Every time a genome is replicated, there’s a chance that an error will be introduced. This is true for all life forms. On a small scale, these mutations can lead to genetic diseases or cancers. On a much larger scale, random mutations are an important tool of evolution.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has picked up many mutations as it spread around the world. Most of these mutations have been inconsequential – the virus didn’t change in any significant way. Others have given rise to variants such as B.1.1.7 and B.1.351, which present complications for public health efforts. By studying the evolution of the virus, we can monitor how it’s spreading and predict the characteristics of variants as they are detected.
As the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread around the world in early 2020, many researchers shifted their focus to support the global endeavors to address the challenge. For two professors at the University of Wisconsin, their efforts started with animal models to study pathogenicity and grew into massive SARS-CoV-2 sequencing and COVID-19 testing projects.
“Being a scientist in this field gives a sense of purpose, but also a sense of obligation and responsibility,” says David O’Connor, PhD. “You always want to feel like you’re living up to that.”
New variants of COVID-19 are causing global concern. Mutations in the viral genome can affect its transmissibility and pathogenicity, and structural changes to the spike protein could reduce the effectiveness of some of the vaccines that are being distributed in several countries. A new preprint available on bioRxiv suggests that the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7, which was first documented in the United Kingdom, is still susceptible to the neutralizing antibodies produced in response to several vaccines, including the Moderna mRNA-1273 and the Novavax NVX-CoV2373.
John Longshore admits that he was not a big Promega customer before the COVID-19 pandemic. His team uses a wide variety of suppliers to assemble the types of testing protocols needed to serve over 50 hospitals. However, when he began to face supply chain disruptions in early 2020, he needed a supplier he could depend on to support the rapid scale-up of COVID-19 testing, and Promega rose to the occasion.
“When we started working with Promega for bulk isolation reagents, our ask was, ‘Can you supply us with 15,000 isolation reagents per week?’” John says. “The answer was yes, and we have gotten everything we’ve asked for on the dates that it was promised.”
The 2020 Promega Award for Biochemistry ceremony was a bit different this year. Promega Beijing typically announces the award recipients in a ceremony at the biannual meeting of the Chinese Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (CSBMB). As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 conference was moved online. Despite the unusual circumstances, Promega Beijing held a virtual ceremony to grant the award to Dr. Peng Chen and Dr. Haitao Yang.
The truth is that much of what we were told in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was not entirely accurate. Many of the messages in the United States and other countries implied that the disease was “mild” for anyone who was not elderly or did not have a pre-existing respiratory condition. We were told the main symptoms were fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. It would be like a bad cold.
None of that is false. Data still shows that elderly individuals and those with pre-existing conditions are the most likely to experience severe disease. However, over the past few months we have seen how the SARS-CoV-2 virus can present serious complications in almost every organ system, and how its effects aren’t limited to the most vulnerable populations. We have also seen a growing number of cases where individuals are still experiencing life-altering symptoms for months after their supposed recovery.
To gain a full understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, we have to explore every system in the body and track down the causes of all the unexpected clinical presentations of the disease.
14-year-old Anika Chebrolu spent the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic identifying a potential anti-SARS-CoV-2 drug candidate. Originally, she was screening potential anti-influenza treatments, but as she watched COVID-19 case numbers rising around the world, she pivoted to focus instead on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Several months later, Anika not only discovered a strong candidate for further testing, but she earned the title of 2020 Top Young Scientist in a competition sponsored by 3M.
Clostridiumdifficile is a bacterium that infects around half a million people per year in the United States. The infection causes symptoms ranging from diarrhea to severe colitis, and it’s one of the most common infections contracted while staying in the hospital. As the global incidence of C. diff infection has risen over the past decade, so has the pressure to develop novel therapeutic strategies. This requires a thorough exploration of all aspects of C. difficile biology.
Two recent papers published by researchers at the University of Leiden have shed light on C. difficile physiology using HiBiT protein tagging. The HiBiT system allows detection of proteins in live cells using an 11 amino acid tag. The HiBiT tag binds to the complementary LgBiT polypeptide to reconstitute the luminescent NanoBiT® enzyme. The resulting luminescence is proportional to the amount of HiBiT-tagged protein that is present.
When the COVID-19 pandemic descended on New York in March 2020, Christopher Mason, PhD, knew he was in a unique position to contribute. The Mason Lab specializes in sequencing and computational methods in functional genomics – valuable expertise for addressing an emerging infectious disease. Within days, Chris and his team were helping to analyze patient data, as well as developing new tests and detection methods for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The Mason Lab developed protocols for a simple COVID-19 detection test that requires less time and equipment than common PCR methods. Their subsequent preprint detailing these methods quickly gained widespread attention, and Chris found himself fielding an endless stream of questions and requests.
During the frenzy, Chris received a call from his older brother. Cory Mason is the mayor of Racine, Wisconsin, the brothers’ hometown.
“He said he saw me tweeting about our new test,” Chris says. “Then he asked me, ‘What if we set it up here in Wisconsin?’’