Which Came First: The Virus or the Host?

They existed 3.5 billion years before humans evolved on Earth. They’re neither dead nor alive. Their genetic material is embedded in our own DNA, constituting close to 10% of the human genome. They can attack most forms of life on our planet, from bacteria to plants to animals. And yet, if it wasn’t for them, humans might never have existed.

3D structure of a coronavirus
A depiction of the shape of coronavirus as well as the cross-sectional view. The image shows the major elements including glycoproteins, viral envelope and helical RNA. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

No, that’s not the blurb for a new Hollywood blockbuster, although recent developments have proven, once again, that truth is decidedly more bizarre than fiction. Now that “coronavirus” has become a household word, the level of interest in all things virus-related is growing at an unprecedented rate. At the time of writing, coronavirus and COVID-19 topics dominated search traffic on Google, as well as trends on social media. A recent FAQ on this blog addresses many of the questions we hear on these topics.

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Producing Snake Venom— in the Lab

Snakebite is a serious public health issue in many tropical countries. Every year, roughly 2 million cases of poisoning from snakebites occur, and more than 100,000 people die. Snake venom is extremely complex, containing a cocktail of chemicals, many of which are undefined. This complicates the development of new therapeutics for treating snakebite.

Antivenom is the most effective treatment for snakebites, but its production is complex and dangerous. It involves manually milking the venom from different species of live snakes, then injecting small doses of the venom into animals (mostly horses) to stimulate an immune response. After a period of time, antibodies form in the animal’s blood, which is purified for use as antivenom.

But what if we could produce snake venom in the lab, instead of using live snakes? Recently, a group from the Netherlands did just that by growing organoids derived from snake venom glands.

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The Race to Develop New Therapeutics Against Coronaviruses

Once the purview of virology researchers, the word “coronavirus” is now part of the vernacular in the mainstream media as reports of quarantined cruise ships (1) and makeshift hospitals (2) fill our online news feeds. While there is currently no approved anti-viral treatment for coronavirus infection (3), a team led by researchers from Vanderbilt University recently published work characterizing the anti-CoV activity of a compound, which they now plan to test against 2019-nCoV (4).

Developing New Therapeutics Against Coronaviruses

Coronaviruses (CoVs) are enveloped, single-stranded RNA viruses that exhibit cross-species transmission—the ability to spread quickly from one host (e.g., civet) to another (e.g., human). Scientists classify CoVs into four groups based on the nature of the spikes on their surface: alpha (α), beta (ß), gamma (γ) and delta (δ, 1). Only the alpha- and beta-CoVs can infect humans. Four coronaviruses commonly circulate within human populations: Human CoV 229E (HCoV229E), HCoVNL63, HCoVOC43, and HCoVHKU1. Three other CoVs have emerged as infectious agents, jumping from their normal animal host species to humans: SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and most recently, 2019-nCoV (5).

TE micrograph of a single MERS-CoV
Digitally colorized transmission electron micrograph reveals ultrastructural details of a single Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) virion. Image credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

The need for an effective, broad spectrum treatment against HCoVs, has been brought into sharp focus by the recent outbreak of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV; 6).

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Popular Papers from Promega Authors

Promega is a chemistry and instrument supplier to scientists in diverse industries and research labs around the world. True. But we are more than just a supply company; we are scientists dedicated to supporting the work of other scientists. We want the science behind the technologies we develop to be both vetted and valued by the scientific community at large, which is one reason our scientists take the time to prepare and submit manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals. Here we call out some of our published research papers that were highly read in 2019. In the journal ACS Chemical Biology alone, five Promega-authored papers were among the top 10 most read papers in 2019. Here’s a quick review of the highlights from these ACS papers.

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Go with Your Gut: Understanding How the Microbiome and Diet Influence Health


Over the past decade, microbiome research has provided key insights into the relationship between our gut and our health. There are trillions of organisms in our gut, comprising the microbiome that complements our human biology, distinct from our genome. These gut microbes affect us in many ways, from affecting our mental health to our ability to fight cancer.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Federico Rey and his research group are trying to understand how our diet might help or harm the important microbial communities in our gut. “If we can understand how microbes interact with diet, we can personalize nutrition to match diet with the composition of the gut microbiome and promote health,” Rey says.

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Out-FOXOing High-Stage Neuroblastoma

Fluorescence microscopy of neuroblastoma cells.

In recent years, scientists have been hot on the trail of transcription factor FOXO3, tracing its involvement in various tumor-centric activities comprising the many trademarks of cancer, from drug resistance to metastasis to tumor angiogenesis.

FOXO3 is a member of the O sub-class of the forkhead box family of transcription factors. The forkhead box (FOX) family is characterized by a fork head DNA-binding domain (DBD), comprised of around 100 amino acids. They have also proven themselves to be a family of many hats, functioning in diverse roles ranging from metabolism, immunology, cell-cycle control, development, as well as cancer (1). The forkhead box O (FOXO) sub-class alone has demonstrated involvement in a variety of cellular outcomes, from drug resistance and longevity to apoptosis induction.

Due to its pro-apoptotic and anti-proliferative proclivity, FOXO3 has been previously identified as a tumor suppressor gene. However, more and more studies have begun to flip the narrative on FOXO3, portraying it more as a devoted henchman, due to its roles in drug and radiotherapy resistance, cell-cycle arrest and long-term maintenance of leukemia-initiating stem cells in a variety of cancer types, including breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, glioblastoma, and both acute and chronic myeloid leukemia.

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Targeted Gene Modification in Prairie Voles Using CRISPR and pGEM®-T Easy Vectors

As the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) continues to rise, the search for a cause continues. Scientists have been studying genetically modified oxytocin receptors, which have shown promise as a target for studying ASD-related behaviors. One of the obstacles to designing robust scientific experiments for investigating potential ASD causes or treatments is the lack of a truly appropriate model organism for social behaviors in humans (1). Sure, there are the traditional lab rats and lab mice that demonstrate a certain level of social behaviors. However, there has been a loss of natural social behaviors in common lab mice strains because of the reduction in genetic complexity from inbreeding and adaptation to captivity (2). These animals cannot fully represent the depth of human social behaviors, including the ability of humans to form lasting social bonds (1).

Enter: The prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster).

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To Sleep, Perchance to Clean

While you and I are getting some shut eye each night, things are happening in our brains. Good things. Therapeutic things.

Think of it as brainwashing of a sort. There is a multiplicity of brain activities going on during sleep, and a November 1 paper in Science shows for the first time when and where in the brain these activities occur, and how they are connected.

CSF washes through the brain.

Here’s a bit of backstory.

To assess both the progression and pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), as well as the efficacy of AD drugs in clinical trials, there has been interest in the concentrations of amyloid-beta (Aβ) and tau protein in cerebral spinal fluid (CSF).

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A Diamond in the Rough: New Applications of Diamond Nucleic Acid Dye

Diamond™ Nucleic Acid Dye (Cat# H1181) is a safe, inexpensive and sensitive fluorescent dye option that binds to single-stranded and double-stranded DNA and RNA. Diamond™ Dye typically is used for staining electrophoresis gels to visualize nucleic acids in a similar to its carcinogenic counterpart, ethidium bromide. However Diamond™ Dye has several advantages: gels stained with Diamond™ Dye can be visualized using either UV or blue-light transilluminators. Also, a wash step after staining is not necessary when using Diamond™ Dye, unlike what is typically recommended for ethidium bromide.

Besides staining electrophoresis gels, there are other applications for this diamond in the rough. Highlighted below are two fascinating uses of this multifaceted tool: touch DNA localization and qPCR detection.

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All You Need is a Tether: Improving Repair Efficiency for CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing

Ribonucleoprotein complex with Cas9, guide RNA and donor ssDNA. Copyright Promega Corporation.

With the advent of genome editing using CRISPR-Cas9, researchers have been excited by the possibilities of precisely placed edits in cellular DNA. Any double-stranded break in DNA, like that induced by CRISPR-Cas9, is repaired by one of two pathways: Non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) or homology-directed repair (HDR). Using the NHEJ pathway results in short insertions or deletions (indels) at the break site, so the HDR pathway is preferred. However, the low efficiency of HDR recombination to insert exogenous sequences into the genome hampers its use. There have been many attempts at boosting HDR frequency, but the methods compromise cell growth and behave differently when used with various cell types and gene targets. The strategy employed by the authors of an article in Communications Biology tethered the DNA donor template to Cas9 complexed with the ribonucleoprotein and guide RNA, increasing the local concentration of the donor template at the break site and enhancing homology-directed repair. Continue reading “All You Need is a Tether: Improving Repair Efficiency for CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing”