Have you read last week’s breaking story about the microbiome of the human placenta? Wait, stop, don’t run away to Google it! I’ll tell you all about it – this is a science blog, remember?
I’m asking because as I started reading about the topic in preparation for writing this blog post, I noticed two things. First, as a science writer who tries to stay well-connected with what’s going on in the world of biology research, it would have been nearly impossible for me to avoid this story. I get eight or nine daily digest emails from scientific publications every day, and I think over the course of last week, every single one came with a headline related to the placenta study. (Of course, I read them all. And the Nature study they were based on.)
Second, I noticed that each story I read had a slightly different angle on covering the research. As scientists, we like to believe that science is, well, just science. It’s factual. We pore over the data and reach a conclusion. If we aren’t sure of something, we search the journals. The story, if there is one, is about methods and controls, protocols and reagent quality. However, when information about that research is communicated broadly, outside of the journals, we can get a different impression based on how the author frames their article. Continue reading ““The Human Placenta,” or “Why I Love Science Writing””
On May 13, 2019, twenty-five meters below the streets of Stockholm in a retired nuclear reactor, Nerea Capon and her iGEM team unveiled an artistic fusion of creativity and synthetic biology. The Synthetic Biology Art Exhibition featured works by other iGEM teams and local artists, all presenting their unique reflections on the concepts of synthetic biology. The collection included synthetic skin grown by bacteria, performance art, and even a musical snail that spent the week crawling around a table full of plants.
It’s FINALLY time to announce the winners of the 2019 Promega iGEM Grant! We received over 150 applications this year, so picking the top 10 was very tough. As always, we’re impressed by the amazing work iGEM teams are doing in the lab and in their communities. The 10 winners listed below will receive $2,000 in free Promega products.
Ian Nicastro says he didn’t set out to start a green revolution.
“I’m not hardcore ‘Save the trees,’” Ian says. “I’m probably a little different from the people you traditionally see as promoting the sustainability thing. Obviously, I do want to help the environment, but for me it was like, ‘this is logical, and we should be doing this.’”
Ian is the lab manager of the Pasquinelli Lab, a C. elegans lab at the University of California–San Diego that studies miRNA and its role in processes like aging. He’s been in the lab for about six and a half years, splitting his time between research and lab management duties. According to Allison Paradise, the CEO of My Green Lab, Ian has put out some “outstanding” efforts to implement sustainable practices in the lab. Continue reading “Lab Sustainability Doesn’t Have To Be Painful”
Lynch Syndrome is a hereditary condition caused by germline mutations that inactivate at least one of the major DNA mismatch repair (MMR) genes. Individuals with Lynch Syndrome have an elevated risk of developing several cancers, especially colorectal, uterine and endometrial. Approximately 1 in 279 individuals in the United States is Lynch-positive, but most people are unaware of their status.
Lynch Syndrome can be diagnosed following screening by microsatellite instability (MSI) analysis or immunohistochemistry (IHC) for the MMR proteins. For some patients, MMR gene sequencing is as easy as an oral “swish.” However, the genetic basis of Lynch Syndrome and its clinical relevancy are relatively recent discoveries. Long before modern sequencing methods simplified testing and diagnosis, a seamstress in Ann Arbor, Michigan correctly predicted her own Lynch Syndrome status based only on her family history. Talking with Dr. Alfred Scott Warthin in the late 19th century, she said that since so many of her family members had died of several specific cancers, she believed that she would follow the same path. Several years later, she unfortunately proved herself right.
Dr. Warthin took interest in the story and began studying the woman’s family. At the time of their conversation, five of her nine siblings had already been diagnosed with uterine, stomach or “abdominal” cancer. Warthin concluded that the family, which he dubbed “Cancer Family G,” did, in fact, have a predisposition to cancer. Warthin and other researchers continued studying the family for several decades. They found that cancers of the colon, uterus and stomach were most common, and that many members of the family were diagnosed at extraordinarily young ages.
In the 1970s, Dr. Henry T. Lynch organized a family reunion for Cancer Family G and subsequently published a report on “Cancer Family Syndrome.” By this time, 95 members of the family had developed one of the expected cancers. Dr. Lynch still didn’t have the technology to determine the molecular basis of the disease, but he noticed that it followed an autosomal dominant inheritance pattern.
In the mid-1990s, three labs simultaneously discovered microsatellite instability and its connection to colorectal cancer. It had been established in bacteria and yeast that inactivating mutations in DNA mismatch repair genes resulted in mutations in microsatellite sequences, so several labs began racing to clone the human homologs of the DNA MMR genes. Within a few months, two labs had cloned the MSH2 gene and found mutations that were present in members of Lynch-positive families who developed cancer.
Around this time, the name “Lynch Syndrome” was adopted to apply to families carrying germline mutations in a gene associated with the condition. Further research established four genes (MSH2, MLH1, MSH6, PMS2) as “Lynch Syndrome Genes,” and researchers began working on guidelines for diagnostic testing (See “The History of Lynch Syndrome” below for further reading).
Today, over two decades later, many researchers are pushing for the adoption of universal tumor screening for Lynch Syndrome. One of the widely recommended screening method is MSI analysis. MSI-H status indicates that certain sections of DNA called microsatellites have become unstable because the major mismatch repair genes that correct errors during DNA replication are not functioning properly. MSI status can influence treatment decisions, based on the 2015 discovery that MSI-H tumors respond well to immunotherapy drugs (1).
It’s also important knowledge for a patient’s family. Lynch-associated cancers are among the most preventable, so individuals who know they are Lynch-positive can work with their healthcare providers to develop robust strategies for prevention and surveillance. As one Lynch-positive mother said to her Lynch-positive son, “Your knowledge is power, and it’s going to keep you healthy and safe.”
When Wisconsin plunged into a deep freeze during last week’s
polar vortex, I built a roaring fire in my fireplace and settled into my
armchair with a thick blanket and a video game controller. Except for the
twenty minutes I spent driving to and from the office, I stayed warm and
Birds, however, don’t have it quite as easy. To survive freezing temperatures, non-migratory birds have developed many interesting adaptations. Many species grow extra down layers and huddle together for wind protection. Others, like the black-capped chickadee, use a process called regulated hypothermia to drop their resting body temperature by as much as 22°F to conserve energy. I’m particularly fascinated by the process of regional hypothermia—many species of ducks and gulls use a countercurrent heat exchange system to keep vital organs warm while letting temperatures fall in extremities.
Birds that aren’t accustomed to cold weather don’t have
these adaptations, though. When a bird—or any animal—ends up far outside of its
natural habitat, the consequences can be deadly.
From the inside covers of elementary science textbooks to
the walls of chemistry labs all around the world, the periodic table is one of
the most pivotal and enduring tools of modern science. To honor the 150th
anniversary of its discovery, the United Nations General Assembly and UNESCO
have declared 2019 to be the International Year of the Periodic Table of
As with all scientific progress, Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic
table was the result of decades—centuries, even—of research performed by
scientists all over the world. Aristotle first theorized the existence of basic
building blocks of matter over 2,500 years ago, which later were believed to be
earth, air, fire and water. Alchemist Hennig Brand is credited with discovering
phosphorus in the late 17th century, sparking chemists to begin
pursuing these basic atomic elements.
Judy Nguyen wasn’t looking for an adventure as the Head of Scientific Research at a fledgling incubator for students. She just finished her Ph.D. in molecular biology and neuroscience, and was looking for stable work in scientific research or biotechnology. However, when she arrived in Tacoma, Washington, she was disappointed by the opportunities available to her.
“With Puget Sound, in the Pacific Northwest, so outdoorsy…Most of Tacoma is environmental science, which is not my background,” Judy says. “I had a hard time finding anywhere to fit in.”
Judy finally found a position with an engineering company, but she didn’t feel quite at home. One day, her boss sent her out for an external meeting with a professor who had, she was told, “cool ideas.” She was instructed to establish a connection and return with ideas for how her company could collaborate with the “crazy professor.” As it turns out, that “crazy professor” had an idea for an organization to spark a revolution in the life science community around Tacoma.
Last month, several of my Promega colleagues and I attended the 2018 iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston, MA. This annual event is the culmination of the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, in which 350+ teams of high school, undergraduate and graduate students use synthetic biology to solve a problem they see in the world.
The iGEM Giant Jamboree is the closest I have ever come to a scientific utopia. For four days, several thousand students from 45 countries come together to share their experiences and discuss ways that science can change the world. They present impressive projects with real-world applications including human diagnostics and alternative energy. Collaboration and open science are among the core tenets of iGEM, and it’s not unusual to see three or more countries represented on the Collaborators slide at the end of a presentation. Each project also contains a public engagement component, which many teams fulfill with educational programs or partnerships with underrepresented communities. Continue reading “In a Perfect World, Bacteria Wins”