Questions of Genome Privacy and Protection

In April 2018, law enforcement officials announced the arrest of a suspect in the Golden State Killer case (New York Times ). Shortly after the announcement, those same law enforcement officers explained that detectives had used a public forensic genealogy web site to help identify the killer.

What does it mean when a law enforcement agency accesses a public genetic genealogy database to search for a suspect in a crime? Continue reading

Catalyzing Solutions with Synthetic Biology

Computer-generated model of a virus.

The keynote speaker for this year’s International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI), Andrew Hessle, describes himself as a catalyst for big projects and ideas (1). In biology, catalysts are enzymes that alter the microenvironment and lower the energy of activation so that a chemical reaction that would proceed anyway happens at a much faster rate—making a reaction actually useful to the biological system in which it occurs.

In practical terms, Andrew Hessel is the person who helps us over our inertia. Instead of waiting for someone else, he sees a problem, gathers an interested group of people with diverse skills and perspectives, creates a microenvironment for these people to interact, and runs with them straight toward the problem. Boom. Reaction started.

One of the problems he has set his mind toward is that of cancer drug development. Continue reading

Why Hasn’t the “Alternative” Become Mainstream?

Pearl Jam, a popular alternative rock band in the 1990s (and still pretty awesome!). Photo credit: Rolling Stone Magazine.

This post could easily start out as an ode to ’90s alternative music (of which I’m a huge fan). That new and totally different sound (a la Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc.) in the 1990s eventually made its way into the mainstream as it gained popularity. (I have to say that I got a shock when I recently heard some Pearl Jam on “classic rock” radio stations. But I digress…)

Why isn’t the same true for science career paths? Science careers outside of academia are still referred to as “alternative.” Continue reading

The Pan-Cancer Atlas: “The End of the Beginning”

Yesterday, a series of 27 papers representing the most comprehensive genomic analysis of human cancers to date was published in Cell Press journals.

The collection constitutes the final outputs from the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) project, a collaboration between the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) involving analysis of over 11,000 tumors representing 33 different cancers. The many research teams involved analyzed tumor DNA, mRNA, miRNA and chromatin, comparing them to matched normal cellular genomes to perform a complete molecular characterization of cancer-specific changes. The results have been presented with much hope that open access to this type of comprehensive analysis will build on recent advances in understanding tumor biology and spur further progress in developing new approaches to treatment. (See this news item for more detail).

The Pan-Cancer Atlas results are collected on a cell.com portal, where they are presented in three collections grouped by topic: Cell of Origin, Oncogenic Processes and Signaling Pathways. Each collection is accompanied by a “Flagship” paper introducing the topic and summarizing the findings. It seems fitting that these findings have been published in #HumanGenomeMonth. This comprehensive analysis of the genomic and metagenomic profiles of tumors illustrates one powerful application of the type of genomic analysis pioneered by the original Human Genome Project, and shows just how much has been made possible since the initial publication of the human genome fifteen years ago. Continue reading

A Surprising New Role for Body Fat?

This cloaked fat cell just might be a superhero.

Forty-some years ago fat was just fat. And it was regarded with disdain, to say the least.

An entire industry existed to help get rid of fat, using what was then the latest mass media technology, television. If you wanted to get rid of fat you could exercise with Jack LaLanne as he worked out on television. We exercised in elementary school PE class to a vinyl recording of “Chicken Fat”. You could strap into a device that employed shaking to get rid of the fat from your “hips”, or eat a piece of chocolate fudge with a hot beverage before meals to curb your appetite.

Fat was not our friend. We knew long before the current diabetes epidemic that being overweight was not good for our health.

Fast forward to the 21st century, where we’ve learned that some forms of fat are actually good for you–important in metabolism, growth and immunity. The variety of types of mammalian fat include brown adipose tissue, beige adipose tissue and white adipose tissue, and it’s possible to convert one to the other under certain conditions. For details on these types of adipose tissue, read this article —after you finish this blog. Continue reading

Science News: Demoting Termites, Monitoring Blood Pressure with Your Smartphone and Finding Amelia Earhart’s Bones

A few science news items caught my eye this week.

Macro image of a termite (Isoptera) found under a rock. Image by Sanjay Acharay via Wikimedia Commons.

Wood-Shattering Revelation: Termites have been recategorized based on genetic and other evidence. Turns out, they are just social cockroaches and thus, have become part of the cockroach order Blattodea rather than remaining in a separate order. This decision was not made lightly, but based on years of debate amongst American entomologists. The insects will still retain termite in their name, but they gain a reputation for surviving apocalyptic events. Read about the update to the insect name master list by the Entomological Society of America.

Sphygmomanometer with cuff, used to measure blood pressure via Wikimedia Commons.

Blood Pressure Measurements at the Tip of Your Finger: A blood pressure cuff is bulky, annoying but accurate for monitoring the effort needed for pushing blood around your body. While this device is a fairly simple one, in the developing world it is not that common. However, mobile phones are available to many more globally so why not find a way to put the two together? Turns out that smartphones are equipped with hardware that can be used to measure blood pressure. By adding a device that attaches to the back of a smartphone and with the press of a finger, you can monitor your blood pressure. While not currently as accurate as a blood pressure cuff, the people that tried the mobile blood pressure device were able to quickly adapt to using it, making it easy to take several readings for continuous monitoring. A pocket-sized blood pressure monitor without the nasty squeeze of your arm sounds like a great medical advancement for treating high blood pressure. See a video of the device.

Photo of Amelia Earhart and Dr. Edward C. Elliott, president of Purdue University with the Lockheed Electra she later disappeared in. Purdue University paid for the plane as Earhart was then a consultant on aeronautics there. Photo taken 20 August 1936.

For a Forensic ID, All You Needed Was a Picture, Old Clothing and Some Numbers: The quest to find where Amelia Earhart may have landed in the Pacific Ocean has been investigated and speculated about since she and her navigator disappeared July 2, 1937. In fact, skeletal remains had been found on a remote island in the South Pacific in 1940 along with other artifacts–a woman’s shoe, an American sextant box, but the bones were identified as a man by a physician at the time. Unfortunately, these remains have subsequently been lost. Recently, an anthropologist decided to take the measurements made in 1940, and using a modern-day techniques including a program that estimates stature, sex and ancestry, and he found that the bone measurements were more consistent with Earhart than with 99% of the reference sample used. In addition, using a photograph of the American pilot that had scale generated bone lengths of her humerus and radius and measuring her clothing from a collection gave a number for her tibia. All these numbers strongly suggest the skeletal remains were Earhart’s. Read the press release.

Announcing: 17th International Forum on Consciousness

Means and Metrics for Detecting and Measuring Consciousness

Speakers on stage during last year's conference.

Panel speakers from last year’s Forum on Consciousness.

A diverse panel of thought leaders in neuroscience and consciousness, from the chief scientist and president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science to the principal English translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, will explore Means and Metrics for Detecting and Measuring Consciousness at the 17th International Forum on Consciousness May 17–18, 2018, in Madison, Wisconsin.  Presenters will discuss emerging technologies for looking into the phenomenon of consciousness such as sleep, wakefulness, altered states, focused attention, and coma. The Forum will ask how the ability to better measure consciousness may create opportunities to improve human function, resolve disease states, and keep the brain/mind healthier throughout all stages of life.

WHAT: The International Forum on Consciousness is a yearly event dedicated to information-sharing and discussion regarding important—and often challenging—topics related to the exploration of consciousness. It is co-hosted by the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute) and Promega Corporation.

WHEN: May 17-18, 2018

WHERE: BioPharmaceutical Technology Center, Promega Corporation, 5445 East Cheryl Parkway, Fitchburg, WI 53711

REGISTRATION: The International Forum on Consciousness is open to the general public but limited to 300 participants. Registration is $265 and there are a limited number of scholarships available to assist with the cost. Forum registrants also have the opportunity to join a presenter for a small group discussion over dinner on Thursday evening, May 17 for an additional $90. For more information or to register, visit www.btci.org/events-symposia-2018/international-forum-on-consciousness/

CONFIRMED PRESENTERS: Continue reading

Get Out and Count: The Great Backyard Bird Count of 2018

2018 has been designated “The Year of the Bird”, and beginning today, Friday, February 16, 2018, bird lovers around the world will grab their binoculars, fill their bird feeders, update their eBird app, and look toward the skies. The 21st Annual Great Backyard Bird Count, one of the largest and longest running citizen science projects, begins today, and you can be part of this grand event of data collection.

All it takes is a mobile device (or computer) to log your results, an account at gbbc.birdcount.org , and 15 minutes of your time during the four-day event.

Can’t tell a red-tailed hawk from a red-winged black bird? That’s okay. The GBBC web site provides a handy online bird guide.  The web site also provides a guide for tricky bird IDs, including: Which Red Finch is it, Identifying Some Common Sparrows, and Identifying Doves.

I recently spent some time talking to Brian Schneider, one of the educators at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona, WI, to get some tips for first-time birders. Continue reading

Announcing the 13th Annual Wisconsin Stem Cell Symposium

20 Years of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells: Current Clinical Trials and Regulatory Framework

April 18, 2018 | Madison, WI

Picture of Stem Cell Booth display from last year's meetingOver the years, the BTC Institute has partnered with the Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to offer this packed day of excellent talks and opportunities to interact with renowned speakers, poster session presenters, sponsor representatives and other attendees.

Our UW-Madison committee members define each year’s content and pull together a strong group of presenters.  This year, we’re working with Timothy J. Kamp, M.D. (Professor, Medicine, Cell and Regenerative Biology; Co-director, Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center), William L. Murphy, Ph.D. (Professor, Biomedical Engineering, Orthopedics & Rehabilitation; Co-director, Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center) and James Thomson, Ph.D. (John D. MacArthur Professor, Director, Regenerative Biology, Morgridge Institute for Research; Professor, Department of Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology, University of California – Santa Barbara).

Attendees at last year's stem cell symposiumOur 2018 symposium brings together leading researchers advancing human pluripotent stem cell products to clinical applications for a range of degenerative diseases. Progress in clinical trials, as well as major barriers for developing these revolutionary new therapies will be discussed.

As Dr. Kamp notes, “This will be a remarkable meeting highlighting the emerging field of regenerative medicine which has grown from the pioneering discovery of human embryonic stem cells 20 years ago.” Continue reading

The Bacteria that are Good for Us

Chains of StreptococciSalmonella. Streptococcus. Shigella. The most well-known bacteria are those that cause disease. Our relationship with them is one of combat. With good reason, we look for ways to avoid encountering them and to eliminate them when we do meet.

But not all bacteria are bad for us. Of course we have known for years that we are colonized by harmless bacteria, but recently, studies on the human microbiome have revealed many surprising things about these bacterial tenants. Studies are showing that the teeming multitudes of organisms living in and on the human body are not just harmless bystanders, but complex, interrelated communities that can have profound effects on our health.

Three studies published last week in Science add more to the growing body of microbiome surprises, showing that certain gut bacteria are not only good for us, but may even be required for the effectiveness of some anti-cancer immunotherapies.

Continue reading