Beneath the Writing: Non-Invasive DNA Sampling from Modern and Historic Writing Surfaces

We can learn a lot about the past and its people from the written records of the time. What people write and how they write it can gives us glimpses into historical events, interpersonal relationships, social standing and even social and cultural norms. From paper to papyrus to clay tablets, the surface that holds the writing can tell us things that the words cannot.

For plant-based writing surfaces, the quality of the surface or even the technique used to make it can give historians and archeologists insight into the people who used them. What more could we learn if we knew what plant, or plants, were used in the production of ancient writing material? Continue reading

Tetanus Neurotoxin: Potential Mechanism for Drug Delivery

Tetanus neurotoxin (TeNT), produced by Clostridium tetani, is one of the most potent neurotoxins in humans. TeNT causes tetanus, which is characterized by painful muscular contractions and spasms as well as seizure. TeNT is composed of a light chain and a heavy chain (TTH). The toxic properties of TeNT reside in the toxin light chain (L), but like complete TeNT, the TeNT heavy chain (TTH) and the C-terminal domain (TTC) alone can bind and enter into neurons.

Based on these properties, a recent publication (1) considered that TTC could be a promising vehicle to deliver drug cargos to neurons. To explore this possibility, they engineered fusion proteins containing various TeNT fragments. They chose B-cell leukemia/lymphoma 2 protein (Bcl-2) as a partner protein, because Bcl-2 is one of the most potent anti-apoptotic proteins and has an appropriate size (26kDa) to act as a fusion partner.

They tested these fusion proteins in both cell-based and cell-free protein expression systems to determine whether the purified fusion products retained both anti-apoptotic and neuronal migration properties. One construct (Bcl2-hTTC) exhibited neuronal binding and prevented cell death of neuronal PC12 cells induced by serum and NGF deprivation, as evidenced by the inhibition of cytochrome C release from the mitochondria. For in vivo assays, Bcl2-hTTC was injected into the tongues of mice and was seen to selectively migrate to hypoglossal nuclei mouse brain stems.

  1. Watanbe, Y. et. al. (2018) Tetanus toxin fragments and Bcl-2 fusion proteins : cytoprotection and retrograde axonal migration. BMC Biotechnology 18, 39.

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

Bacteria and Viruses as Cancer Treatments

Over a hundred years ago William B Coley, the “Father of Immunotherapy”, discovered that injection of bacteria or bacterial toxins into tumors could cause those tumors to shrink. The introduction of bacteria had the side-effect of stimulating the immune system to attack the tumor. The field of cancer immunotherapy research—which today includes many different approaches for generating anti-tumor immune responses—originated with these early experiments.

Use of bacteria is one way to stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells, others include use of cytokines, immune checkpoint blockades and vaccines. This Nature animation provides a simple overview of these methods.

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Factors Influencing Compound Potency in Biochemical and Cellular Assays

Late in 2017, a group here at Promega launched an exciting new assay, the NanoBRET™ Target Engagement (TE) Intracellular Kinase Assay.

It’s easy for me to call this assay exciting; I was an editor on the project team. But judging by the reviews on the SelectScience® web site, others are excited about NanoBRET™ Target Engagement Intracellular Kinase Assay too.

A review of the NanoBRET TE Kinase assay from SelectScience® .

A review of the NanoBRET TE Kinase assay from SelectScience® .

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Millions of Pickles, Pickles in the Sea

For a few years beginning late in 2013, warmer ocean conditions in the eastern Pacific prompted the appearance of unexpected species and toxic algal blooms that devastated others. When temperatures cooled in 2017, the marine ecosystems seemed to be returning to normal. Except for the pyrosomes. Although these previously rare organisms did start to wash up on beaches during the periods of warming, they began to appear by the millions from Oregon to Alaska that spring.


Photo by Steven Grace.

Some combination of ideal conditions led pyrosomes to multiply, dominate the ocean surface and wash up on beaches along the US and Canadian Pacific Coasts. Pyrosomes typically exist offshore, far below the surface in warm, tropical waters all over the world. Their sudden proliferation in other areas is likely due to the warm, Pacific ocean “blob,” although atypical sea currents and changes in pyrosome diet have been offered as other possible explanations.

While the appearance of pyrosomes impeded the efforts of fisherman by clogging nets and filling hooks, greater ecological effects have yet to be observed. As we celebrate World Oceans Month, pyrosomes offer a mesmerizing example of the astounding biological diversity our oceans have to offer and, perhaps, a cautionary tale of the impact climate change can have on those marine lifeforms.

The pyrosome species common in the NE Pacific, Pyrosoma atlanticum, goes by a few other colorful names. Each name reveals something captivating about these creatures. Commonly called “sea pickles” due their size, shape and bumpy texture (like a transparent cucumber), these are not single organisms, but colonies formed by hundreds or thousands of individual multicellular animals call zooids.

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New Recombinant Asp-N Mass Spec Protease: Improved Format and Reduced Price

Asp-N is a endoproteinase hydrolyzes peptide bonds on the N-terminal side of aspartic residues. The native form is isolated from Pseudomonas fragi. The majority of vendors currently provide a commercial product that consists of 2µg of lyophilized material in a flat bottom vial, and sold for $175–200 US. Formatting such a small amount of material in flat bottom vial can lead to inconsistent resuspension of the protease. Inconsistent working concentrations will lead to non-reproducible data. The current high price also prohibits large-scale use.

The new recombinant Asp-N protease is cloned from Stenotrophomonas maltophilia and expressed in E. coli. Recombinant Asp-N has similar amino acid cleavage specificity as compared to native Asp-N. Digestion of a yeast extract with native and recombinant Asp-N produces very similar results. Providing 10µg lyophilized material in V-shaped vial with a visible cake enables more consistent re-suspension resulting in reproducible data. Due to improved yields the list price is now approximately 40% less when compared to native enzyme.
Learn more about this new recombinant Asp-N protease.

High-Throughput Purification with Experts Included

Implementing automated nucleic acid purification or making changes to your high-throughput (HT) workflow can be complicated and time-consuming. There are also many barriers to success such as challenging samples types and maintaining desirable downstream results that can add to the stress, not to mention actually getting the robotic instrumentation to do what you want it to. All of this makes it easy to understand why many labs avoid automating or own expensive instrumentation that goes unused. 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

Kinase Drug R & D: Helping Your Inhibitor Make the Cut

Finding the best inhibitor for your kinase doesn’t have to be a long trip.

A recent paper in Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, “Discovery of GDC-0853: A Potent, Selective and Noncovalent Bruton’s Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor in Early Clinical Development” (1) details some elegant work in chemical modification and extensive testing during exploration of inhibitors for BTK. As a warmup to the article, here is a brief BTK backstory.

BTK (Bruton Tyrosine Kinase): Importance in Health and Disease 

Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) was initially identified as a mediator of B-cell receptor signaling in the development and functioning of adaptive immunity. More recent and growing evidence supports an additional role for BTK in mononuclear cells of the innate immune system, especially dendritic cells and macrophages. For example, BTK functions in receptor-mediated recognition of infectious agents, cellular maturation and recruitment processes, and Fc receptor signaling. BTK has recently been identified as a direct regulator of a key innate inflammatory machinery, the NLRP3 inflammasome (2). Continue reading