Discussing the Future of Gene Editing at CRISPRcon Midwest

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Walking in to the first session at CRISPRcon Midwest.

Last week, a diverse group of stakeholders attended CRISPRcon Midwest, hosted by the Keystone Policy Center and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The goal of the day-long conference was to emphasize the importance and value of gene editing technology, and how it must be communicated deliberately between scientists, the public, policymakers, and other stakeholders.

Julie Shapiro, Senior Policy Director of Keystone Policy Center, acted as Emcee for the event. Given the diverse group of attendees, she mentioned in her opening remarks that the event organizers were “seeking conversation, not consensus” and emphasized the “power of respectful dialogue.” A slide overhead showcased the ground rules for the day, which included statements such as “dare to listen, dare to share, and dare to disagree.”

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Word cloud generated from live polling results at CRISPRcon Midwest.

CRISPRcon aimed to included voices beyond those represented by keynote speakers and panelists, so they incorporated live polling through an online app to keep the audience engaged and an active participant in the conversations throughout the day. From the opening remarks, it was clear that this conference would not just deliver on its promise of thoughtful conversation about the science, but build further understanding about the societal impacts of a rapidly advancing technology.

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Creating Sonic Sculptures with Artist-in-Residence, Joe Willie Smith

Joe Willie Smith’s instrumental art installation is a collaborative experience of sound and color.

Joe Willie Smith has always been a creator. As a young child growing up in Milwaukee, his mother encouraged him to make art and find beauty in the everyday. Following years of work in printing and graphic design (including posters for Gil-Scott Heron and Chaka Khan), Smith began channeling his inspiration and creativity into building playable “sonic sculptures” out of found objects. “They’re not all considered instruments…sometimes I just make soundscapes out of them,” Smith says.

As the artist-in-residence for the Promega Fall Art Showcase, Smith set out to create a sonic sculpture from collected items from the Promega campus. He planned to perform on the instrument at the opening of the Art Show, but his creative process led to something much more—a collaborative experience in sound and color.

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Prions Go Slow with ASOs: Experimental Treatment for ALS, Alzheimer’s and Other Prion-like Diseases

In the late-80’s through the 90’s, food and health agencies focused on a mysterious fatal brain disease that infected thousands of cattle. Bovine spongiform encephalitis—or “mad cow disease”—is caused by an infectious protein called a prion. Despite fears that tainted meat would cause the disease to spread to humans, mad cow disease never really made an impact on human health. However, forms of the prion disease such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease do affect humans.

In addition to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) are now thought to be a result of prion-like activity. There is no cure for these diseases, however, new experimental treatment strategies might help slow the progression of neural degeneration.

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The tell-tale “holes” of prion infection in brain tissue.
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Curiosity and Collaboration: A PhD Journey

Concepcion Sanchez-Cid didn’t know she wanted to be a scientist when she was older. She grew up with a love of music and played the violin, but her curiosity and eagerness to learn drove her down the path for a career in biomedical research.

Hear more of Concepcion’s story:

 

As a Master’s student at the University of Granada, Concepcion studied biotechnology and landed an internship at the Promega Europe Training and Application Lab (PETAL) in France. She worked with the Applications Team to develop protocols for DNA and RNA extraction from soil. When she decided to pursue a PhD, she received a sponsorship from Promega and enrolled as a student at the University of Lyon while also remaining an employee at PETAL.

Concepcion says that the balance between both worlds—academia and industry—provide her with technical skills and a unique support network that has helped shape her PhD thesis work. “Working at a university and a company at the same time…you get very different feedback from people that are very specialized, and they really know what they’re doing, so at the end you integrate everything,” she says. “It’s one of the things I appreciate most about my PhD.” Continue reading “Curiosity and Collaboration: A PhD Journey”

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Malaria?

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Photo courtesy of NIH/NIAID

Malaria affects nearly half of the world’s population, with almost 80% of cases in sub-Saharan Africa and India. While there have been many strides in education and prevention campaigns over the last 30 years, there were over 200 million cases documented in 2017 with over 400,000 deaths, and the majority were young children. Despite being preventable and treatable, malaria continues to thrive in areas that are high risk for transmission. Recently, clinicians started rolling out use of the first approved vaccine, though clinical trials showed it is only about 30% effective. Meanwhile, researchers must continue to focus on innovative efforts to improve diagnostics, treatment and prevention to reduce the burden in these areas.

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The Secret Fluorescent Life of Flying Squirrels

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A flying squirrel museum specimen under normal light versus ultraviolet light. Photo courtesy of AM Kohler, et al.

In May 2017, a surprising discovery was made in the woods of Bayfield County, Wisconsin, just about a 5-hour drive north of Promega headquarters. Jonathan Martin, Associate Professor of Forestry at Northland College, was exploring the forest with an ultraviolet (UV) light in search of fluorescent lichen or plant life. What he found instead was a bright pink glow coming from a most unexpected source—a flying squirrel.

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Meet Měnglà Virus: the newest cousin in the Ebola and Marburg virus family tree

Ebola virus (EBOV) and Marburg virus (MARV) are two closely-related viruses in the family Filoviridae. Filoviruses are often pathogenic, causing hemorrhagic fever disease in human hosts. The Ebola outbreak of 2014 caught the world by surprise by spreading so quickly and severely that public health organizations were unprepared. The devastating outcome was a total of over 11,000 deaths by the time the outbreak ended in 2016. Research that provides further understanding of filoviruses and their potential for transmission is important in preventing future outbreaks from occurring. But what if the outbreak comes from a virus we’ve never seen before?

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Měnglà virus was discovered among filoviruses isolated from Old World fruit bats (Rousettus)

All in the viral family

A recent study published in the journal Nature Microbiology provides evidence of a newly identified filovirus species. Using serum samples taken from bats, a well-known host for filoviruses, Yang et al. isolated and identified viral RNA for an unclassified viral genome sequence using next generation sequencing analysis. This new virus genome sequence was organized with the same open reading frames as other filoviruses, encoding for nucleoprotein (NP), viral protein 35 (VP35), VP40, glycoprotein (GP), VP30, VP24, and RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (L). This new genome sequence shared up to 54% of the nucleotide sequences for the filovirus species Lloviu virus (LLOV), EBOV and MARV, with MARV being the most similar. Their analysis suggested that this novel virus should be classified within the Filoviridae family tree as a separate genus, Dianlovirus, and was named Měnglà virus (MLAV).

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Virtual Reality Is Changing How We Experience Science

The South Pole was exactly as I expected—snowy and barren, apart from the giant research station in front of me. Suddenly, I got a notification in my communication system that there was a strong signal coming from the sky. I looked up and changed the visual display settings of my goggles to find stunning views of the Solar System, all the way past Pluto. My heads-up display told me that I’ve discovered a subatomic particle, called a neutrino, that flies through the fabric of space at nearly the speed of light. I wanted to find the source of this neutrino, so I switched my display to X-ray vision. The signal brightened, and the source was revealed—a massive black hole. I captured as much data as possible so I could report back to the lead scientist on the project. What an exciting afternoon of research!

Okay, I’ve never actually been to the South Pole, but I experienced this event in virtual reality at a conference expo booth for the National Science Foundation. This experience put me in the shoes of an astrophysicist working at the IceCube Neutrino Detection Facility, operated by UW-Madison researchers. As someone who specializes in the life sciences, I had the opportunity to learn more about an area outside my expertise—the fascinating world of particle physics.

VR headsets offer immersive experiences for entertainment, education, training, and more.

Most people think of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in the context of gaming or entertainment. You’ve likely had a casual AR experience if you’ve ever given yourself a flower crown in Snapchat, or hunted for Charmander at your local park with the Pokémon GO app. Yet, as I experienced at a conference several weeks ago, AR and VR can have massive implications for education and training experiences in the sciences. Continue reading “Virtual Reality Is Changing How We Experience Science”

Celebrating the Many Faces of Science during Science-A-Thon

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“#dayofscience shows what it really means to be a modern woman scientist and helps break the stereotypes associated with our careers.” / Photo by Rae Ingold

If you follow Promega on social media, you may have noticed that several scientists and science communicators (including myself) were sharing posts for Science-A-Thon this week. The event was organized by the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN), whose mission is to create opportunities for mentorship, community, and collaboration for women in science.

The goal of Science-A-Thon was to “increase visibility of scientists and the important work they do to the public.“ The week-long celebration of science also served as a campaign to raise money for ESWN and to support Science Forward, “a STEM-wide initiative that empowers scientists, promotes scientists as role models, and builds on-ramps for students to engage in STEM.” Scientists and science communicators were invited to share their #dayofscience on Twitter, Instagram, and/or Facebook to give followers a better idea of what a scientist actually does from day to day—from morning coffee to meetings to micropipettes. Science-A-Thon followed a science outreach trend similar to the #scientistswhoselfie movement by humanizing science and showcasing the fact that scientists are people, too, with diverse backgrounds and interests.  Continue reading “Celebrating the Many Faces of Science during Science-A-Thon”

A Tale of Two Toxins: the mechanisms of cell death in Clostridium difficile infections

When someone is admitted to a hospital for an illness, the hope is that medical care and treatment will help them them feel better. However, nosocomial infections—infections acquired in a health-care setting—are becoming more prevalent and are associated with an increased mortality rate worldwide. This is largely due to the misuse of antibiotics, allowing some bacteria to become resistant. Furthermore, when an antibiotic wipes out the “good” bacteria that comprise the human microbiome, it leaves a patient vulnerable to opportunistic infections that take advantage of disruptions to the gut microbiota.

One such bacteria, Clostridium difficile, is of growing concern world-wide since it is resistant to many different antibiotics. When a patient is treated with an antibiotic, C. difficile can thrive in the intestinal tract without other bacteria populating the gut. C. difficile infection is the leading cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. While symptoms can be mild, aggressive infection can lead to pseudomembranous colitis—a severe inflammation of the colon which can be life-threatening.

C. difficile causes disease by releasing two large toxins, TcdA and TcdB. Understanding the role these toxins play in colonic disease is important for treatment strategies. However, most published research data only report the effects of the toxins independently. A 2016 study demonstrated a method of comparing the toxins side-by-side using the same time points and cell assays to investigate the role each toxin plays in the cell death that leads to disease of the colon. Continue reading “A Tale of Two Toxins: the mechanisms of cell death in Clostridium difficile infections”