Tick, Tock! The Molecular Basis of Biological Clocks

A long time ago, before the rise of humans, before the first single celled organisms, before the planet even accumulated atmospheric oxygen, Earth was already turning, creating a 24-hour day-night cycle. It’s no surprise, then, that most living things reflect this cycle in their behavior. Certain plants close their leaves at night, others bloom exclusively at certain times of day. Roosters cock-a-doodle-doo every morning, and I’m drowsy by 9:00 pm every night. These behaviors roughly align with the daylight cycles, but internally they are governed by a set of highly conserved molecular circadian rhythms.

Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for their discoveries relating to molecular circadian rhythms. The official statement from the Nobel Committee reads, “…this year’s Nobel laureates isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm. They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day. [They exposed] the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell.” What, then, does this self-sustaining clockwork look like? And how does it affect our daily lives (1)?

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CRISPR: Gene Editing and Movie Madness

There are new developments in genetics coming to light every day, each with the potential to dramatically change life as we know it. The increasingly controversial gene editing system, dubbed CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), is at the root of it all. Harnessed for use in genome editing in 20131, CRISPR has given hope to researchers looking to solve various biological problems. It’s with this technology that researchers anticipate eventually having the means to genetically modify humans and rid society of genetic disorders, such as hemophilia. While this is not yet possible, the building blocks are steadily being developed. Most recently, two groundbreaking studies concerning CRISPR have been released to the public. Continue reading

Postcards from the Northern Roman Empire

Some of the thin wood tablets found at Vindolanda in Northumberland, England. Image Copyright The Vindolanda Trust.

Correspondence whether via postcard or letter has been a method of human communication likely since people became literate. Old letters and postcards have been uncovered in attics, basements and garages, offering depth and richness to historical events or adding context to how humans lived in the past. But what about finding correspondence from more than a few hundred years ago?

Interestingly, archeologists were excavating in a Roman fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall and discovered well-preserved thin slices of wood with ink writing dating to the 1st century. While these 25 postcard-sized correspondence, found in a line about 3–4 meters long, are just the latest uncovered at the Vindolanda fort, the documents add to the history of Romans in Britain.

Many of the newly discovered wooden wafer postcards seemed to contain complete messages and could be read without the need for infrared photography. This treasure “hoard” of ancient Roman writing tablets offer insights such as a man named Masclus asking for leave. His previously discovered correspondence also from the Roman fort at Vindolanda included asking his commanding officer to supply more beer to his outpost.

The announcement of these 25 new Roman messages by the sponsors of the fort excavation are only preliminary overview of the find. In fact, archeologists are working on conserving and deciphering messages on the wooden tablets and plan on using infrared photography to reveal if there is any more writing on these postcards from the past.

Read more in the Vindolanda Trust Press Release.

Promega Third Party Forensic-Grade Certification

Promega has become the first major forensic manufacturer to achieve third party certification of the published ISO 18385 standard to minimize the risk of human DNA contamination in products used to collect, store and analyze biological material for forensic purposes.

On February 2, 2016, ISO 18385:2016 was published as the first international standard specific to the forensic manufacturing community. Since the standard was published, companies have begun to self-declare that they comply with the ISO standard. Some companies have gone a step further and reached out to Certification Bodies to provide an unbiased and independent assessment their compliance to ISO18385 through a third-party audit.

When consumers see an ‘ISO 18385 Forensic Grade’ labeled product, it should inspire confidence that the product was produced in accordance with a minimum set of criteria common to all manufacturers.

So what are you actually getting in a Forensic Grade labeled product? Continue reading

ISHI 28 Workshop: Towards Better Solutions for Body Fluid Identification

Although techniques for DNA analysis of forensic samples have evolved considerably in recent years, the methods used to identify particular body fluids in forensic casework have remained relatively unchanged over the same time period. This year, one of the workshops offered at the International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI; to be held in Seattle from October 2-5), will be focused on current and emerging techniques for body fluid identification that promise change—applying molecular genetics and proteomics analysis to the problem of body fluid identification.

According to the ISHI conference website, the purpose of the workshop is to “highlight current serology methods using critical case examples while also exploring emerging methods that could complement or replace these traditional techniques”. Continue reading

Searching for Secrets in Single Cells

There has been a lot of effort recently to perform whole genome sequencing, for humans and other species. The results yield new frontiers of data analysis that offer a lot of promise for groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

One objective of human genome sequencing has been to identify sources of disease and new therapeutic targets. This movement has opened the door to create personalized medicine for cancer, whereby the genetic makeup of an individual’s tumors can be used to determine the most effective drug intervention to administer.

Interest in studying the characteristics unique to individual cells seems obvious when considering the function of healthy cells versus tumor cells, or brain cells compared to heart cells. What has surprised scientists is the realization that two cells in the same tissue can be more different from each other, genetically, than from a cell in another organ.

For example, a small number of brain cells with a specific mutation can lead to some forms of epilepsy while healthy people may also carry cells with these mutations, but too few to cause disease. The lineage of a cell, where it came from and what events shaped its development, ultimately determines what diseases can exist.

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Five Ways to Explain CRISPR Without Delivering a Lecture

Recently a FaceBook friend of mine (who is not a scientist) shared a video from WIRED Science where the concept of CRISPR is explained at 5 Levels of Difficulty— for a 7 year old, a teenager, a college student, a grad student and a CRISPR expert.

First it was pretty amazing to me that my non-scientist friends are interested enough in learning about CRISPR to share this type of information—perhaps showing just how popular and exciting the method has become. People outside the scientific field are hearing a lot about it, and are curious to know more.

This video does a great job of explaining the technique for all its intended audiences. It also is a nice illustration of how to share information in an easily understandable format. Even with the 7 year old and 14 year old, the information is shared in a conversational way, with everyone involved contributing to sharing information about CRISPR.

Really nice. Here’s the WIRED video:


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Rapid DNA Act of 2017: What is It?

On May 16, 2017, the U.S House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate passed the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 (H.R.510 and S.139, respectively). The bill was sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis) and enjoyed bipartisan support, ending up with seven Republican and five Democratic cosponsors in the Senate, and seventeen Republican and seven Democratic cosponsors in the House. The bill was passed by unanimous consent voice votes in both chambers.

So what is the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 all about?

Simply put, the act will expand the use of rapid DNA technology in law enforcement departments by creating a way for them to use the results they get by connecting them to the FBIs Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). Still curious? Read on and you will learn much more about what the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 does and doesn’t do. Continue reading

Creating ART from 3D Printed Ovaries

It is remarkable to me how quickly in vitro fertilization has gone from an experimental, controversial and prohibitively expensive procedure to becoming a mainstream option for those struggling with fertility issues. What was unheard of in my parents’ generation is nothing extraordinary among my friends who are having children.

My personal observations are supported by the CDC, which reported that 1.6% of all infants born in the U.S. in 2015 were the result of assisted reproductive technology (ART). This is a 33% increase since 2006, which can be attributed to rapid advances and refinements of the various technologies available to those seeking reproductive assistance.

It challenges the mind to imagine what reproductive technologies might be widespread when my children and their friends are adults. When experts speculate about the future of human reproduction, there always seems to be a lot of focus on provocative scenarios that portend a dystopian future, such as designer babies. What gets lost are some of the more general scientific advances that are being applied to ART in fascinating ways.

While improvements in reproductive technologies serve many, one group that remains underserved are pediatric cancer patients. As a result of treatment, these patients are often faced with impaired ovarian function that can prevent puberty and result in infertility. In vitro fertilization and ovarian transplants are currently used, but do not provide lasting solutions for all individuals.

In response to this need, researchers are working to develop an organ replacement that can provide long-term hormone function and fertility for all patients.  A recent study in Nature Communications presented encouraging results in mice using bioprosthetic ovaries that may further revolutionize the field of ART. Continue reading

In Healthy Eating Less is More: The Science Behind Intermittent Fasting

Mix a love of eating with a desire to live a long, healthy life what do you get? Probably the average 21st century person looking for a way to continue enjoying food despite insufficient exercise and/or an age-related decline in caloric needs.

Enter intermittent fasting, a topic that has found it’s way into most news sources, from National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publications to WebMD and even the popular press. For instance, National Public Radio’s “The Salt” writers have tried and written about their experiences with dietary restriction.

While fasting has enjoyed fad-like popularity the past several years, it is not new. Fasting, whether purposely not eating or eating a restricted diet, has been practiced for 1,000s of years. What is new is research studies from which we are learning the physiologic effects of fasting and other forms of decreased nutrient intake.

You may have heard the claims that fasting makes people smarter, more focused and thinner? Researchers today are using cell and animal models, and even human subjects, to measure biochemical responses at the cellular level to restricted nutrient intake and meal timing, in part to prove/disprove such claims (1,2). Continue reading