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  • richardmitnick 7:57 am on August 25, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Genetics,   

    From phys.org: “Genetic overlapping in multiple autoimmune diseases may suggest common therapies” 

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    phys.org

    August 24, 2015
    No Writer Credit

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    DNA double helix. Credit: public domain

    Scientists who analyzed the genes involved in 10 autoimmune diseases that begin in childhood have discovered 22 genome-wide signals shared by two or more diseases. These shared gene sites may reveal potential new targets for treating many of these diseases, in some cases with existing drugs already available for non-autoimmune disorders.

    Autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and juvenile idiopathic arthritis, collectively affect 7 to 10 percent of the population in the Western Hemisphere.

    “Our approach did more than finding genetic associations among a group of diseases,” said study leader, Hakon Hakonarson, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Applied Genomics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “We identified genes with a biological relevance to these diseases, acting along gene networks and pathways that may offer very useful targets for therapy.”

    The paper appears online today in Nature Medicine.

    The international study team performed a meta-analysis, including a case-control study of 6,035 subjects with automimmune disease and 10,700 controls, all of European ancestry. The study’s lead analyst, Yun (Rose) Li, an M.D./Ph.D. graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and the Center for Applied Genomics, mentored by Hakonarson and his research team, applied highly innovative and integrative approaches in supporting the study of pathogenic roles of the genes uncovered across multiple diseases.

    The research encompassed 10 clinically distinct autoimmune diseases with onset during childhood: type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, common variable immunodeficiency disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, autoimmune thyroiditis and ankylosing spondylitis.

    Because many of these diseases run in families and because individual patients often have more than one autoimmune condition, clinicians have long suspected these conditions have shared genetic predispositions. Previous genome-wide association studies have identified hundreds of susceptibility genes among autoimmune diseases, largely affecting adults.

    The current research was a systematic analysis of multiple pediatric-onset diseases simultaneously. The study team found 27 genome-wide loci, including five novel loci, among the diseases examined. Of those 27 signals, 22 were shared by at least two of the autoimmune diseases, and 19 of them were shared by at least three of them.

    Many of the gene signals the investigators discovered were on biological pathways functionally linked to cell activation, cell proliferation and signaling systems important in immune processes. One of the five novel signals, near the CD40LG gene, was especially compelling, said Hakonarson, who added, “That gene encodes the ligand for the CD40 receptor, which is associated with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and celiac disease. This ligand may represent another promising drug target in treating these diseases.”

    Many of the 27 gene signals the investigators uncovered have a biological relevance to autoimmune disease processes, Hakonarson said. “Rather than looking at overall gene expression in all cells, we focused on how these genes upregulated gene expression in specific cell types and tissues, and found patterns that were directly relevant to specific diseases. For instance, among several of the diseases, we saw genes with stronger expression in B cells. Looking at diseases such as lupus or juvenile idiopathic arthritis, which feature dysfunctions in B cells, we can start to design therapies to dial down over-expression in those cells.”

    He added that “the level of granularity the study team uncovered offers opportunities for researchers to better target gene networks and pathways in specific autoimmune diseases, and perhaps to fine tune and expedite drug development by repurposing existing drugs, based on our findings.”

    More information: Meta-analysis of shared genetic architecture across ten pediatric autoimmune diseases, Nature Medicine, published online Aug. 24, 2015. doi.org/10.1038/nm.3933

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 4:24 pm on July 19, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From WIRED: “Chemists Invent New Letters for Nature’s Genetic Alphabet” 

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    Wired

    07.19.15
    Emily Singer

    1
    Olena Shmahalo/Quanta Magazine

    DNA stores our genetic code in an elegant double helix.

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    The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour-coded by element and the detailed structure of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right.

    But some argue that this elegance is overrated. “DNA as a molecule has many things wrong with it,” said Steven Benner, an organic chemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida.

    Nearly 30 years ago, Benner sketched out better versions of both DNA and its chemical cousin RNA, adding new letters and other additions that would expand their repertoire of chemical feats.

    2
    A hairpin loop from a pre-mRNA. Highlighted are the nucleobases (green) and the ribose-phosphate backbone (blue). Note that this is a single strand of RNA that folds back upon itself.

    He wondered why these improvements haven’t occurred in living creatures. Nature has written the entire language of life using just four chemical letters: G, C, A and T. Did our genetic code settle on these four nucleotides for a reason? Or was this system one of many possibilities, selected by simple chance? Perhaps expanding the code could make it better.

    Benner’s early attempts at synthesizing new chemical letters failed. But with each false start, his team learned more about what makes a good nucleotide and gained a better understanding of the precise molecular details that make DNA and RNA work. The researchers’ efforts progressed slowly, as they had to design new tools to manipulate the extended alphabet they were building. “We have had to re-create, for our artificially designed DNA, all of the molecular biology that evolution took 4 billion years to create for natural DNA,” Benner said.

    Now, after decades of work, Benner’s team has synthesized artificially enhanced DNA that functions much like ordinary DNA, if not better. In two papers published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society last month, the researchers have shown that two synthetic nucleotides called P and Z fit seamlessly into DNA’s helical structure, maintaining the natural shape of DNA. Moreover, DNA sequences incorporating these letters can evolve just like traditional DNA, a first for an expanded genetic alphabet.

    The new nucleotides even outperform their natural counterparts. When challenged to evolve a segment that selectively binds to cancer cells, DNA sequences using P and Z did better than those without.

    “When you compare the four-nucleotide and six-nucleotide alphabet, the six-nucleotide version seems to have won out,” said Andrew Ellington, a biochemist at the University of Texas, Austin, who was not involved in the study.

    Benner has lofty goals for his synthetic molecules. He wants to create an alternative genetic system in which proteins—intricately folded molecules that perform essential biological functions—are unnecessary. Perhaps, Benner proposes, instead of our standard three-component system of DNA, RNA and proteins, life on other planets evolved with just two.

    Better Blueprints for Life

    The primary job of DNA is to store information. Its sequence of letters contains the blueprints for building proteins. Our current four-letter alphabet encodes 20 amino acids, which are strung together to create millions of different proteins. But a six-letter alphabet could encode as many as 216 possible amino acids and many, many more possible proteins.

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    Expanding the genetic alphabet dramatically expands the number of possible amino acids and proteins that cells can build, at least in theory. The existing four-letter alphabet produces 20 amino acids (small circle) while a six-letter alphabet could produce 216 possible amino acids. Olena Shmahalo/Quanta Magazine

    Why nature stuck with four letters is one of biology’s fundamental questions. Computers, after all, use a binary system with just two “letters”—0s and 1s. Yet two letters probably aren’t enough to create the array of biological molecules that make up life. “If you have a two-letter code, you limit the number of combinations you get,” said Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, a chemist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

    On the other hand, additional letters could make the system more error prone. DNA bases come in pairs—G pairs with C and A pairs with T. It’s this pairing that endows DNA with the ability to pass along genetic information. With a larger alphabet, each letter has a greater chance of pairing with the wrong partner, and new copies of DNA might harbor more mistakes. “If you go past four, it becomes too unwieldy,” Krishnamurthy said.

    But perhaps the advantages of a larger alphabet can outweigh the potential drawbacks. Six-letter DNA could densely pack in genetic information. And perhaps six-letter RNA could take over some of the jobs now handled by proteins, which perform most of the work in the cell.

    Proteins have a much more flexible structure than DNA and RNA and are capable of folding into an array of complex shapes. A properly folded protein can act as a molecular lock, opening a chamber only for the right key. Or it can act as a catalyst, capturing and bringing together different molecules for chemical reactions.

    Adding new letters to RNA could give it some of these abilities. “Six letters can potentially fold into more, different structures than four letters,” Ellington said.

    Back when Benner was sketching out ideas for alternative DNA and RNA, it was this potential that he had in mind. According to the most widely held theory of life’s origins, RNA once performed both the information-storage job of DNA and the catalytic job of proteins. Benner realized that there are many ways to make RNA a better catalyst.

    “With just these little insights, I was able to write down the structures that are in my notebook as alternatives that would make DNA and RNA better,” Benner said. “So the question is: Why did life not make these alternatives? One way to find out was to make them ourselves, in the laboratory, and see how they work.”

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    Steven Benner’s lab notebook from 1985 outlining plans to synthesize “better” DNA and RNA by adding new chemical letters. Courtesy of Steven Benner

    It’s one thing to design new codes on paper, and quite another to make them work in real biological systems. Other researchers have created their own additions to the genetic code, in one case even incorporating new letters into living bacteria. But these other bases fit together a bit differently from natural ones, stacking on top of each other rather than linking side by side. This can distort the shape of DNA, particularly when a number of these bases cluster together. Benner’s P-Z pair, however, is designed to mimic natural bases.

    One of the new papers by Benner’s team shows that Z and P are yoked together by the same chemical bond that ties A to T and C to G. (This bond is known as Watson-Crick pairing, after the scientists who discovered DNA’s structure.) Millie Georgiadis, a chemist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, along with Benner and other collaborators, showed that DNA strands that incorporate Z and P retain their proper helical shape if the new letters are strung together or interspersed with natural letters.

    “This is very impressive work,” said Jack Szostak, a chemist at Harvard University who studies the origin of life, and who was not involved in the study. “Finding a novel base pair that does not grossly disrupt the double-helical structure of DNA has been quite difficult.”

    The team’s second paper demonstrates how well the expanded alphabet works. Researchers started with a random library of DNA strands constructed from the expanded alphabet and then selected the strands that were able to bind to liver cancer cells but not to other cells. Of the 12 successful binders, the best had Zs and Ps in their sequences, while the weakest did not.

    “More functionality in the nucleobases has led to greater functionality in nucleic acids themselves,” Ellington said. In other words, the new additions appear to improve the alphabet, at least under these conditions.

    But additional experiments are needed to determine how broadly that’s true. “I think it will take more work, and more direct comparisons, to be sure that a six-letter version generally results in ‘better’ aptamers [short DNA strands] than four-letter DNA,” Szostak said. For example, it’s unclear whether the six-letter alphabet triumphed because it provided more sequence options or because one of the new letters is simply better at binding, Szostak said.

    Benner wants to expand his genetic alphabet even further, which could enhance its functional repertoire. He’s working on creating a 10- or 12-letter system and plans to move the new alphabet into living cells. Benner’s and others’ synthetic molecules have already proved useful in medical and biotech applications, such as diagnostic tests for HIV and other diseases. Indeed, Benner’s work helped to found the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, which seeks to build new life, in addition to forming useful tools from molecular parts.

    Why Life’s Code Is Limited

    Benner’s work and that of other researchers suggests that a larger alphabet has the capacity to enhance DNA’s function. So why didn’t nature expand its alphabet in the 4 billion years it has had to work on it? It could be because a larger repertoire has potential disadvantages. Some of the structures made possible by a larger alphabet might be of poor quality, with a greater risk of misfolding, Ellington said.

    Nature was also effectively locked into the system at hand when life began. “Once [nature] has made a decision about which molecular structures to place at the core of its molecular biology, it has relatively little opportunity to change those decisions,” Benner said. “By constructing unnatural systems, we are learning not only about the constraints at the time that life first emerged, but also about constraints that prevent life from searching broadly within the imagination of chemistry.”

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    The genetic code—made up of the four letters, A, T, G and C—stores the blueprint for proteins. DNA is first transcribed into RNA and then translated into proteins, which fold into specific shapes. Olena Shmahalo/Quanta Magazine

    Benner aims to make a thorough search of that chemical space, using his discoveries to make new and improved versions of both DNA and RNA. He wants to make DNA better at storing information and RNA better at catalyzing reactions. He hasn’t shown directly that the P-Z base pairs do that. But both bases have the potential to help RNA fold into more complex structures, which in turn could make proteins better catalysts. P has a place to add a “functional group,” a molecular structure that helps folding and is typically found in proteins. And Z has a nitro group, which could aid in molecular binding.

    In modern cells, RNA acts as an intermediary between DNA and proteins. But Benner ultimately hopes to show that the three-biopolymer system—DNA, RNA and proteins—that exists throughout life on Earth isn’t essential. With better-engineered DNA and RNA, he says, perhaps proteins are unnecessary.

    Indeed, the three-biopolymer system may have drawbacks, since information flows only one way, from DNA to RNA to proteins. If a DNA mutation produces a more efficient protein, that mutation will spread slowly, as organisms without it eventually die off.

    What if the more efficient protein could spread some other way, by directly creating new DNA? DNA and RNA can transmit information in both directions. So a helpful RNA mutation could theoretically be transformed into beneficial DNA. Adaptations could thus lead directly to changes in the genetic code.

    Benner predicts that a two-biopolymer system would evolve faster than our own three-biopolymer system. If so, this could have implications for life on distant planets. “If we find life elsewhere,” he said, “it would likely have the two-biopolymer system.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 1:40 pm on April 22, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Princeton: “Decoding the Cell’s Genetic Filing System (Nature Chemistry)” 

    Princeton University
    Princeton University

    April 22, 2015
    Tien Nguyen

    1
    Source: Nature Chemistry

    A fully extended strand of human DNA measures about five feet in length. Yet it occupies a space just one-tenth of a cell by wrapping itself around histones—spool-like proteins—to form a dense hub of information called chromatin.

    Access to these meticulously packed genes is regulated by post-translational modifications, chemical changes to the structure of histones that act as on-off signals for gene transcription. Mistakes or mutations in histones can cause diseases such as glioblastoma, a devastating pediatric brain cancer.

    Researchers at Princeton University have developed a facile method to introduce non-native chromatin into cells to interrogate these signaling pathways. Published on April 6 in the journal Nature Chemistry, this work is the latest chemical contribution from the Muir lab towards understanding nature’s remarkable information indexing system.

    Tom Muir, the Van Zandt Williams, Jr. Class of ’65 Professor of Chemistry, began investigating transcriptional pathways in the so-called field of epigenetics almost a decade earlier. Deciphering such a complex and dynamic system posed a formidable challenge, but his research lab was undeterred. “It’s better to fail at something important than to succeed at something trivial,” he said.

    Muir recognized the value of introducing chemical approaches to epigenetics to complement early contributions that came mainly from molecular biologists and geneticists. If epigenetics was like a play, he said, molecular biology and genetics could identify the characters but chemistry was needed to understand the subplots.

    These subplots, or post-translational modifications of histones, of which there are more than 100, can occur cooperatively and simultaneously. Traditional methods to probe post-translational modifications involved synthesizing modified histones one at a time, which was a very slow process that required large amounts of biological material.

    Last year, the Muir group introduced a method that would massively accelerate this process. The researchers generated a library of 54 nucleosomes—single units of chromatin, like pearls on a necklace—encoded with DNA-barcodes, unique genetic tags that can be easily identified. Published in the journal Nature Methods, the high throughput method required only microgram amounts of each nucleosome to run approximately 4,500 biochemical assays.

    “The speed and sensitivity of the assay was shocking,” Muir said. Each biochemical assay involved treatment of the DNA-barcoded nucleosome with a writer, reader or nuclear extract, to reveal a particular binding preference of the histone. The products were then isolated using a technique called chromatin immunoprecipitation and characterized by DNA sequencing, essentially an ordered readout of the nucleotides.

    “There have been incredible advances in genetic sequencing over the last 10 years that have made this work possible,” said Manuel Müller, a postdoctoral researcher in the Muir lab and co-author on the Nature Methods article.

    2
    Schematic of approach using split inteins

    With this method, researchers could systematically interrogate the signaling system to propose mechanistic pathways. But these mechanistic insights would remain hypotheses unless they could be validated in vivo, meaning inside the cellular environment.

    The only method for modifying histones in vivo was extremely complicated and specific, said Yael David, a postdoctoral researcher in the Muir lab and lead author on the recent Nature Chemistry study that demonstrated a new and easily customizable approach.

    The method relied on using ultra-fast split inteins, protein fragments that have a great affinity for one another. First, one intein fragment was attached to a modified histone, by encoding it into a cell. Then, the other intein fragment was synthetically fused to a label, which could be a small protein tag, fluorophore or even an entire protein like ubiquitin.

    Within minutes of being introduced into the cell, the labeled intein fragment bound to the histone intein fragment. Then like efficient and courteous matchmakers, the inteins excised themselves and created a new bond between the label and modified histone. “It’s really a beautiful way to engineer proteins in a cell,” David said.

    Regions of the histone may be loosely or tightly packed, depending on signals from the cell indicating whether or not to transcribe a gene. By gradually lowering the amount of labeled intein introduced, the researchers could learn about the structure of chromatin and tease out which areas were more accessible than others.

    Future plans in the Muir lab will employ these methods to ask specific biological questions, such as whether disease outcomes can be altered by manipulating signaling pathway. “Ultimately, we’re developing methods at the service of biological questions,” Muir said.

    Read the articles:

    Nguyen, U.T.T.; Bittova, L.; Müller, M.; Fierz, B.; David, Y.; Houck-Loomis, B.; Feng, V.; Dann, G.P.; Muir, T.W. Accelerated chromatin biochemistry using DNA-barcoded nucleosome libraries. Nature Methods, 2014, 11, 834.

    David, Y.; Vila-Perelló, M; Verma, S.; Muir, T.W. Chemical tagging and customizing of cellular chromatin states using ultrafast trans-splicing inteins. Nature Chemistry, Advance online publication, April 6, 2015.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 5:33 pm on April 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From UCSD: “Genetics Overlap Found Between Alzheimer’s Disease and Cardiovascular Risk Factors” 

    UC San Diego bloc

    UC San Diego

    April 16, 2015
    Scott LaFee

    An international team of scientists, led by researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, have found genetic overlap between Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and two significant cardiovascular disease risk factors: high levels of inflammatory C-reactive protein (CRP) and plasma lipids or fats. The findings, based upon genome-wide association studies involving hundreds of thousands of individuals, suggest the two cardiovascular phenotypes play a role in AD risk – and perhaps offer a new avenue for potentially delaying disease progression.

    The findings are published in current online issue of Circulation.

    “For many years we have known that high levels of cholesterol and high levels of inflammation are associated with increased risks for Alzheimer’s disease,” said study co-author Paul M. Ridker, MD, MPH, the Eugene Braunwald Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “The current work finds that specific genetic signals explain a part of these relationships. We now need to characterize the function of these genetic signals and see whether they can help us to design better trials evaluating inflammation inhibition as a possible method for Alzheimer’s treatment.”

    The researchers used summary statistics from genome-wide association studies of more than 200,000 individuals, looking for overlap in single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with clinically diagnosed AD and CRP and the three components of total cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL), low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and triglycerides (TG). SNPs are fragments of DNA sequence that commonly vary among individuals within a population.

    They found up to a 50-fold enrichment of AD SNPs for different levels of association with CRP, LDL, HDL and TG, which then lead to identification of 55 loci – specific locations on a gene, DNA sequence or chromosome – linked to increased AD risk. The researchers next conducted a meta-analysis of these 55 variants across four independent AD study cohorts, encompassing almost 145,000 persons with AD and healthy controls, revealing two genome-wide significant variants on chromosomes 4 and 10. The two identified genes – HS3ST1 and ECHDC3 – were not previously associated with AD risk.

    “Our findings indicate that a subset of genes involved with elevated plasma lipid levels and inflammation may also increase the risk for developing AD. Elevated levels of plasma lipids and inflammation can be modified with treatment, which means it could be possible to identify and therapeutically target individuals at increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease who are also at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease,” said Rahul S. Desikan, MD, PhD, research fellow and radiology resident at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and the study’s first author.

    If so, the research may have significant ramifications. Late-onset AD is the most common form of dementia, affecting an estimated 30 million persons worldwide – a number that is expected to quadruple over the next 40 years. The societal costs, from medical to lost productivity, are staggering. The 2010 World Alzheimer Report estimated total annual costs at $606 billion.

    “Currently, there are no disease modifying therapies and much attention has been focused upon prevention and early diagnosis,” said Ole A. Andreassen, MD, PhD, a senior co-author and professor of biological psychiatry at the University of Oslo in Norway. “Delaying dementia onset by even just two years could potentially lower the worldwide prevalence of AD by more than 22 million cases over the next four decades, resulting in significant societal savings.”

    Senior author Anders M. Dale, PhD, professor of neurosciences and radiology and director of the Center for Translational Imaging and Precision Medicine at UC San Diego, said further research will be needed: “Careful and considerable effort will be required to further characterize the novel candidate genes detected in this study and to detect the functional variants responsible for the association of these loci with Alzheimer’s risk. It will also be important to understand whether these genes, in combination with other known markers such as brain imaging, cerebrospinal fluid measurements and APOE E4 status, can improve the prediction of disease risk in AD.”

    Co-authors include Linda K. McEvoy, and David S. Karow, UCSD Department of Radiology; Andrew J. Schork, UCSD Department of Cognitive Science; Yunpeng Wang, UCSD Department of Neurosciences and NORMENT and University of Oslo; Wesley K. Thompson, UCSD Department of Psychiatry; Abbas Dehghan, M. Arfan Ikram, and Sven J. van der Lee, Erasmus Medical Center, Netherlands; Daniel I. Chasman, Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Dominic Holland, UCSD Department of Neurosciences; Chi-Hua Chen, UCSD Department of Radiology and NORMENT; James B. Brewer, UCSD departments of Radiology and Neurosciences; Christopher P. Hess, UCSF; Julie Williams, Rebecca Sims, and Michael C. O’Donovan, Cardiff University School of Medicine, UK; Seung Hoan Choi, Boston University; Joshua C. Bis, and Cornelia M. van Duijn, University of Washington; Vilmundur Gudnason, and Anita L.DeStefano, University of Iceland; Bruce M. Psaty, NHLBI; Lenore Launer, NIA; Sudha Seshadri, NHLBI and Boston University School of Medicine; Margaret A. Pericak-Vance, University of Miami; Richard Mayeux, Columbia University; Jonathan L. Haines, Case Western University; Lindsay A. Farrer, Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health; John Hardy, University College London; Ingun Dina Ulstein and Dag Aarsland, Oslo University Hospital; Tormod Fladby, University of Oslo; Linda R. White, and Sigrid B. Sando, Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Trondheim University Hospital; Arvid Rongve, Haugesund Hospital; Aree Witoelar, NORMENT; Srdjan Djurovic, University of Bergen, Norway; Bradley T. Hyman, Massachusetts General Hospital; Jon Snaedal, University Hospital Reykjavik; Stacy Steinberg, and Hreinn Stefansson, deCODE Genetics; Kari Stefansson, deCODE Genetics and University of Iceland; and Gerard D. Schellenberg, University of Pennsylvania.

    Funding for this research came, in part, from the National Institutes of Health (K02 NS067427; T32 EB005970; R01GM104400-01A; R01MH100351; AG033193 and U0149505), the Research Council of Norway, the South East Norway Health Authority, Norwegian Health Association and the KG Jebsen Foundation.

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    The University of California, San Diego (also referred to as UC San Diego or UCSD), is a public research university located in the La Jolla area of San Diego, California, in the United States.[12] The university occupies 2,141 acres (866 ha) near the coast of the Pacific Ocean with the main campus resting on approximately 1,152 acres (466 ha).[13] Established in 1960 near the pre-existing Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego is the seventh oldest of the 10 University of California campuses and offers over 200 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, enrolling about 22,700 undergraduate and 6,300 graduate students. UC San Diego is one of America’s Public Ivy universities, which recognizes top public research universities in the United States. UC San Diego was ranked 8th among public universities and 37th among all universities in the United States, and rated the 18th Top World University by U.S. News & World Report ‘s 2015 rankings.

     
  • richardmitnick 4:04 pm on April 16, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Quanta: “How Structure Arose in the Primordial Soup” 

    Quanta Magazine
    Quanta Magazine

    Life’s first epoch saw incredible advances — cells, metabolism and DNA, to name a few. Researchers are resurrecting ancient proteins to illuminate the biological dark ages.

    April 16, 2015
    Emily Singer

    1
    Olena Shmahalo/Quanta Magazine

    About 4 billion years ago, molecules began to make copies of themselves, an event that marked the beginning of life on Earth. A few hundred million years later, primitive organisms began to split into the different branches that make up the tree of life. In between those two seminal events, some of the greatest innovations in existence emerged: the cell, the genetic code and an energy system to fuel it all. All three of these are essential to life as we know it, yet scientists know disappointingly little about how any of these remarkable biological innovations came about.

    “It’s very hard to infer even the relative ordering of evolutionary events before the last common ancestor,” said Greg Fournier, a geobiologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cells may have appeared before energy metabolism, or perhaps it was the other way around. Without fossils or DNA preserved from organisms living during this period, scientists have had little data to work from.

    Fournier is leading an attempt to reconstruct the history of life in those evolutionary dark ages — the hundreds of millions of years between the time when life first emerged and when it split into what would become the endless tangle of existence.

    He is using genomic data from living organisms to infer the DNA sequence of ancient genes as part of a growing field known as paleogenomics. In research published online in March in the Journal of Molecular Evolution, Fournier showed that the last chemical letter added to the code was a molecule called tryptophan — an amino acid most famous for its presence in turkey dinners. The work supports the idea that the genetic code evolved gradually.

    Using similar methods, he hopes to decipher the temporal order of more of the code — determining when each letter was added to the genetic alphabet — and to date key events in the origins of life, such as the emergence of cells.

    Dark Origins

    Life emerged so long ago that even the rock formations covering the planet at that time have been destroyed — and with them, most chemical and geological clues to early evolution. “There’s a huge chasm between the origins of life and the last common ancestor,” said Eric Gaucher, a biologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

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    The stretch of time between the origins of life and the last universal common ancestor saw a series of remarkable innovations — the origins of cells, metabolism and the genetic code. But scientists know little about when they happened or the order in which they occurred. Olena Shmahalo/Quanta Magazine

    Scientists do know that at some point in that time span, living creatures began using a genetic code, a blueprint for making complex proteins. It is those proteins that carry out the vital functions of the cell. (The structure of DNA and RNA also enables genetic information to be replicated and passed on from generation to generation, but that’s a separate process from the creation of proteins.) The components of the code and the molecular machinery that assembles them “are some of the oldest and most universal aspects of cells, and biologists are very interested in understanding the mechanisms by which they evolved,” said Paul Higgs, a biophysicist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

    How the code came into being presents a chicken-and-egg problem. The key players in the code — DNA, RNA, amino acids, and proteins — are chemically complicated structures that work together to make proteins. But in modern cells, proteins are used to make the components of the code. So how did a highly structured code emerge?

    Most researchers believe that the code began simply with basic proteins made from a limited alphabet of amino acids. It then grew in complexity over time, as these proteins learned to make more sophisticated molecules. Eventually, it developed into a code capable of creating all the diversity we see today. “It’s long been hypothesized that life’s ‘standard alphabet’ of 20 amino acids evolved from a simpler, earlier alphabet, much as the English alphabet has accumulated extra letters over its history,” said Stephen Freeland, a biologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

    The earliest amino acid letters in the code were likely the simplest in structure, those that can be made from purely chemical means, without the assistance of a protein helper. (For example, the amino acids glycine, alanine and glutamic acid have been found on meteorites, suggesting they can form spontaneously in a variety of environments.) These are like the letters A, E and S — primordial units that served as the foundation for what came later.

    Tryptophan, in comparison, has a complex structure and is comparatively rare in the protein code, like a Y or Z, leading scientists to theorize that it was one of the latest additions to the code.

    That chemical evidence is compelling, but circumstantial. Enter Fournier. He suspected that by extending his work on paleogenomics, he would be able to prove tryptophan’s status as the last letter added to the code.

    The Last Letter

    Scientists have been reconstructing ancient proteins for more than a decade, primarily to figure out how ancient proteins differed from modern ones — what they looked like and how they functioned. But these efforts have focused on the period of evolution after the last universal common ancestor (or LUCA, as researchers call it). Fournier’s work delves further back than any other previous efforts. To do so, he had to move beyond the standard application of comparative genomics, which analyzes the differences between branches on the tree of life. “By definition, anything pre-LUCA lies beyond the deepest split in the tree,” he said.

    Fournier started with two related proteins, TrpRS (tryptophanyl tRNA synthetase) and TyrRS (tyrosyl tRNA synthetase), which help decode RNA letters into the amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine. TrpRS and TyrRS are more closely related to each other than to any other protein, indicating that they evolved from the same ancestor protein. Sometime before LUCA, that parent protein mutated slightly to produce these two new proteins with distinct functions. Fournier used computational techniques to decipher what that ancestral protein must look like.

    4
    Greg Fournier, a geobiologist at MIT, is searching for the origins of the genetic code. Helen Hill

    He found that the ancestral protein has all the amino acids but tryptophan, suggesting that its addition was the finishing touch to the genetic code. “It shows convincingly that tryptophan was the last amino acid added, as has been speculated before but not really nailed as has been done here,” said Nigel Goldenfeld, a physicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved in the study.

    Fournier now plans to use tryptophan as a marker to date other major pre-LUCA events such as the evolution of metabolism, cells and cell division, and the mechanisms of inheritance. These three processes form a sort of biological triumvirate that laid the foundation for life as we know it today. But we know little about how they came into existence. “If we understand the order of those basic steps, it creates an arrow pointing to possible scenarios for the origins of life,” Fournier said.

    For example, if the ancestral proteins involved in metabolism lack tryptophan, some form of metabolism probably evolved early. If proteins that direct cell division are studded with tryptophan, it suggests those proteins evolved comparatively late.

    Different models for the origins of life make different predictions for which of these three processes came first. Fournier hopes his approach will provide a way to rule out some of these models. However, he cautions that it won’t definitively sort out the timing of these events.

    Fournier plans to use the same techniques to figure out the order in which other amino acids were added to the code. “It really reinforces the idea that evolution of the code itself was a progressive process,” said Paul Schimmel, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the Scripps Research Institute, who was not involved in the study. “It speaks to the refinement and subtlety that nature was using to perfect these proteins and the diversity it needed to form this vast tree of life.”

    See the full article here.

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    Formerly known as Simons Science News, Quanta Magazine is an editorially independent online publication launched by the Simons Foundation to enhance public understanding of science. Why Quanta? Albert Einstein called photons “quanta of light.” Our goal is to “illuminate science.” At Quanta Magazine, scientific accuracy is every bit as important as telling a good story. All of our articles are meticulously researched, reported, edited, copy-edited and fact-checked.

     
  • richardmitnick 4:01 am on March 21, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Genetics,   

    From NOVA: “Genetically Engineering Almost Anything” 2014 and Very Important 

    PBS NOVA

    NOVA

    17 Jul 2014
    Tim De Chant and Eleanor Nelsen

    When it comes to genetic engineering, we’re amateurs. Sure, we’ve known about DNA’s structure for more than 60 years, we first sequenced every A, T, C, and G in our bodies more than a decade ago, and we’re becoming increasingly adept at modifying the genes of a growing number of organisms.

    But compared with what’s coming next, all that will seem like child’s play. A new technology just announced today has the potential to wipe out diseases, turn back evolutionary clocks, and reengineer entire ecosystems, for better or worse. Because of how deeply this could affect us all, the scientists behind it want to start a discussion now, before all the pieces come together over the next few months or years. This is a scientific discovery being played out in real time.

    1
    Scientists have figured out how to use a cell’s DNA repair mechanisms to spread traits throughout a population.

    Today, researchers aren’t just dropping in new genes, they’re deftly adding, subtracting, and rewriting them using a series of tools that have become ever more versatile and easier to use. In the last few years, our ability to edit genomes has improved at a shockingly rapid clip. So rapid, in fact, that one of the easiest and most popular tools, known as CRISPR-Cas9, is just two years old. Researchers once spent months, even years, attempting to rewrite an organism’s DNA. Now they spend days.

    Soon, though, scientists will begin combining gene editing with gene drives, so-called selfish genes that appear more frequently in offspring than normal genes, which have about a 50-50 chance of being passed on. With gene drives—so named because they drive a gene through a population—researchers just have to slip a new gene into a drive system and let nature take care of the rest. Subsequent generations of whatever species we choose to modify—frogs, weeds, mosquitoes—will have more and more individuals with that gene until, eventually, it’s everywhere.

    Cas9-based gene drives could be one of the most powerful technologies ever discovered by humankind. “This is one of the most exciting confluences of different theoretical approaches in science I’ve ever seen,” says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University. “It merges population genetics, genetic engineering, molecular genetics, into an unbelievably powerful tool.”

    We’re not there yet, but we’re extraordinarily close. “Essentially, we have done all of the pieces, sometimes in the same relevant species.” says Kevin Esvelt, a postdoc at Harvard University and the wunderkind behind the new technology. “It’s just no one has put it all together.”

    It’s only a matter of time, though. The field is progressing rapidly. “We could easily have laboratory tests within the next few months and then field tests not long after that,” says George Church, a professor at Harvard University and Esvelt’s advisor. “That’s if everybody thinks it’s a good idea.”

    It’s likely not everyone will think this is a good idea. “There are clearly people who will object,” Caplan says. “I think the technique will be incredibly controversial.” Which is why Esvelt, Church, and their collaborators are publishing papers now, before the different parts of the puzzle have been assembled into a working whole.

    “If we’re going to talk about it at all in advance, rather than in the past tense,” Church says, “now is the time.”

    “Deleterious Genes”

    The first organism Esvelt wants to modify is the malaria-carrying mosquito Anopheles gambiae. While his approach is novel, the idea of controlling mosquito populations through genetic modification has actually been around since the late 1970s. Then, Edward F. Knipling, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published a substantial handbook with a chapter titled “Use of Insects for Their Own Destruction.” One technique, he wrote, would be to modify certain individuals to carry “deleterious genes” that could be passed on generation after generation until they pervaded the entire population. It was an idea before its time. Knipling was on the right track, but he and his contemporaries lacked the tools to see it through.

    The concept surfaced a few more times before being picked up by Austin Burt, an evolutionary biologist and population geneticist at Imperial College London. It was the late 1990s, and Burt was busy with his yeast cells, studying their so-called homing endonucleases, enzymes that facilitate the copying of genes that code for themselves. Self-perpetuating genes, if you will. “Through those studies, gradually, I became more and more familiar with endonucleases, and I came across the idea that you might be able to change them to recognize new sequences,” Burt recalls.

    Other scientists were investigating endonucleases, too, but not in the way Burt was. “The people who were thinking along those lines, molecular biologists, were thinking about using these things for gene therapy,” Burt says. “My background in population biology led me to think about how they could be used to control populations that were particularly harmful.”

    In 2003, Burt penned an influential article that set the course for an entire field: We should be using homing endonucleases, a type of gene drive, to modify malaria-carrying mosquitoes, he said, not ourselves. Burt saw two ways of going about it—one, modify a mosquito’s genome to make it less hospitable to malaria, and two, skew the sex ratio of mosquito populations so there are no females for the males to reproduce with. In the following years, Burt and his collaborators tested both in the lab and with computer models before they settled on sex ratio distortion. (Making mosquitoes less hospitable to malaria would likely be a stopgap measure at best; the Plasmodium protozoans could evolve to cope with the genetic changes, just like they have evolved resistance to drugs.)

    Burt has spent the last 11 years refining various endonucleases, playing with different scenarios of inheritance, and surveying people in malaria-infested regions. Now, he finally feels like he is closing in on his ultimate goal. “There’s a lot to be done still,” he says. “But on the scale of years, not months or decades.”

    Cheating Natural Selection

    Cas9-based gene drives could compress that timeline even further. One half of the equation—gene drives—are the literal driving force behind proposed population-scale genetic engineering projects. They essentially let us exploit evolution to force a desired gene into every individual of a species. “To anthropomorphize horribly, the goal of a gene is to spread itself as much as possible,” Esvelt says. “And in order to do that, it wants to cheat inheritance as thoroughly as it can.” Gene drives are that cheat.

    Without gene drives, traits in genetically-engineered organisms released into the wild are vulnerable to dilution through natural selection. For organisms that have two parents and two sets of chromosomes (which includes humans, many plants, and most animals), traits typically have only a 50-50 chance of being inherited, give or take a few percent. Genes inserted by humans face those odds when it comes time to being passed on. But when it comes to survival in the wild, a genetically modified organism’s odds are often less than 50-50. Engineered traits may be beneficial to humans, but ultimately they tend to be detrimental to the organism without human assistance. Even some of the most painstakingly engineered transgenes will be gradually but inexorably eroded by natural selection.

    Some naturally occurring genes, though, have over millions of years learned how to cheat the system, inflating their odds of being inherited. Burt’s “selfish” endonucleases are one example. They take advantage of the cell’s own repair machinery to ensure that they show up on both chromosomes in a pair, giving them better than 50-50 odds when it comes time to reproduce.

    2
    A gene drive (blue) always ends up in all offspring, even if only one parent has it. That means that, given enough generations, it will eventually spread through the entire population.

    Here’s how it generally works. The term “gene drive” is fairly generic, describing a number of different systems, but one example involves genes that code for an endonuclease—an enzyme which acts like a pair of molecular scissors—sitting in the middle of a longer sequence of DNA that the endonculease is programmed to recognize. If one chromosome in a pair contains a gene drive but the other doesn’t, the endonuclease cuts the second chromosome’s DNA where the endonuclease code appears in the first.

    The broken strands of DNA trigger the cell’s repair mechanisms. In certain species and circumstances, the cell unwittingly uses the first chromosome as a template to repair the second. The repair machinery, seeing the loose ends that bookend the gene drive sequence, thinks the middle part—the code for the endonuclease—is missing and copies it onto the broken chromosome. Now both chromosomes have the complete gene drive. The next time the cell divides, splitting its chromosomes between the two new cells, both new cells will end up with a copy of the gene drive, too. If the entire process works properly, the gene drive’s odds of inheritance aren’t 50%, but 100%.

    3
    Here, a mosquito with a gene drive (blue) mates with a mosquito without one (grey). In the offspring, one chromosome will have the drive. The endonuclease then slices into the drive-free DNA. When the strand gets repaired, the cell’s machinery uses the drive chromosome as a template, unwittingly copying the drive into the break.

    Most natural gene drives are picky about where on a strand of DNA they’ll cut, so they need to be modified if they’re to be useful for genetic engineering. For the last few years, geneticists have tried using genome-editing tools to build custom gene drives, but the process was laborious and expensive. With the discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 as a genome editing tool in 2012, though, that barrier evaporated. CRISPR is an ancient bacterial immune system which identifies the DNA of invading viruses and sends in an endonuclease, like Cas9, to chew it up. Researchers quickly realized that Cas9 could easily be reprogrammed to recognize nearly any sequence of DNA. All that’s needed is the right RNA sequence—easily ordered and shipped overnight—which Cas9 uses to search a strand of DNA for where to cut. This flexibility, Esvelt says, “lets us target, and therefore edit, pretty much anything we want.” And quickly.

    Gene drives and Cas9 are each powerful on their own, but together they could significantly change biology. CRISRP-Cas9 allows researchers to edit genomes with unprecedented speed, and gene drives allow engineered genes to cheat the system, even if the altered gene weakens the organism. Simply by being coupled to a gene drive, an engineered gene can race throughout a population before it is weeded out. “Eventually, natural selection will win,” Esvelt says, but “gene drives just let us get ahead of the game.”

    Beyond Mosquitoes

    If there’s anywhere we could use a jump start, it’s in the fight against malaria. Each year, the disease kills over 200,000 people and sickens over 200 million more, most of whom are in Africa. The best new drugs we have to fight it are losing ground; the Plasmodium parasite is evolving resistance too quickly.

    3
    False-colored electron micrograph of a Plasmodium sp. sporozoite.

    And we’re nowhere close to releasing an effective vaccine. The direct costs of treating the disease are estimated at $12 billion, and the economies of affected countries grew 1.3% less per year, a substantial amount.

    Which is why Esvelt and Burt are both so intently focused on the disease. “If we target the mosquito, we don’t have to face resistance on the parasite itself. The idea is, we can just take out the vector and stop all transmission. It might even lead to eradication,” Esvelt says.

    Esvelt initially mulled over the idea of building Cas9-based gene drives in mosquitoes to do just that. He took the idea to to Flaminia Catteruccia, a professor who studies malaria at the Harvard School of Public Health, and the two grew increasingly certain that such a system would not only work, but work well. As their discussions progressed, though, Esvelt realized they were “missing the forest for the trees.” Controlling malaria-carrying mosquitoes was just the start. Cas9-based gene drives were the real breakthrough. “If it let’s us do this for mosquitos, what is to stop us from potentially doing it for almost anything that is sexually reproducing?” he realized.

    In theory, nothing. But in reality, the system works best on fast-reproducing species, Esvelt says. Short generation times allow the trait to spread throughout a population more quickly. Mosquitoes are a perfect test case. If everything were to work perfectly, deleterious traits could sweep through populations of malaria-carrying mosquitoes in as few as five years, wiping them off the map.

    Other noxious species could be candidates, too. Certain invasive species, like mosquitoes in Hawaii or Asian carp in the Great Lakes, could be targeted with Cas9-based gene drives to either reduce their numbers or eliminate them completely. Agricultural weeds like horseweed that have evolved resistance to glyphosate, a herbicide that is broken down quickly in the soil, could have their susceptibility to the compound reintroduced, enabling more farmers to adopt no-till practices, which help conserve topsoil. And in the more distant future, Esvelt says, weeds could even be engineered to introduce vulnerabilities to completely benign substances, eliminating the need for toxic pesticides. The possibilities seem endless.

    The Decision

    Before any of that can happen, though, Esvelt and Church are adamant that the public help decide whether the research should move forward. “What we have here is potentially a general tool for altering wild populations,” Esvelt says. “We really want to make sure that we proceed down this path—if we decide to proceed down this path—as safely and responsibly as possible.”

    To kickstart the conversation, they partnered with the MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye and others to convene a series of workshops on the technology. “I thought it might be useful to get into the room people with slightly different material interests,” Oye says, so they invited regulators, nonprofits, companies, and environmental groups. The idea, he says, was to get people to meet several times, to gain trust and before “decisions harden.” Despite the diverse viewpoints, Oye says there was surprising agreement among participants about what the important outstanding questions were.

    As the discussion enters the public sphere, tensions are certain to intensify. “I don’t care if it’s a weed or a blight, people still are going to say this is way too massive a genetic engineering project,” Caplan says. “Secondly, it’s altering things that are inherited, and that’s always been a bright line for genetic engineering.” Safety, too, will undoubtedly be a concern. As the power of a tool increases, so does its potential for catastrophe, and Cas9-based gene drives could be extraordinarily powerful.

    There’s also little in the way of precedent that we can use as a guide. Our experience with genetically modified foods would seem to be a good place to start, but they are relatively niche organisms that are heavily dependent on water and fertilizer. It’s pretty easy to keep them contained to a field. Not so with wild organisms; their potential to spread isn’t as limited.

    Aware of this, Esvelt and his colleagues are proposing a number of safeguards, including reversal drives that can undo earlier engineered genes. “We need to really make sure those work if we’re proposing to build a drive that is intended to modify a wild population,” Esvelt says.

    There are still other possible hurdles to surmount—lab-grown mosquitoes may not interbreed with wild ones, for example—but given how close this technology is to prime time, Caplan suggests researchers hew to a few initial ethical guidelines. One, use species that are detrimental to human health and don’t appear to fill a unique niche in the wild. (Malaria-carrying mosquitoes seem fit that description.) Two, do as much work as possible using computer models. And three, researchers should continue to be transparent about their progress, as they have been. “I think the whole thing is hugely exciting,” Caplan says. “But the time to really get cracking on the legal/ethical infrastructure for this technology is right now.”

    Church agrees, though he’s also optimistic about the potential for Cas9-based gene drives. “I think we need to be cautious with all new technologies, especially all new technologies that are messing with nature in some way or another. But there’s also a risk of doing nothing,” Church says. “We have a population of 7 billion people. You have to deal with the environmental consequences of that.”

    See the full article here.

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    NOVA is the highest rated science series on television and the most watched documentary series on public television. It is also one of television’s most acclaimed series, having won every major television award, most of them many times over.

     
  • richardmitnick 10:50 am on March 19, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Genetics, ,   

    From Rockefeller: “Scientists pinpoint molecule that controls stem cell plasticity by boosting gene expression” 

    Rockefeller U bloc

    Rockefeller University

    March 19, 2015
    Zach Veilleux | 212-327-8982

    1
    Glowing and growing: Researchers made stem cells fluoresce green (at the base of hair follicles above) by labeling their super-enhancers, regions of the genome bound by gene-amplifying proteins. It appears one such protein, Sox9, leads the activation of super-enhancers that boost genes associated with stem cell plasticity.No mage credit

    Stem cells can have a strong sense of identity. Taken out of their home in the hair follicle, for example, and grown in culture, these cells remain true to themselves. After waiting in limbo, these cultured cells become capable of regenerating follicles and other skin structures once transplanted back into skin. It’s not clear just how these stem cells — and others elsewhere in the body — retain their ability to produce new tissue and heal wounds, even under extraordinary conditions.

    New research at Rockefeller University has identified a protein, Sox9, that takes the lead in controlling stem cell plasticity. In a paper published Wednesday (March 18) in Nature, the team describes Sox9 as a “pioneer factor” that breaks ground for the activation of genes associated with stem cell identity in the hair follicle.

    “We found that in the hair follicle, Sox9 lays the foundation for stem cell plasticity. First, Sox9 makes the genes needed by stem cells accessible, so they can become active. Then, Sox9 recruits other proteins that work together to give these “stemness” genes a boost, amplifying their expression,” says study author Elaine Fuchs, Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor, Robin Chemers Neustein Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development. “Without Sox9, this process never happens, and hair follicle stem cells cannot survive.”

    Sox9 is a type of protein called a transcription factor, which can act like a volume dial for genes. When a transcription factor binds to a segment of DNA known as an enhancer, it cranks up the activity of the associated gene. Recently, scientists identified a less common, but more powerful version: the super-enhancer. Super-enhancers are much longer pieces of DNA, and host large numbers of cell type-specific transcription factors that bind cooperatively. Super-enhancers also contain histones, DNA-packaging proteins, that harbor specific chemical groups — epigenetic marks — that make genes they are associated with accessible so they can be expressed.

    Using an epigenetic mark associated specifically with the histones of enhancers, first author Rene Adam, a graduate student in the lab, and colleagues, identified 377 of these high-powered gene-amplifying regions in hair follicle stem cells. The majority of these super-enhancers were bound by at least five transcription factors, often including Sox9. Then, they compared the stem cell super-enhancers to those of short-lived stem cell progeny, which have begun to choose a fate, and so lost the plasticity of stem cells. These two types of cells shared only 32 percent of their superenhancers, suggesting these regions played an important role in skin cell identity. By switching off super-enhancers associated with stem cell genes, these genes were silenced while new super-enhancers were being activated to turn on hair genes.

    To better understand these dynamics, the researchers took a piece of a super-enhancer, which they called an “epicenter,” where all the stem cell transcription factors bind, and they linked it to a gene that glowed green whenever the transcription factors were present. In living mice, all the hair follicle stem cells glowed green, but surprisingly, the green gene turned off when the stem cells were taken from the follicle and placed in culture. When they put the cells back into living skin, the green glow returned.

    Another clue came from experiments performed by Hanseul Yang, another student in the lab. By examining the new super-enhancers that were gained when the stem cells were cultured, they learned that these new super-enhancers bound transcription factors that were known to be activated during wound-repair. When they used one of these epicenters to drive the green gene, the green glow appeared in culture, but not in skin. When they wounded the skin, then the green glow switched on.

    “We were learning that some super-enhancers are specifically activated in the stem cells within their native niche, while other super-enhancers specifically switch on during injury,” explained Adam. “By shifting epicenters, you can shift from one cohort of transcription factors to another to adapt to different environments. But we still needed to determine what was controlling these shifts.”

    The culprit turned out to be Sox9, the only transcription factor expressed in both living tissue and culture. Further experiments confirmed Sox9’s importance by showing, for example, that removing it spelled death for stem cells, while expressing it in the epidermis gave the skin cells features of hair follicle stem cells. These powers seemed to be special to Sox9, placing it atop the hierarchy of transcription factors in the stem cells. Sox9 is one of only a few pioneer factors known in biology which can initiate such dramatic changes in gene expression.

    “Importantly, we link this pioneer factor to super-enhancer dynamics, giving these domains a ‘one-two punch’ in governing cell identity. In the case of stem cell plasticity, Sox9 appears to be the lead factor that activates the super-enhancers that amplify genes associated with stemness,” Fuchs says. “These discoveries offer new insights into the way in which stem cells choose their fates and maintain plasticity while in transitional states, such as in culture or when repairing wounds.”

    See the full article here.

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    Rockefeller U Campus

    The Rockefeller University is a world-renowned center for research and graduate education in the biomedical sciences, chemistry, bioinformatics and physics. The university’s 76 laboratories conduct both clinical and basic research and study a diverse range of biological and biomedical problems with the mission of improving the understanding of life for the benefit of humanity.

    Founded in 1901 by John D. Rockefeller, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was the country’s first institution devoted exclusively to biomedical research. The Rockefeller University Hospital was founded in 1910 as the first hospital devoted exclusively to clinical research. In the 1950s, the institute expanded its mission to include graduate education and began training new generations of scientists to become research leaders around the world. In 1965, it was renamed The Rockefeller University.

     
  • richardmitnick 8:11 am on March 16, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Genetics   

    From AAAS: “Don’t edit embryos, researchers warn” 

    AAAS

    AAAS

    12 March 2015
    Gretchen Vogel

    1

    Scientists should refrain from studies that alter the genome of human embryos, sperm, or egg cells, researchers warn in a commentary published today in Nature.

    In it, they sound the alarm about new genome-editing techniques known as CRISPR and zinc-finger nucleases that make it much easier for scientists to delete, add, or change specific genes. These tools have made it possible to make better animal models of disease and more easily study the role of individual genes. They also hold the promise of correcting gene mutations in patients, whether in blood cells, muscle cells, or tumor cells.

    But scientists have also used the technology to make genetically altered monkeys. And there are rumors that some researchers are trying the same technique on human embryos, MIT Technology Review reports.

    That is unsafe and unethical, say Edward Lanphier and four other researchers in their commentary. Ethically justifiable applications “are moot until it becomes possible to demonstrate safe outcomes and obtain reproducible data over multiple generations,” they write. They call for a moratorium on any experiments that would edit genes in sperm cells, egg cells, or embryos while scientists publicly debate the scientific and ethical consequences of such experiments. The recent discussion of mitochondrial DNA replacement therapy in the United Kingdom could be a model, they suggest.

    They hope that such a discussion would help the public understand the difference between genome editing in a person’s somatic cells—cells other than sperm and egg cells—and editing in cells that could pass the changes on to future generations, says Lanphier, who is president and CEO of Sangamo BioSciences in Richmond, California, a company that hopes to use gene-editing technology to treat patients. “There’s an important and clear ethical boundary between genome editing in somatic cells versus in the germ line.”

    George Daley, a stem cell researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, agrees that a public debate is important. Among scientists, he says, there is broad consensus that at the moment “it’s far too premature and we know far too little about the safety to make any attempts” at modifying germ cells or embryos. But that will eventually change, he says. “There needs to be broad public debate and discussion about what, if any, are the permissible uses of the technology.

    See the full article here.

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.

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  • richardmitnick 8:21 am on March 7, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , FIU, Genetics   

    From FIU: “Scientists unlock tangled mysteries of DNA” 

    FIU bloc

    Florida International University

    03/06/2015
    JoAnn Adkins

    Chromosomal proteins hold the key to our DNA and they are changing, according to Jose Eirin-Lopez, marine sciences professor in the FIU Department of Biological Sciences.

    While today’s human body contains a variety of these proteins, Eirin-Lopez believes they evolved from a single ancestor millions of years ago. This finding, published recently in Molecular Biology and Evolution, is pivotal in unraveling the mysteries of DNA organization and regulation, and could someday lead to innovative biomonitoring strategies and therapies targeting a variety of diseases including cancer.

    DNA is the recipe for all living things. Each of our cells has a DNA molecule enclosed within its nucleus, containing the entirety our genetic information. However, like a recipe book, not all that information is required at the same time. Most DNA remains tightly packaged in chromosomes until specific pieces of information are needed to do a job.

    It is up to a group of proteins known as chromosomal proteins to unlock the information required to trigger a function in a given cell — to form a bone, determine eye color, metabolize food, fight infections or any other function. While significant information is available about the structure and functions of chromosomal proteins, very little is known about their origin and evolution. The team of researchers is the first to explain the mechanisms responsible for the evolutionary diversification of a specific group of chromosomal proteins known as High Mobility Group Nucleosome-binding (HMG-N) proteins.

    1
    Each of our cells contains a genetic message encoded in a DNA molecule which is almost 6 feet long. The packing and regulation of the DNA (represented in the figure above using sticks) is possible thanks to its wrapping around chromosomal proteins (represented here by yellow, red, blue and green dots)

    “In the early stages of life on earth, cells were rudimentary yet still able to perform their jobs. But evolution, through mutations, drift and natural selection, has led these proteins (along with our cells) to evolve into higher performers,” said Eirin-Lopez who co-authored the study with Rodrigo Gonzalez-Romero from FIU and Juan Ausio from the University of Victoria in Canada.

    The research unveils the mechanisms responsible for the functional specialization of this group of proteins, from a common ancestor directing a variety of activities to the actual HMG-N lineages working in concert in vertebrate organisms including humans. However, along with a better cell performance, a higher number of chromosomal proteins also provide more potential targets for harmful mutations. If one or more of these proteins are altered or mutated they will target wrong genes in the DNA, giving erroneous instructions to cells. The potential health consequences of such mistakes are massive, often causing cells to grow uncontrollably and resulting in cancer.

    “The only way we can alleviate the negative effects of these alterations is by getting an exhaustive knowledge about these proteins and their function, helping us to develop therapies to reinstate the correct communication with DNA and the cell,” Eirin-Lopez said. “Nonetheless, our knowledge about chromosomal proteins will never be complete until we determine how they came to be and to fulfill their current roles in the cell. Only evolutionary analyses can answer that question. Understanding this better prepares us to take action in the future.”

    See the full article here.

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    FIU Campus

    As Miami’s first and only public research university, offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, FIU is worlds ahead in its service to the academic and local community.

    Designated as a top-tier research institution, FIU emphasizes research as a major component in the university’s mission. The Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and the School of Computing and Information Sciences’ Discovery Lab, are just two of many colleges, schools, and centers that actively enhance the university’s ability to set new standards through research initiatives.

     
  • richardmitnick 7:51 pm on March 3, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Wyss Institute at Harvard: “Activating genes on demand” 

    Harvard University

    Harvard University

    Harvard Wyss Institute

    Mar 3, 2015
    Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University
    Kat J. McAlpine, katherine.mcalpine@wyss.harvard.edu, +1 617-432-8266

    Harvard Medical School
    David Cameron, david_cameron@hms.harvard.edu, +1 617-432-0441

    New mechanism for engineering genetic traits governed by multiple genes paves the way for various advances in genomics and regenerative medicine

    When it comes to gene expression – the process by which our DNA provides the recipe used to direct the synthesis of proteins and other molecules that we need for development and survival – scientists have so far studied one single gene at a time. A new approach developed by Harvard geneticist George Church, Ph.D., can help uncover how tandem gene circuits dictate life processes, such as the healthy development of tissue or the triggering of a particular disease, and can also be used for directing precision stem cell differentiation for regenerative medicine and growing organ transplants.

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    In these images, the ability of the new Cas9 approach to differentiate stem cells into brain neuron cells is visible. On the left, a previous attempt to direct stem cells to develop into neuronal cells shows a low level of success, with limited red–colored areas indicating low growth of neuron cells. On the right, the new Cas9 approach shows a 40–fold increase in the number of neuronal cells developed, visible as red-colored areas on the image. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

    The findings, reported by Church and his team of researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School in Nature Methods, show promise that precision gene therapies could be developed to prevent and treat disease on a highly customizable, personalized level, which is crucial given the fact that diseases develop among diverse pathways among genetically–varied individuals.

    The approach leverages the Cas9 protein, which has already been employed as a Swiss Army knife for genome engineering, in a novel way. The Cas9 protein can be programmed to bind and cleave any desired section of DNA – but now Church’s new approach activates the genes Cas9 binds to rather than cleaving them, triggering them to activate transcription to express or repress desired genetic traits. And by engineering the Cas9 to be fused to a triple–pronged transcription factor, Church and his team can robustly manipulate single or multiple genes to control gene expression.

    “In terms of genetic engineering, the more knobs you can twist to exert control over the expression of genetic traits, the better,” said Church, a Wyss Core Faculty member who is also Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard and MIT. “This new work represents a major, entirely new class of knobs that we could use to control multiple genes and therefore influence whether or not specific genetics traits are expressed and to what extent – we could essentially dial gene expression up or down with great precision.”

    Such a capability could lead to gene therapies that would mitigate age–related degeneration and the onset of disease; in the study, Church and his team demonstrated the ability to manipulate gene expression in yeast, flies, mouse and human cell cultures.

    “We envision using this approach to investigate and create comprehensive libraries that document which gene circuits control a wide range of gene expression,” said one of the study’s lead authors Alejandro Chavez, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wyss Institute. Jonathan Schieman, Ph.D, of the Wyss Institute and Harvard Medical School, and Suhani Vora, of the Wyss Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard Medical School, are also lead co–authors on the study.

    In this technical animation, Wyss Institute researchers instruct how they engineered a Cas9 protein to create a powerful and robust tool for activating gene expression. The novel method enables Cas9 to switch a gene from off to on and has the potential to precisely induce on-command expression of any of the countless genes in the genomes of yeast, flies, mice, or humans. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

    The new Cas9 approach could also potentially target and activate sections of the genome made up of genes that are not directly responsible for transcription, and which previously were poorly understood. These sections, which comprise up to 90% of the genome in humans, have previously been considered to be useless DNA “dark matter” by geneticists. In contrast to translated DNA, which contains recipes of genetic information used to express traits, this DNA dark matter contains transcribed genes which act in mysterious ways, with several of these genes often having influence in tandem.

    But now, that DNA dark matter could be accessed using Cas9, allowing scientists to document which non-translated genes can be activated in tandem to influence gene expression. Furthermore, these non-translated genes could also be turned into a docking station of sorts. By using Cas9 to target and bind gene circuits to these sections, scientists could introduce synthetic loops of genes to a genome, therefore triggering entirely new or altered gene expressions.

    The ability to manipulate multiple genes in tandem so precisely also has big implications for advancing stem cell engineering for development of transplant organs and regenerative therapies.

    “In order to grow organs from stem cells, our understanding of developmental biology needs to increase rapidly,” said Church. “This multivariate approach allows us to quickly churn through and analyze large numbers of gene combinations to identify developmental pathways much faster than has been previously capable.”

    To demonstrate this point, the researchers used it to grow brain neuron cells from stem cells and found that using the approach to program development of neuronal cells was 40–fold more successful than prior established methods. This is the first time that Cas9 has been leveraged to efficiently differentiate stem cells into brain cells.

    The new approach is also compatible to be used in combination with other gene editing technologies. Church and his team have previously made breakthroughs by developing a gene editing mechanism for therapeutic applications and gene drives for altering traits in plant and animal species.

    “This newest tool in the Cas9 genome engineering arsenal offers a powerful new way to control cell and tissue function that could revolutionize virtually all areas of science and medicine, ranging from gene therapy to regenerative medicine and anti–aging,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D, who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital and Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard SEAS.

    See the full article here.

    Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was named after the College’s first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown, who upon his death in 1638 left his library and half his estate to the institution. A statue of John Harvard stands today in front of University Hall in Harvard Yard, and is perhaps the University’s best known landmark.

    Harvard University has 12 degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The University has grown from nine students with a single master to an enrollment of more than 20,000 degree candidates including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. There are more than 360,000 living alumni in the U.S. and over 190 other countries.

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