year, over 100,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes have been studied by scientists around the globe. And while when we hear the word mutation, we imagine a major change to how an organism functions, a mutation is just a change in the genome. The changes normally change little to nothing about how the actual virus functions. While the changes are happening all the time since the virus is always replicating, two viruses from anywhere in the world normally only differ by 10 letters in the genome. This means that the virus we called SARS-CoV-2 is not actually one species, but is a quasi-species of several different genetic variants of the original Wuhan-1 genome.

The most notable mutation that has occurred in SARS-CoV-2 swapped a single amino acid in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. This caused SARS-CoV-2 to become significantly more infective, but not more severe. It has caused the R0 of the virus, the number of people an infected person will spread to, to go up. This value is a key number in determining how many people will be infected during an outbreak, and what measures must be taken to mitigate the spread. This mutation is now found in 80% of SARS-CoV-2 genomes, making it the most common mutation in every infection.

Glycoproteins are proteins that have an oligosaccharide chain connect to them. They serve a number of purposes in a wide variety of organisms, one of the main ones being the ability to identify cells of the same organism.  The spike protein is a glycoprotein that is found on the phospholipid bilayer of SARS-CoV-2 and it is the main tool utilized in infecting the body. The spike protein is used to bind to host cells, so the bilayers of the virus fuse with the cell, injecting the virus’s genetic material into the cell. This is why a mutation that makes the spike protein more efficient in binding to host cells can be so detrimental to stopping the virus.

In my opinion, I find mutations to be fascinating and terrifying. The idea that the change of one letter in the sequence of 30,000 letters in the SARS-CoV-2 genome can have a drastic effect on how the virus works is awfully daunting. However, SARS-CoV-2 is mutating fairly slowly in comparison to other viruses, and with vaccines rolling out, these mutations start to seem much less scary by the day.

 

Mice Maintain Muscle in Microgravity

Scientists recently found a molecule that can maintain, and even augment, the muscle mass and bone density of space-faring mice.

That might sound irrelevant (why would mice need to maintain muscle mass in space?), but this could actually help astronauts with a common problem with space travel. Astronauts in space must exercise regularly and intensely to avoid muscle atrophy; due to the microgravity, astronauts have little regular physical exertion and quickly lose muscle mass otherwise. Studies have shown that space journeys as brief as 5 to 11 days lead to a 20% loss of muscle mass for astronauts. The calf muscles, quadriceps, and back and neck muscles (which can be collectively termed antigravity muscles) require minimal contraction for astronauts to move around in space, allowing the muscles to weaken rapidly.

Muscle atrophy isn’t only a problem for astronauts, though. Others to benefit from this research could include “people who are bedridden or in a wheelchair, as well as people with cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or other causes of muscle wasting.” 

The main focus of this study was the gene myostatin, common to various species, including mice, cattle, and humans. Myostatin plays a role in both the number of muscle fibers in the developing animal and the level of fiber growth in the adult stage, negatively regulating muscle growth in species from dogs to humans. Several studies have shown that myostatin inhibition can help with disorders that cause wasting of the muscles by increasing muscle mass. Some evidence even suggests that myostatin inhibition might increase muscle strength as well. This study, however, targeted a different cause of muscle atrophy.

Study author Se-Jin Lee eliminated the myostatin gene from mice, allowing them to achieve double the muscle mass of regular mice. In December 2019, the mice were launched on a SpaceX craft from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for a 33 day space journey. In contrast to the normal mice, that lost muscle mass, the myostatin-inhibited mice maintained their augmented muscle mass.

On the left, a regular mouse, and on the right, a myostatin inhibited mouse with about double the muscle mass.

Of course, eliminating the gene from human astronauts is not a feasible approach. To better model a treatment that could be applied to humans, Lee’s team came up with a solution to inhibit myostatin’s expression. Myostatin prohibits growth by attaching to a specific receptor on muscle cells. To prevent this binding, the researchers came up with a molecule that was a “decoy” receptor to be injected into the mice’s bloodstreams, capturing myostatin proteins and activin A proteins, which prevent both muscle and bone growth. The unique chemical structure and folding of the receptor allows it to bind to these two proteins for this effect, and as we learned in class, the shape is very important to the functionality. The mice in the International Space Station injected with this molecule experienced bone and muscle growth while still in space. The treatment also recovered bone and muscle mass for untreated mice landing from space.

Treatments inspired by this research could hopefully be used to help astronauts maintain bone density and muscle mass in space. Though myostatin inhibition alone has not proven effective in humans, such a treatment that inhibits other proteins, like activin A, as well may be plausible.

The Problems with Ancestry Tests (23andMe, Ancestry.com, etc.)

Over the past five years or so, ancestry and DNA tests have risen in popularity due to people’s desire to find out what medical conditions they are at risk for, or where their ancestors are from.  The most common concern I have heard about as a result of these tests was that the companies would sell your DNA to third parties or the government (while there is a chance this could be true this will not be the focus of this article).  However, the true problems are not conspiracy driven, yet they are scientifically driven and verifiably true.

Many people using these tests do not realize how these tests actually work and the wrong information they present at times.  The first issue resides in the health screenings of these ancestry tests.  They claim to use your ancestry to see if you are at risk for Alzheimers, certain types of cancer, Parkinson’s, or what type of body type you have.  These companies are not completely lying, however the tests can omit certain things and it is no substitute for going to an actual doctor.

Everything they search for is compared to a reference population, therefore your genes are merely compared to other people who are considered healthy or unhealthy.  These tests do not have access to medical history in order to look for other clinical factors that could accelerate or further exacerbate this potential condition, thus explaining why it is irresponsible to tell people they are at risk for a debilitating disease because someone with similar genetics reported developing a disease that could have resulted from his or her specific lifestyle.

The issue with self-reporting in ancestry tests also can be seen in testing for heritage.  The data these companies use are based off of reference populations (many of which are self-reported especially in the early years of the tests), therefore the same person can receive different results at different times.  The database is constantly changing (which isn’t necessarily only a bad thing) so if the same person takes the test three times in three different years, they are likely to get different results.  If the company recently expands to selling DNA kits in a new area of the world, a person with mixed heritage from the United States can receive different results because the test population of a certain region was extremely small and unspecific before, whereas now they have more of a test population that can change “how Vietnamese you are” (or whatever region that applies to you).

Have you ever known someone who took the DNA test and found out they were not as Greek or Russian (insert anything) as they thought they were? These results are problematic on so many levels when breaking down ancestry.  The first example is that when comparing extremely similar populations, your heritage might not reflect your ancestry that the test finds.  For example: modern English, Scottish, and Irish people have vastly similar results in these tests because they are very similar genetically and geographically, therefore a person can find out they are 50/50 Irish and English, however all of their known relatives can be traced back to 1870s Ireland.  The person is not “less Irish than they thought”; it merely means that centuries of migration and conquering in the region of the British Isles could blend the gene pools even if this person’s family tree of the last two-hundred years can be traced back to one specific town.

Something else important to consider is that ancestry and heritage are not nearly synonymous terms.  Furthermore, two twins could receive different genes from the same parents which could lead to slight changes in genetic makeup.  Your sibling is not “more Swedish than you” in terms of heritage and the culture you were raised in.  The sibling might receive a certain gene from your parents that you did not.

While there are a myriad of problems and hypotheticals to bring up, I will leave you with one last problem. Groups of people that live in diaspora such as Jews, Romani, and Armenians could have problems with these tests.  Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe live in diaspora and have been a migratory group for centuries, leading them to mix in with various gene pools that they settle in.  When an Ashkenazi Jew or Romani (who similarly lived a migratory history) takes an ancestry test, they could feel completely related to their Ashkenazi or Romani heritage, however the intermixing of people over centuries (because they settled in so many places) could come up in the test even though they feel like they have no relationship to the heritage at all.  Romani people also are difficult to pinpoint to one specific region of origin which demonstrates another potential problem with the tests.

While these tests can be a fun activity to do with your friends, make sure you take the results with a grain of salt because you are not necessarily  “less French than you thought”.

 

Does Exposure to Toxins In the Environment Affect One’s Offspring’s Immune System?

A study has recently surfaced stating that maternal exposure to industrial pollution may harm the immune system of one’s offspring and that this impairment is then passed from generation to generation, resulting in weak body defenses against viruses.

Paige Lawrence, Ph.D., with the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Department of Environmental Medicine, led the study and conducted research in mice, which have similar immune system functions as humans. Previously, studies have shown that exposure to toxins in the environment can have effects on the respiratory, reproductive, and nervous system function among generations; however, Lawrence’s research is the first study to declare that the immune system is also impacted.

“The old adage ‘you are what you eat’ is a touchstone for many aspects of human health,” said Lawrence. “But in terms of the body’s ability to fights off infections, this study suggests that, to a certain extent, you may also be what your great-grandmother ate.”

“When you are infected or receive a flu vaccine, the immune system ramps up production of specific kinds of white blood cells in response,” said Lawrence. “The larger the response, the larger the army of white blood cells, enhancing the ability of the body to successfully fight off an infection. Having a smaller size army — which we see across multiple generations of mice in this study — means that you’re at risk for not fighting the infection as effectively.”

In the study, researchers exposed pregnant mice to environmentally relevant levels of a chemical called dioxin, which is a common by-product of industrial production and wast incineration, and is also found in some consumer products. These chemicals eventually are consumed by humans as a result of them getting into the food system, mainly found in animal-based food products.

The scientists found the production and function of the mice’s white blood cells was impaired after being infected with the influenza A virus. Researchers observed the immune response in the offspring of the mice whose mothers were exposed to dioxin. Additionally, the immune response was also found in the following generations, as fas as the great-grandchildren (or great- grandmice). It was also found that this immune response was greater in female mice.  This discovery now allows researchers to have more information and evidence to be able to more accurately create a claim about this theory.

As a result of the study, researchers were able to state that the exposure to dioxin alters the transcription of genetic instructions. According to the researchers, the environmental exposure to pollutants does not trigger a genetic mutation. Instead, ones cellular machinery is changed and the immune response is passed down generation to generation. This discovery explains information that was originally unexplainable. It is obviously difficult to just avoid how much toxins you are exposed to in the environment, but it is definitely interesting to see the extent of the immune responses in subsequent generations. We can only hope that this new information, and further discoveries, help people adjust what they release into this world that results in these harmful toxins humans are exposed to, and their offsprings.

 

 

 

Is Training Your Dog Useless?

For about 100 years, humans have been trying to train the domestic animals, such as dogs, that they live with. They put in lots of time and effort for teach their dogs simple tricks such as sitting, lying down, and staying in place. While it is rewarding to have a dog listen to commands after teaching and training them, this may not as great of an accomplishment as previously thought. As a dog owner myself, this had me worried, but as a recent ScienceNews post says, the answer to how to train a dog may just lie in their genetics. 

Training Dogs May Be an Outdated Practice

This was the hypothesis that Noah Snyder-Mackler had as he and a few other colleagues from the University of Washington in Seattle attempted to prove its legitimacy. Primarily, the group collected data about 101 different breeds of dogs from two dog genotypes databases and a survey titled C-BARQ, a survey where dog owners submit information about behavior from their dogs such as aggressiveness or ability to listen. As the data came in, there were over 14,000 submissions and they were all scored on 14 different traits. Overall, Snyder-Mackler and his group found that poodles and border collies had higher traits of trainability and Chihuahuas and dachshunds had higher traits of aggressiveness. However this does not means that training a dog is rendered useless since there was about a small correlation, 50%, between energy level and fearfulness.

Aggression Could Have Been Caused from Genetics

Next the researchers tried to see if certain traits correlated with certain genes. After doing more research they found that no genes specially aligned with a breeds behaviors, but this does not mean that the research is useless since even though this  does not show that a gene brings about a behavioral trait, but it shows that this subject needs more research to be able to determine the validity of Snyder-Mackler’s original hypothesis.

Dogs are very complex genetically and therefore behavioral traits are both a combination of genetics and training. As Carlos Alvarez, a researcher at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, says, “Dogs are a really powerful system to investigate the genetics of many traits and diseases because generations of domestication and breeding have simplified their genomes. This study shows that behavior is no different.” Overall while this research is just the start and is incomplete in totality, it shows that there is much more to discover regarding this topic. If you have any traits that you think correlate with either your dog’s genes or breed, please post a comment a explain why.

 

The Rice That Can Clone Itself

A team of scientists has discovered that through the use of CRISPR, they were able to create a rice plant that can asexually reproduce. The problem with previous strands of genetically modified rice plants, those bread to have a higher yield, is that their progeny did not always carry this desired trait. So farmers have to buy new genetically modified seeds every year to ensure that they will get that same yield.

Image result for rice grains

That is where the magic of CRISPR comes into the equation. The first step in the process was editing the eggs of the plant by implanting a promoter that allows the egg to start the embryo growing process without a sperm. One issue still lingered, the process of meiosis that was occurring could not produce viable offspring because it only had half of the genetic material that the progeny would need. Another team of scientists from the French National Institute for Agricultural Technology discovered that by using CRISPR to turn off three specific genes they could stop the meiosis process and allow the plant to reproduce asexually.

Image result for rice plant

This process is still only 30% efficient at this stage. However, the offspring they do produce are able to asexually produce more clones of themselves. Now the process starts to try and make this process more efficient. I think these plants could have a major impact on the agricultural industry, especially with food shortages becoming more present as the human population rapidly increases.

What do you think? Have we overstepped our bounds by editing nature? Or have we pioneered a new solution for the world hunger question on everyone’s minds?

CRISPR Research into HIV Immunity Might Also Improve Human Cognition

In the quest to genetically master human immunity to HIV, Chinese CRISPR researchers may have come across a way to control human intelligence as well.

Specifically, the trial of deleting the CCR5 gene in twin girls Lulu and Nana has lead to a scarily powerful discovery that scientists are within reach of being able to genetically modify human brain function. Scientists were initially interested in deleting the CCR5 gene because it codes for a beta chemokine receptor membrane protein which the HIV virus hijacks to enter red blood cells. However, when this alteration was tested on mice embryos in California, the resulting offspring showed evidence of improved mental capacity.

https://pixabay.com/illustrations/dna-genetic-material-helix-proteins-3539309/

After this unexpected result, scientists investigated further how the alteration would impact human function with the twins’ lives in mind. Experiments yielded evidence of improved brain recovery after a stroke and potential greater learning capacity in school. Scientists at UCLA uncovered an alternative role for the CCR5 gene in memory and suppressing the formation of new connections in the brain. The absence of this gene in the human genome would likely make memory formation easier via more efficient neural connections.

Although the mice experiment suggested that CCR5’s deletion would improve mental capacity rather than harm it, scientists cannot be sure how the alteration has impacted Lulu’s and Nana’s cognitive function. Some also fear that this discovery may have been the first Chinese attempt to genetically create superior intelligence, despite their claim to the MIT Technology Review that the true purpose of the study was to investigate HIV immunity. Although the Hong Kong scientists who engineered the twins did not publicly intend to improve human cognition, they confirmed a familiarity with UCLA’s discovered connections between CCR5 and human cognition all throughout their trial.

Are we within reach of a time when we can play with the circuit board of the human genome to raise a person’s IQ? Quite possibly. But only time and research will tell.

CRISPR/Cas9: Controlling Genetic Inheritance in Mammals

Often the subject of debate, CRISPR/Cas 9 has come to the forefront of the scientific community as its development bridges the worlds of Sci-Fi and reality. Yet while CRISPR/Cas9 has been successfully used in altering the genetic inheritance of insects, applying the same technology to mammals has proven to be significantly more complex. With the recent development of active genetics technology in mice by UC San Diego researchers, a huge stride has been made for the much contested future of gene technology.

Releasing their findings in January, the team led by Assistant Professor Kimberly Cooper engineered a copycat DNA element into the Tyrosinase gene controlling fur color. The copycat DNA results in mice that would have been black appearing white. Over two years they determined the copycat element could be copied from one chromosome to another, repairing breaks targeted by CRISPR.  Ultimately, the genotype was converted from heterozygous to homozygous.

Following the success of her lab’s single gene experiment, Cooper hopes to use the technology to control the inheritance of multiple genes and traits in mice. Her experiment, the first active genetic success in mammals, has biologists hopeful for  future development of gene drive technologies to balance biodiversity and mitigate the adverse effect of invasive species.

Strong Genes Equal Strong Immune System

Although scientists have long agreed that antibodies are in integral part of building up the body’s immune system, there is new evidence that strongly suggests genetic factors play a large role in determining how well the immune system builds and uses these antibodies when fighting disease.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Redhead_twins.jpg

In a recent study, “researchers from James Cook University’s Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM) and the University of Queensland’s (UQ) Diamantina Institute have analyzed blood samples from 1835 twins and thousands of their siblings.” The team looked at the body’s immune response to “six common human viruses, including the Human Herpes virus, Parvovirus, Epstein Barr virus and the Coxsackie virus.” The team determined that genes passed down by parents are the major factor in how powerfully an immune system responds to diseases. “These genes determine whether you mount an intense or weak immune response when confronted with a viral infection,” says Associate Professor Miles.

“Demonstrating that antibody response is heritable is the first step in the eventual identification of individual genes that affect antibody response.” The researchers’ next goal is to identify the superior genes in order to, “imitate ‘super defenders’,” and “design next generation vaccines.”

 

Click Here to Learn About the Tomato’s Fancy New Makeover

The sun rose on a dimly light Monday morning when Adriano Nunes-Nesi, Lázaro E.P. Peres, Agustin Zsögön, Lucas de Ávila Silva, Ronan Sulpice, and Emmanuel Rezende Naves published their groundbreaking discovery that could revolutionize the cultivation of chili’s forever.   These insanely talented and well established scientists figured out how to use the CRISPR-Cas9 editing tool to turn a tomato into    a chili.

Capsaicinoids are what give peppers their heat and when these scholars of science mapped the tomato’s and chili’s genomes, they saw that the tomato has genes that, when transcribed, produce these spicy and hot capsaicinoids.

The reason why this is important is because the chili’s cultivation process is extremely tedious and requires many specific conditions, not to mention it having a small yield.  Since the yield of tomatoes is 30x that of the chili, using the CRISPR-Cas9 tool, they could change the shape and taste of the tomato to that of a chili. The price of a chili peppers, per kg, compared to tomatoes is roughly 60 cents higher. It may not seem a ton, but in bulk orders, it quickly adds up.

Lázaro E.P. Peres, who is aProfessor of Plant Physiology at the University of São Paulo and one of the scientists on the team, says, “The proof of concept here is that we can transfer the unique thing endemic to a less-produced plant into another plant that is more widely produced”.  The paper states the tomato “is highly amenable to biotechnological manipulation”. This would drive the price of the chili down which would help markets, restaurants, and Gardners worldwide.

The only issue to this is the publics opinion. For years, the already established “organic” companies having been labelling genetically modified food as unhealthy compared to non-GMO foods.  This claim is simply outright false.  “Any plant or animal product is full of DNA that our body readily digests, messing with one or two genes isn’t going to impact human health. The only way GM food could affect human health is if the modification somehow produce a protein product that was actively toxic to humans.”  This quote is from an article by the Genetic Literacy Project, which could be seen as having bias towards GMO foods, however their mission says,”is to aid the public, media and policymakers in understanding the science and societal implications of human and agricultural genetic and biotechnology research and to promote science literacy.”  All they are interested in doing is educating the public because so many people have been lied to by big organic corporations and the media to prevent customers from eating GMO products.  What would they have to gain by saying they are safe when they are not?    If the public can get passed the idea of genetically modifying foods, I believe turning a tomato into a chili pepper would save much money from hundreds of thousands of businesses– big or small.

What do you guys and gals think of GMO products?

For more information, please go check out the primary source of this article and the researchers report

 

 

Can a Fox Be Your New Pet?

The big difference between your dog and a wild animal is the relationship that it has with humans. For example, both dogs and foxes come from the canidae family, however foxes are generally scared of humans  while dogs are “ a man’s best friend”. So why is the fox’s response drastically different than a dogs?

 Scientists may have figured it out. The study was originally started in Russia where a scientist wanted to see if he could domesticate foxes like people had domesticated dogs. He started to breed silver foxes with domestic traits: ones that were more tamed and friendlier towards humans.  But at the same time he also bred foxes that were aggressive to humans in order to make an aggressive breed of foxes. He then started to compare the two breeds as the generations went on. He studied only 10 generations but 50 generations of silver foxes later Cornell did a study on the same foxes.

Cornell studied the tamed foxes’ brains in comparison to the fox’s brain that were aggressive towards humans.  The scientist obtained brain tissue samples from 12 tamed foxes and 12 aggressive foxes looking for differences between the two brains. The particular part of the brain they studied was the prefrontal cortex and basal forebrain which are known for processing more complex information. The prefrontal cortex processes social behavior and personality expression, while the basal forebrain is a critical component to processing memories. The neurotransmitters from those regions were what the researchers mostly focused on. In particular, they focused specifically on the neurotransmitters that release dopamine and serotonin in the foxes brains  which are responsible for feelings of happiness because they trigger the pleasure center of the brain.

Through the study of the neurotransmitters, the researchers found that genes from these sections of the brain from the tamed foxes were altered through the breeding of the foxes but not the ones that they expected.  The variant genes in fact coded for alterations in the  function of the serotonergic neurons and the glutaminergic neurons. Those neurons coincide with learning and memory. This shows that tamed animals learn and memorize differently than their aggressive equals.  Now that we know this do you scientists through genetic modifications will be able to tame or domesticate any animal by simply changing a gene in their brain?

Did You Know Plants Can Talk?

 

For thousands of years language has been a crucial part of cultures around the world, and a method unique to humanity of transmitting ideas, thoughts, emotions between us. Language has allowed us to work harmoniously together for our mutual improvement and survival. Recently, however, two researchers, Dr. Kim Valenta and her colleague Omar Nevo, have discovered that plants too, have developed their own unique and intricate method of conveying information to their pollinators; “the easier it is for fruit eaters to identify ripe fruits, the better the chance for both [, the plant and the fruit,] to survive.

The most vivid example of plant communication can be found in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park and Uganda’s Kiabale National Park where berry plants have evolved “to match each animal’s sensory capacities, [thus] signal[ing] dinner time in the jungle…” Dr. Valenta and Nevo analyzed the exact colors of each fruit with a spectrometer, and “with a model based on the visual capacities of the seed-dispersing animals, they also determined who was most likely to detect different fruit colors contrasting against an assortment of backgrounds.” The researchers concluded that “the colors of each fruit were optimized against their natural backdrops to meet the demands of the visual systems of their primary seed dispersers,” i.e. pollinators. Thus, red-green color-blind lemurs, in Madagascar were best able to detect the fruit with a blue yellow color scheme and monkeys and apes in Uganda, with tricolor vision like humans, were clearly able to distinguish red berries against a green backdrop.

Also recently discovered was that plants can communicate to their pollinators through scent. Dr. Nevo performed a scent-based study on the lemurs in Madagascar. His team collected various ripe and unripe fruits from all over the jungle of Ranomafana. “He suspected the leumur-eaten fruits would have a greater difference in odor after they ripened than the bird-eaten fruits.” To discover exactly how this scent-based communication worked, Nevo used the “semi-static headspace technique.” From this experiment it was confirmed that “fruits dispersed solely by lemurs produced more chemicals and a greater assortment of compounds upon ripening. It is now known that wild lemurs actually spend quite a lot of time smelling for the vivid difference in odor between ripe and unripe fruits in the jungle.

It is astonishing how plants have evolved over the years to be able to communicate with their pollinators for the betterment and expansion of their species. I would be interested to find out, what other organisms communicate (single cellular, multi-cellular, etc.) and what kind of information they find necessary to convey to others for their survival?

 

 

 

 

A Gene In Your Ears For Sour Taste?

Unlike the other four human tastes, our process of detecting sourness has always been a mystery, and scientists were definitely not expecting to find the answer in a  protein normally found in the inner ear.

https://pxhere.com/en/photo/994259

This protein, coded by the gene scientists refer to as Otop1, usually functions as part of the vestibular system to maintain balance. Given this more commonly known function of the protein, scientists were shocked to find its use for both balance and detecting the acids often associated with sour taste. The association is actually not as far- fetched as one might think. Otop1 codes for the synthesis of calcium carbonate crystals which rest on the hairs of the inner ear and detect gravity to help humans stand upright. Researchers found that the tongue also uses these crystals to detect sour taste. Calcium carbonate, a relatively basic compound, dissolves when it comes into contact with acid, which reaction can be detected by the brain and interpreted as sour taste.

How could such a protein find its way to use in both our senses of balance and taste?

The answer lies in evolution. If a certain protein proves advantageous over generations, organisms with it in surplus may evolutionarily find other uses for the it. Recently scientists have actually found several proteins for sensory organs that double as homeostatic sensors in other tissues. Otop1 is only one of many; smell receptors are found in the kidney in surplus, as are sweet taste receptors in the bladder.

Although we have unearthed a lot about the human body over the years, there is always so much more to learn!

Fighting the mosquito disease problems with… mosquitos?

Since the discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 system (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), gene editing has become a highly debated topic. One of the reasons backing the use of CRISPR-cas9 is to prevent diseases. These diseases include mosquito-borne diseases such as zika, dengue fever, and malaria.  Malaria in particular kills around 3,000 children every year. Various groups of scientists have worked on genetically modifying mosquitos to stop the spread of malaria by making female offspring sterile and unable to bite, making male offspring sterile, or making mosquitos resistant to carrying diseases. A point of concern was if the modified gene would stay relative and would carry from generations. In order to make offspring, genes from both parents must be used, resulting in the offspring carrying the modified gene only half the time.  In particular cases, mutations would occur in the altered DNA, which nullified the genetic changes.  This has been solved by developing a gene drive, which makes the desired gene dominant and occur in the offspring almost 100% of time.  This entails almost the entire mosquito population could have this modified gene in as little as 11 generations.

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Recently, the government of Burkina Faso, a small land-locked nation in west Africa, has approved for scientists to release mosquitos that are genetically modified anytime this year or next year.  The particular group of mosquitos to be released first is a group of sterile males, which would die rather quickly.  Scientists want to test the impact of releasing a genetically modified eukaryotic organism in the Africa. It is the first step in “Target Malaria” project to rid the region of malaria once and for all.

 

One of the major challenges in gaining allowance to release the genetically modified species was the approval of the residences, who lack words in the local language to describe genetics or gene editing.  Lea Pare, who leads a team of scientists modifying mosquitos, is working with linguists to answer questions the locals may have and tp help develop vocabulary to describe this complex scientific process.

What do you think about gene editing to possibly save millions?

Read the original article here.

View a video explaining how scientists can use genetic engineering to fight disease here.

Closer to Reality: Gene Editing Technology

In August of 2017, scientists in the United States were successful in genetically modifying human embryos, becoming the first to use CRISPR-cas9 to fix a disease causing DNA replication error in early stage human embryos. This latest test was the largest scale to take place and proved that scientists were able to correct a mutation that caused a genetic heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

CRISPR-cas9 is a genome editing tool that is faster and more economical than othe r DNA editing techniques. CRISPR-cas9 consists of two molecules, an enzyme called cas9 cuts strands of DNA so pieces of DNA can be inserted in specific areas. RNA called gRNA or guide RNA guide the cas9 enzyme to the locations where impacted regions will be edited.

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

 

Further tests following the first large-scale embryo trial will attempt to solidify CRISPR’s track record and bring it closer to clinical trials. During the clinical trials, scientists would use humans- implanting the modified embryos in volunteers and tracking births and progress of the children.

Gene editing has not emerged without controversy. While many argue that this technology can be used to engineer the human race to create genetically enhanced future generations, it cannot be overlooked that CRISPR technology is fundamentally for helping to repair genetic defects before birth. While genetic discrimination and homogeneity are possible risks, the rewards from the eradication of many genetic disorders are too important to dismiss gene editing technology from existing.

 

The Weirder Side of CRISPR

If you’ve been following science news at all, you’ve heard of CRISPR, the gene-editing tool which is rapidly becoming a very hot topic. Since its discovery, CRISPR has been used for some truly extraordinary things. It’s also done some other things, which stray from medical miracles into the realm of the strange.

Alphr.com reports some of the weirder projects using CRISPR. This includes manufacturing super-dogs, as well as the possibility of bringing back the woolly mammoth! This is all being done as you read this through CRISPR CAS-9

Another project mentioned in the article is an effort to create organs in pigs suitable for human transplants. This has become a larger topic of conversation, as there is always an ample need for organs, and if this project comes to fruition, waiting lists for organ transplants could possibly be abolished completely.

To read the other weird projects using CRISPR right now, check out the article.

Comment below your thoughts on this article, and the uses of CRISPR in general. I, for one, would love to see a mammoth before my own eyes!

Crispr-Cas9 is the gateway to a new frontier in genetic engineering. Here’s The good and the bad.

For a number of years now, molecular biologists have been diving increasingly further into the field of genome editing. The latest development into the field is the emergence of CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR-Cas9 has risen to prominence over other potential methods of genome editing due to its relatively simple construction and low cost. CRISPR-Cas9’s original primary and intended purpose was to help fix mutations within DNA, and with this it could theoretically help eradicate entire diseases. This application of CRISPR is wholly positive, however with the increasing prevalence of the technique other potential uses have been discovered, and some of these potential uses raise profound ethical questions.

One of the main concerns of people skeptical about CRISPR is their assertion that once the door to the wholesale genetic editing of offspring is open, there is no going back. This, on its own, is a reasonable concern. The ability to choose a child’s sex, eye color, hair color and skin complexion is very likely to be made available to by CRISPR in the coming years. CRISPR does not yet have the capability to influence more abstract elements of the genome, such as intelligence and athletic ability, but this may not be far off. There are legitimate concerns that this is a slippery slope towards a dystopian society similar to the one seen in the movie Gattaca, where society is stratified into two distinct classes: those who are genetically engineered and those who are not.

Another concern raised by some scientists is the overall safety of genetic editing. A potentially very hazardous negative result of CRISPR is the possibility of an “off target mutation.” An off target mutation is the result of CRISPR mutating something other than the intended part of the genome and it could have disastrous consequences. Now, many scientists believe that with further advancements in the field the likelihood of something like an off target mutation occurring could be reduced to almost zero. However, it is important to examine the risks of any new process, and the prospect of something like an off target mutation occurring is certainly noteworthy.

For more information click here.

Inside Out

CRISPR is a revolutionary tool used for editing the human genome. It allows for the altering of  any given DNA sequence and ability to modify any one specific genes’ function. Its applicability consists of correcting genetic defects, treating and preventing the spread of diseases, and improving crops. However, it also raises some ethical concerns, that of which mainly is the idea that practicing CRISPR technology could be considered as playing the role of “God”.

CRISPR was adapted from the natural defense mechanisms of bacteria, which use CRISPR-derived RNA and Cas proteins, to prevent attacks by viruses and other intruding organisms. They do so by chopping up and destroying the DNA of the virus. When these components are derived and applied to more complex, organisms, it allows for the manipulation of genes.

Disregarding its ethical concerns, CRISPR can provide substantial support to a previously uncharted area of medicine; the diagnosing and treating of genetic disorders, which was previously thought to be that if one had a genetic disorder it would be incurable.  Clinical trials are set to take place both in Europe and in North America, where patients with rare genetic disorders will give cellular samples in an attempt to alter their genome, implant them back into the individual, and hopefully cure the genetic abnormality.

With CRSPR taking such progressive strides in the past year, it is not outrageous to predict what its usage could end up providing society with.  With the ability to edit the human genome there are endless possibilities in which science could evolve this area of study to benefit the human race.  CRISPR can even be used to boost the expected intelligence of an embryo.  Who knows, thirty years from now we could be watching the news and hear of the first ever “superhuman”, a genetically modified human that has been hand-coded for optimality in all human functions.

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