Tag Archives: genetic engineering

Modified immune cells could be a long-term treatment for type 1 diabetes

New research at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Immunity and Immunotherapies could result in a treatment against type 1 diabetes that has long-term efficacy and removes the need for insulin injection.

A patient has their blood sugar levels checked at the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
Image credits U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Chelsea Browning.

The authors plan to carry out a clinical trial with human patients at Seattle Children’s to test the treatment’s merits.

No more friendly fire

“What started as a dream is now within reach,” said Dr. David Rawlings, director of the center and corresponding author of the paper.

“My hope is that our research will lead to a new treatment that turns off the destructive immune response leading to the development of type 1 diabetes in children.”

Insulin production is handled by islet cells in the pancreas. Malfunctions in our bodies’ regulatory T cells (Treg) can cause the immune system to see them as threats, and attack. Treg cells work to organize and control effector T cells, which are the ones who actually carry out the attacks.

If enough of these cells are damaged, the pancreas becomes unable to regulate glucose levels in the blood, causing the early symptoms of type 1 diabetes such as frequent urination, unquenched thirst, insatiable hunger, and extreme fatigue. Current treatments require daily insulin injections, without which the disease can become fatal.

In a bid to find a treatment that doesn’t require the logistics of insulin production and supply, the team details how Treg cells of patients can be genetically engineered to function like their normal counterparts. Their approach targets the FOXP3 gene, which governs the process by which T cells can mutate into Treg cells.

In theory, once injected back into a patient, these cells (‘edited regulatory-like T cells’, or ‘edTreg’) should enter the pancreas and help keep the immune system in check.

The team notes that these edTreg cells look very similar to natural Treg ones, and that they behaved like them during tests in tissue samples and on animal models. They are currently working to start a phase 1 clinical trial of their therapy.

“This data offers the first proof that engineering by way of turning on FOXP3 is sufficient to make a functional Treg-like cell product,” said Dr Rawlings. “Not only is it a landmark research finding, but it’s directly translatable to clinical use.”

While all of this is going on, the authors are further refining the efficiency of their treatment and to devise a way to make edTreg cells target the pancreas directly.

The paper “Gene editing to induce FOXP3 expression in human CD4+ T cells leads to a stable regulatory phenotype and function” has been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

How CRISPR gene editing is poised to change everything from medicine to ecosystems

Until recently, gene editing used to be relegated to science fiction novels and movies. The idea of being able to edit our genetic code or the genetics of other creatures was something that was totally out of reach — until CRISPR changed all that.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a customizable tool that lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. Credits: National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) from Bethesda, MD, USA.

CRISPR– short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” — was first observed more than three decades ago, but wasn’t patented until 2014. But what does Crispr do and how is it changing both our ecosystems and our medical systems?


CRISPR, in layman’s terms, is an editing tool for DNA. It uses the natural defense mechanisms of some single-celled organisms to cut and paste, so to speak, sections of DNA. This allows the DNA to be manipulated and edited.

The CRISPR process was first described back in 1985, but it wasn’t demonstrated as a viable tool for gene editing until 2007, when a food company used it to modify the streptococcus thermophilus bacteria that is commonly found in dairy products. By utilizing CRISPR, these researchers were able to modify how the bacteria reacted to a virus attack, improving overall bacterial immunity.

CRISPR Applications

Other than the bacterial modification we’ve already mentioned, what has Crispr been used for and what could it help accomplish in the future?

This is just a small sample of the advances that have been made using the CRISPR DNA editing method — most of which have been completed in the past few years. What could this be used for in the future?

  • Pest control — Specifically, pests like mosquitoes and ticks that can spread disease. Crispr can theoretically be used to modify these pests in a laboratory setting. Once released into the wild, the modified pests can either spread bacteria that prevents pests from spreading disease or cause the local pest population to die out. In mosquitoes, CRISPR has been used in the lab to create sterile male mosquitoes that won’t bite and can’t breed.
  • In vitro modifications — This is probably the most ethically questionable application for CRISPR, but it could potentially be used to edit the human genome to cause positive traits to manifest or to remove the genes that cause specific diseases.

Potential Impacts

Utilizing CRISPR on things like mosquitoes might seem like a small enough thing, but we have to keep one thing in mind: everything in an ecosystem, from the smallest microorganism to the largest apex predator, has a significance; the effects of such actions could be far-reaching and difficult to anticipate. We might think eliminating a small pest like a tick or mosquito might not have any impact on this ecosystem, but when it comes right down to it, we don’t know enough about these ecosystems to truly and accurately judge what will happen if we artificially remove a species from it.

Releasing genetically modified mosquitoes designed to eliminate the mosquito population could have no effect at all — it’s entirely possible they will simply be bred out of the population and, as Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm so aptly put it, life will “find a way.” Unfortunately, in the wild, these genetically modified pests could also mutate and become something completely different — something that could potentially turn an entire ecosystem on its head.

Now, this is a worst-case scenario. But we simply don’t know enough about the impact of these things to start tampering with them on a large scale yet.

CRISPR may be one of the most exciting advances in genetic research in recent years, but we should still be careful with how we use it. We don’t understand the impact of genetic manipulation well enough yet to forge ahead carelessly. Once we’ve studied the impact, though, this could upend the way we interact with the world around us and change medicine as we know it for the better.


Emily works as a conservation and sustainability freelance writer, covering topics primarily in climate change and endangered species. To read more of her work, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on on Twitter.

Scientists create low-fat pigs by giving them a thermal regulation gene

Scientists have developed a new genetic technique that allows pigs to regulate temperature by burning fat.

By burning more fat, pigs keep their bodies warmer, burning more fat to produce leaner meat. Infrared pictures of 6-month-old pigs taken at zero, two, and four hours after cold exposure show that the pigs’ thermoregulation was improved after insertion of the new gene. The modified pigs are on the right side of the images.
Zheng et al. / PNAS.

CRISPR bacon

Eating less meat — especially red meat — is important not only from a health point of view, but also from an environmental perspective. But not everyone cares about that. The meat industry is still growing at a dazzling rate and worldwide; there are around 1 billion pigs in the world, and not many of them are grown as pets — so it’s easy to understand why there is so much incentive for research.

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing were looking at ways through which they could genetically edit pigs and make them more resilient to cold. This could not only save growers a lot of money in heating costs, but it could also prevent unnecessary suffering. Every year, millions and millions of piglets suffer or die due to cold. This way, they can survive the cold easier, and die a bit later.

The animals were created using a new gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 (or simply CRISPR). As a result of their work, 12 pigs ended up with 24% less fat on average,

“This is a big issue for the pig industry,” says Jianguo Zhao of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, who led the research. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Unlike most mammals, pigs don’t have a gene called UCP1 — also called Thermogenin. Thermogenin is used to generate heat without shivering, allowing animals to regulate their temperature in cold environments. Researchers applied CRISPR to edit a variation of this gene into pig cells. They then used those cells to create more than 2,553 cloned pig embryos. These genetically modified pig embryos were then implanted into 13 female pigs. Just three of them became pregnant, but these three produced 12 male piglets, the researchers report. These piglets had the UCP1 gene, were able to regulate their temperature, and as a result, had much lower quantities of fat.

Piglets are especially vulnerable to the cold.

However, it’s still not clear if the FDA and other regulatory administrations would allow growers to incorporate this technique. It’s also not clear if people are willing to eat such genetically modified pigs. But with the planet’s constantly growing population, we might need all the help we can get.

“The population of our planet is predicted to reach about 10 billion by 2050, and we need to use modern genetic approaches to help us increase the food supply to feed that growing population,” says Chris Davies, an associate professor in the school of veterinary medicine at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, who was not involved in the study.

However, if anything, the study is a testament to how much genetic editing has advanced. The potential of CRISPR is immense, allowing researchers to edit genes with unparalleled precision. So far, it’s been already used to create animal models, control infection of bacteria and viruses, and correct defective genes.

Additionally, while researchers don’t really stress this point, a similar approach could, eventually, be applied directly to humans to allow us to increase or decrease fat content. The world is struggling with an obesity pandemic, with over 2 billion people overweight or obese.

Journal Reference: Qiantao Zheng et al. Reconstitution of UCP1 using CRISPR/Cas9 in the white adipose tissue of pigs decreases fat deposition and improves thermogenic capacity. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1707853114

Genetic-scissor enzyme eliminates HIV completely in mice trials

A new gene-snipping enzyme was successful in removing strands of HIV genetic material in mice trials. If the enzyme can prove its reliability in human trials it might revolutionize how we fight the virus forever.

HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was.

Through modern antiretroviral therapy, the virus can be kept at bay and patients have a fighting chance against it. But antiretroviral treatments are more of a band-aid than a cure to HIV: they are expensive, increase drug resistance in patients and can lead to a host of adverse reactions. To top it all off, because the virus can stay hidden in reservoirs throughout the body, the disease can continue to progress if the treatment is discontinued.

HIV infected cell (virus in yellow.)
Image credits go to flikr used NIAID

A research team from Germany thinks that they have found the answer: they have created a substance that they hope will finally allow us to create an affordable and efficient treatment for the virus. Dubbed Brec1, the enzyme can cut strands of viral DNA out of infected cells’ genetic code and preventing more of the virus from spawning.

The team successfully tested Brec1 on mice and their results make them confident that their enzyme can be used in clinical practice. If Brec1 can be adapted to cut HIV’s genetic material out of a patient’s cells and leave everything else undisturbed, the technique would allow physicians to finally produce an effective cure for the virus.

Brec1 was obtained using a genetic engineering technique known as directed evolution, which mimics the natural evolution processes of proteins. In a way, this process can be likened to animal husbandry; starting with the genetic information for a particular gene, they subjected it to iterative rounds of mutation, selected the ones closest to what they needed, and then used those to restart the cycle of mutation.

This way they ended up with an enzyme programmed to recognize and cut DNA on either side of the virus’ characteristic genetic sequences — an impressive feat, considering that HIV often mutates, making its signature hard to determine. The researchers identified a well-conserved sequence in the viral genetic make-up and tested how well the enzyme could cut out that sequence in bacteria, HIV-positive patients and mice infected with the human form of HIV.

After a few tweaks, Brec1 was successful in removing the information and then patching up the strands of genetic material after removal of the sequence. Examined 21 weeks later, cells treated with the enzyme showed no signs of HIV.

There have been previous attempts to create something similar to Brec1. Previous gene-snipping enzymes such as CRISPR or TALENS were effective in clearing out viral genetic material but didn’t result in a reliable cure — they also had a nasty habit of making accidental cuts elsewhere in the genome.

The debate around these enzymes has shown us that people aren’t all that thrilled of methods that alter our DNA. It’s what makes us what we are, and people are wary of the consequences of altering it. Antiretroviral methods, for all their shortcomings, don’t make people nearly as nervous.

But if Brec1 proves to be reliable — even better, infallible — in human trials as it was in this study, it’s likely that it will come at the forefront in our search for an HIV cure.

Though there are a few more questions that the team doesn’t have an answer to yet — like what will the enzyme do in cells infected with more than one strand of HIV — they plan to test Brec1 in humans in the near future.

The full paper, titled “Directed evolution of a recombinase that excises the provirus of most HIV-1 primary isolates with high specificity” has been published online in the journal Nature and is available here.

Reactions to FDA approving genetically engineered salmon

A few days ago, the FDA approved the genetic engineering of modified Atlantic salmon variety. This is the first food animal that was genetically modified that the FDA approved for human consumption and farming; the gene alteration would make it grow much faster. Public reactions have been mixed, as expected. This could be a very good move, greatly reducing the stress on wild populations, but people are always reluctant when it comes to GMOs – especially animals.


Reactions have been interesting from the scientific community as well – and generally positive. Dr. Garth Fletcher, Professor Emeritus and Head of the Department of Ocean Sciences at the Memorial University of Newfoundland hailed it as a laudable achievement:

“This approval is good news for all academic researchers interested in genetic modification of animals being bred for human consumption. The pioneering efforts of AquaBounty working with FDA regulatory authorities has demonstrated that with care, good science, and patience, innovative research in this somewhat controversial field can be taken from the laboratory bench to the market place.”

Mark Abrahams, Dean of Science & Professor, Department of Biology / Ocean Sciences, Memorial University of Newfoundland has been more circumspect, but still positive:

“In my opinion, the review process undertaken by the FDA has been extremely thorough so I think it reasonable to assume that the conclusions they have drawn and the recommendations they have made are well supported by the evidence. From that perspective there is no evidence that these fish pose a risk to human health but time will tell whether they will be accepted by consumers.”

But Dr. Anne Kapuscinski, Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College was a bit more circumspect.

“This approval shows us how the FDA will apply the drug law to more applications to farm genetically engineered salmon. More applications are coming because this first approval applies to a small farm in Panama that will barely make a dent in the global market of farmed salmon. I see incremental improvement in how the FDA applied science in the environmental assessment, but I don’t see the scientific quality required to assess many larger applications.”

Indeed, this is a valid point – what kind of a difference can this make on a global (or even regional) scale for fish populations? Perhaps even more importantly, how does that compare to the risk of the fish escaping in the wild?

“This worries me because the drug law forces the FDA to keep secret a genetically engineered animal’s environmental assessment unless the applicant wants it to be public. The environmental impact of this GE salmon approval hinges on keeping it from getting out into nature. The FDA concluded it is environmentally safe because the hatchery in Canada and farming operation in Panama have multiple, complex barriers to escape, but it will be a real challenge to scale up this approach to many and larger salmon farms. This is why my comments to the FDA urged for a quantitative analysis of possible failures in the confinement measures, which are easy to do for this application. I urged the FDA to model the scientific rigor the agency will expect in future applications. The FDA seems to have read my advice but chose to interpret it very narrowly and decided to not require a quantitative failure mode analysis.”

But perhaps the more important thing about this decision is not that it allows the development of genetically modified salmon, but that it creates a precedent. Although breeders have selectively bread their animals for centuries, this is the first time a direct genetic modification has been approved. Eric Hallerman, Professor of Fish Conservation, Virginia Tech University highlights this point:

“This approval follows extensive review of food safety and environmental safety under the authority of the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act. The action allows pilot-scale production at these specific facilities, which will be critical for quantifying the economics of production and the efficacy of confinement. Yet, the significance of the action is that it marks the first approval globally for production of genetically modified animals for purposes of food production and sale.”

But he also underlines another interesting aspect – that of labeling.

“Today’s action is significant for another reason, as FDA also announced draft guidance on the voluntary labelling of food derived from the product. Much controversy has focused on whether and how foods derived from biotechnology should be labelled. While studies have shown that salmon products derived from the AquAdvantage salmon are no different from those derived from conventional production, some consumers have argued for a ‘right to know’ how food products were produced.”


Adorable gene-edited micropigs to be sold as pets in China – and this is a problem

Chinese researchers have genetically modified pigs to grow about as big as a medium-sized dog, and they will soon go up for sale, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) announced last week. Many researchers have expressed concerns about using such advanced techniques for such frivolous purposes, and personally, I feel like this could cascade onto many other problems – despite their undeniable cuteness.

Credit: BGI

BGI in Shenzhen, the genomics institute that is famous for a series of high-profile breakthroughs in genomic sequencing, originally created the micropigs as models for human disease. Unlike rats for example, pigs have much more in common to human physiology, which makes them a much more useful model. But their large size brings along many logistic and financial problems. Bama pigs, which weigh 35–50 kilograms, have often been used in research – but Chinese researchers engineered them to get even smaller.

The animals grew up to 15 kilograms, and this made really attractive for the general public – who wanted them as dog-like pets; researchers paid attention to the public demand, and a week ago, on 23 September, at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit in China, BGI revealed that it would start selling the pigs, starting at $1600. Furthermore, in the future, customers will be offered pigs with different coat colours and patterns, which BGI says it can also genetically engineer.

But the alarm signals are already being raised.

“It’s questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly,” says geneticist Jens Boch at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. Boch helped to develop the gene-editing technique used to create the pigs, which uses enzymes known as TALENs (transcription activator-like effector nucleases) to disable certain genes.

BGI showcases its micropigs at a summit in Shenzhen, China.

The decision to sell these pigs as pets also surprised Lars Bolund, a medical geneticist at Aarhus University in Denmark who helped BGI to develop its pig gene-editing programme, and it’s easy to see where this could go extremely wrong.

First of all, micropigs will almost certainly additional medical problems, similar to pets created by selective breeding. Many pure-breed dogs and cats suffer many health conditions, and the growing consensus seems to be that pure-bred dogs should be phased out for their own good. Also, if this is done on pigs, it only seems like a matter of time before the same is done for dogs and cats.  Jeantine Lunshof, a bioethicist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts described it as “stretching physiological limits for the sole purpose of satisfying idiosyncratic aesthetic preferences of humans” – but then again, the same can be said about selective breeding. Dana Carroll, a gene-editing pioneer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, adds:

“I can certainly imagine resistance to manipulating dogs, even though all of the current breeds are the result of selective breeding by humans.”


GM labeling initiative defeated in Washington

Why the US is against GM labeling is beyond me. In the European Union, all products must clearly state if they contain or not genetically modified organisms. However, in the United States, where over 60 percent of processed foods contain a genetically altered ingredient, GM labeling is not required, and consumers remain largely unconcerned about it.

Agustín Aguilar, CIMMYT greenhouse and laboratory assistant, at work in the greenhouse that houses transgenic wheat at CIMMYT's El Batán, Mexico headquarters. In its work on drought tolerant wheat, CIMMYT is here developing lines that are homozygous for drought tolerance transgenes, requiring that they be self-pollinated for several generations. Aguilar is bagging the heads of the wheat to prevent any risk of cross-pollination.  Photo credit: Xochiquetzal Fonseca/CIMMYT.

Agustín Aguilar at work in the greenhouse that houses transgenic wheat at CIMMYT’s El Batán, Mexico headquarters. He is working on drought tolerant wheat.Aguilar is bagging the heads of the wheat to prevent any risk of cross-pollination.
Photo credit: Xochiquetzal Fonseca/CIMMYT.

Mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods in the United States has been proposed, but has never been enacted at a national, state, or even local level. We have to be realistic and understand that genetically modified organisms aren’t inherently something bad – on the contrary, they are what feed the world today. But it’s also true that people have an inherent right to know what’s in the food that they eat – that’s what I think. But that’s not what US authorities, and apparently voters, believe.

Preliminary tallies suggest Washington state voters have struck down a ballot initiative to require labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods. The vote, held two days ago, on the 5th of November (remember, remember, the 5th of November?) was the latest episode in an ongoing fight over GM labeling. However, unlike most episodes, in this one, the people actually have the power – but they turned it down. Preliminary results showed that 55 percent of all people voted against GM labeling, and even though all the votes haven’t been counted yet, it’s extremely unlike that something will change. Interestingly enouch, California voted pretty much the same way, rejecting the proposal last year.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires genetically modified labeling only if biotechnology changes the nutritional profile of the food or introduces an allergen, such as a peanut protein. Otherwise, the food is considered to be “substantially equivalent” to its non-genetically modified counterpart and doesn’t need to be labeled, and even though the FDA allows voluntary labeling, it’s easy to understand why most companies don’t do it. As a matter of fact, several food companies rely on this decision and use labels such as “GMO free” or “not genetically modified” – even though the foods are substantially modified – and the FDA is totally OK with that.

China is also having problems implementing GM labeling. Photo credit: anjuli_ayer

China is also having problems implementing GM labeling. Photo credit: anjuli_ayer

So why are so many people against labeling? Well the main argument is that it would stir unnecessary panic, implying a warning about health effects, whereas no significant differences between GE and conventional foods have been detected. The other main argument is that labeling of GE foods to fulfill the desires of some consumers would impose a cost on all consumers – and people can always just buy certified BIO products – which of course, are substantially more expensive than their counterparts.

Of course, the food companies also don’t want to do this, and they pose an immense pressure on politicians and public opinion. I don’t want to say they manipulated the population, but let’s just say they have a way of presenting things in their own light. In Europe, GM labeling is considered to be a basic right, and even some of the less developed countries do it. But in the US… things will have to wait.

Mutant mosquitoes lose desire for human scent

Mosquitoes are not only extremely annoying, but they’re some of the most lethal creatures out there, with malaria infecting over 200 million people each year. But genetically modified mosquitoes that lack some of their sense of smell cannot tell humans from other animals and no longer avoid approaching people who are slathered in bug spray. This finding, published in Nature, could help not only fight malaria, but also dengue and agricultural pests.


It may surprise you to find out that most mosquitoes, both male and female, feed on nectar and plant juices. However, in some species, the mouth parts have become specifically adapted to pierce the skin of animal hosts and suck their blood. But while most such species will feed on pretty much every animal they encounter, some, like Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that carries dengue and yellow fever, and Anopheles gambiae, which hosts the malaria parasites, are just pickier – they only like humans.

“They love everything about us,” says Leslie Vosshall, a neurobiologist at The Rockefeller University in New York, who led the latest study. “They love our beautiful body odour, they love the carbon dioxide we exhale and they love our body heat.”

While it may be good to know that no matter how down you are and how bad you feel someone will always like everything about you, it’s definitely not the kind of love you want. Vosshall’s team genetically engineered A. aegypti mosquitoes to lack a gene called orco which makes a protein that helps build the receptor molecules that sense many smells. When they were deprived of this gene, they struggled to distinguish not only humans from animals, but even honey from glycerol (an odorless liquid of similar consistency).

“It’s sort of like a game show where the mosquitoes are released into a box and we ask them to choose door number one, where there’s a human arm, or door number two, where there are our beloved guinea pigs,” says Vosshall.

The genetically engineered mosquitoes were also not able to sense insect repellant, landing on sprayed humans without hesitation; however, upon landing, they immediately flew away, suggesting that they can’t smell the repellant, but they still detect it by touch. Vosshall’s team is now trying to work out which other sensations repel mosquitoes.

“It’s unbelievable to me that people have been spraying DEET [repellant] on skin for upwards of 60 years. We don’t have any clear idea of how or why it works, and that as a scientist just drives me crazy,” she says.

That’s right, we’ve been spraying a product on ourselves for more than half a century without having any idea on how or why it works. So how does DEET work? Laurence Zwiebel, a molecular entomologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, says that Vosshall’s study shows that DEET does not work by simply blocking the smells that are conveyed by Orco, because mosquitoes without the gene are still attracted to humans. Instead, he suggests, it’s much more likely that the repellant jams the mosquitoes sensory system.

“We all know being in a room with too much sensory stimulation is pretty aversive.”

There have been significant efforts towards eliminating these species of mosquitoes altogether, and some studies have even shown that ecosystems wouldn’t be significantly altered if this would happen. But Vosshall is not an adept of this idea – nor is Zwiebel.

“We’re not looking to kill these insects, per se, we just want them to feed on something else,” Zwiebel Concludes.

Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2013.13089

Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a green alga used widely in biology laboratories, can produce many kinds of “designer proteins.”

Algae produce 3-D, complex proteins used for cheap, yet effective anti-cancer treatment

Scientists at UC San Diego have finally collected the fruits of their decade-long labor after they managed to genetically engineered algae that can produce complex antibiotics that prevent cancer, otherwise extremely expensive to develop in laboratories. Cheaper treatment would thus be possible, that’s not only limited to cancer, but a slew of other afflictions otherwise treatable would expensive designer-drugs.

Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a green alga used widely in biology laboratories, can produce many kinds of “designer proteins.”

Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a green alga used widely in biology laboratories, can produce many kinds of “designer proteins.” (c) UCSD

Typically, complex and foldable proteins are typically made from mammalian cells or bacteria in a complex, two-step process by first developing the antibody domain in the cells, then purifying them. Then again the purified cells are then chemically attached to a toxin outside of the cell, before being yet again re-purified.

“Because we can make the exact same drug in algae, we have the opportunity to drive down the price down dramatically,” said Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at UC San Diego and director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology (SD-CAB), a consortium of research institutions that is also working to develop new biofuels from algae.

The researchers used Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a green alga used widely in biology laboratories as a genetic model organism, to produce a range of therapeutic, complex therapeutic proteins. These were produced using two domains -— one of which contains an antibody, which can home in on and attach to a cancer cell and another domain that contains a toxin that kills the bound cancer cells. The team struck gold in May of this year when they engineered algae to produce an even more complex protein – one they used to create a vaccine that could protect billions of people from malaria.

“What the development of the malarial vaccine showed us was that algae could produce proteins that were really complex structures, containing lots of disulfide bonds that would still fold into the correct three-dimensional structures,” said Mayfield. “Antibodies were the first sophisticated proteins we made. But the malarial vaccine is complex, with disulfide bonds that are pretty unusual. So once we made that, we were convinced we could make just about anything in algae.”

Check the fusion protein described in greater detail by this UCSD video below.

If the researchers could make the protein necessary for the malaria vaccine, then they can do just about anything. But they don’t want to stop here. They’re looking to develop even more complex proteins, impossible to find in nature, for various uses.

“Can we string together four or five domains and produce a designer protein in algae with multiple functions that doesn’t exist in nature? I think we can?” he added. “Suppose I want to couple a receptor protein with a series of activator proteins so that I could stimulate bone production or the production of neurons? At some point you can start thinking about medicine the same way we think about assembling a computer, combining different modules with specific purposes. We can produce a protein that has one domain that targets the kind of cell you want to impact, and another domain that specifies what you want the cell to do.”

The research project was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and The Skaggs Family Foundation.

source: UCSD


Pina colada pineapple coconut flavored

Coconut-flavored pineapple engineered by scientists

Pina colada pineapple coconut flavored

Some scientists alter genes and breed glow in the dark puppies, others breed pineapples that also taste like coconut, like Australian horticulturalists at Queensland’s department of agriculture.

The fruit of their 10 years labor of love was quickly dubbed the “piña colada pineapple” by the press, since it tastes like the two main ingredients of the famous beverage. What’s remarkable is that the scientists reached this unique flavor by mistake.

Queensland, Australia produces more than 80,000 tons of pineapples a year, still the country imports a lot more because of competing imports that are cheaper and tastier. Commissioned by the government to breed a new generation of pineapples that are sweeter and easier to grow, the horticulturalists ended up with a unique blend that far exceeded their expectations.

“When we are doing the breeding, we are not actually looking for a coconut-flavored pineapple or any other particular flavor,” said Garth Sanewski, a senior horticulturalist at Queensland’s department of agriculture. All in all, they embraced it. He adds, “It’s sweet, low acid, very juicy. It has this lovely coconut flavor which you won’t find in any other pineapple in Australia.”

The coconut flavored pineapple could first ship across the world in as early as two years, according to Australian officials. Rather disappointingly, the new fruit carries the official name of AusFestival. I have a feeling the name won’t last too much, though. For me and most other people this is clearly the piña colada pineapple.

via Gizmodo

SPA Genetic Mapping: Model-based mapping convergence with random initialization. Colors represent the true country of origin of the individual (also represented by country internet code). (a–d) A map generated by SPA. Iteration 1 starts with random positioning of individuals (a). By iteration 4, the northern and southern populations are separated (b). By iteration 7, the positioning of individuals is close to convergence (c). In iteration 10, individuals have reached their final positions (d). (e) A map generated by PCA9. (f) Map of Europe.

Spatial genetic method can pinpoint an individual’s geographic origin

Genetic diversity is what keeps species evolving, helps them tackle diseases and is a prime pre-requisite for natural selection. Understanding genetic diversity is imperitive for scientists in the field, whether it’s about identifying associations between genetic variants and diseases or highlighting interesting aspects of human population history. One of these aspects is geographical location.

Remarkably, an international team of scientists comprised of researchers from UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Israel’s Tel Aviv University have successfully and quite accurately managed to pinpoint the geographical origin of an individual on the basis of their genetic information alone.

SPA Genetic Mapping: Model-based mapping convergence with random initialization. Colors represent the true country of origin of the individual (also represented by country internet code). (a–d) A map generated by SPA. Iteration 1 starts with random positioning of individuals (a). By iteration 4, the northern and southern populations are separated (b). By iteration 7, the positioning of individuals is close to convergence (c). In iteration 10, individuals have reached their final positions (d). (e) A map generated by PCA9. (f) Map of Europe.

SPA Genetic Mapping: Model-based mapping convergence with random initialization. Colors represent the true country of origin of the individual (also represented by country internet code). (a–d) A map generated by SPA. Iteration 1 starts with random positioning of individuals (a). By iteration 4, the northern and southern populations are separated (b). By iteration 7, the positioning of individuals is close to convergence (c). In iteration 10, individuals have reached their final positions (d). (e) A map generated by PCA9. (f) Map of Europe.

To achieve this, the scientists developed a radical approach to the study of genetic diversity called spatial ancestry analysis (SPA), which allows for the modeling of genetic variation in two- or three-dimensional space. Using this novel method,  researchers can model the spatial distribution of each genetic variant by assigning a genetic variant’s frequency as a continuous function in geographic space. Genetic variant frequency relates to  the proportion of individuals who carry a specific variant (change in the chemical structure of a gene).

“If we know from where each individual in our study originated, what we observe is that some variation is more common in one part of the world and less common in another part of the world,” said Eleazar Eskin, an associate professor of computer science at UCLA Engineering. “How common these variants are in a specific location changes gradually as the location changes.

“In this study, we think of the frequency of variation as being defined by a specific location. This gives us a different way to think about populations, which are usually thought of as being discrete. Instead, we think about the variant frequencies changing in different locations. If you think about a person’s ancestry, it is no longer about being from a specific population — but instead, each person’s ancestry is defined by the location they’re from. Now ancestry is a continuum.”

That’s not to say that the method can tell you where you’re from simply based on your DNA; it’s based on a probabilistic model after all, but it’s still surprisingly accurate. The scientists involved in the study believe the method could be used to infer geographic origins for each individual using only their genetic data with surprising accuracy. “Existing approaches falter when it comes to this task,” said UCLA’s John Novembre, an assistant professor in the department of ecology and evolution.

SPA is also able to model genetic variation on a globe.

“We are able to also show how to predict the spatial structure of worldwide populations,” said Eskin, who also holds a joint appointment in the department of human genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “In just taking genetic information from populations from all over the world, we’re able to reconstruct the topology of the global populations only from their genetic information.”

Funding for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. The findings were presented in the journal Nature Genetics.

source: SciGuru

Biotech Crops Farming Countries 2011

Genetically engineered crops reach 11.5% of the total arable land

The first genetically engineered or biotech food products were released on the market for the first time in 1994. Consumers received them fairly well, and since then more production intensified, such that between 1997 and 2010, the total surface area of land cultivated with GMOs had increased by a factor of 87. In 2011, biotech crops reached 160 million hectares, up 12 million hectares on 8% growth, from 2010.

Last year, on October 31st the global population reached the historical milestone of 7 billion, spurring great concern to governments and common folk alike. The problem is there isn’t currently enough food to feed the whole world. It is believed more than one billion people around the world live in poverty and suffer from hunger, and that by 2050 the world would need 70% more food.

A lot of criticism has been circulating around biotech crops, citing ecological issues, health hazards and even economic concern, since it disrupts markets where conventional crops are dealt. I’m not the keenest supporter myself, but when faced with the numbers and harsh reality, the truth is biotech crops might be the only solution we have to the global hunger crisis.

Genetically engineered food have specific treats or changes introduces that provide a series of improvements in crops, like substantial increase in productivity, protection from pests, weeds, diseases, as well as quality in many cases (a few examples: enhanced Vitamin A in rice, soybean free of trans-fat and reduced saturated fat, omega-3 rich soybean).

Between 1996 and 2010, the environment had a lot to benefit from biotech crops as 443 million kilograms (kgs) of pesticide active ingredient were saved, translating in a 9.1% reduction in worldwide pesticide use in this time frame. In 2010 alone CO2 emissions have been reduced by 19 billion kgs – the equivalent of taking ~9 million cars off the road. Some 16.7 million farmers are currently employed in the production of GE crops, up 1.3 million from 2010. The total industry is currently valued at US$78 billion.

Biotech Crops Farming Countries 2011

In total, today 11.5% of the total arable land (1.38 billion hectares) or 3.3% of all agricultural land (4.88 billion hectares) is used for biotech crops – this translated in a huge potential for even further development.The leading biotech crops producer is the US with 69 million hectares. Developing countries grew close to 50% (49.875%) of global biotech crops in 2011 and for the first time are expected to exceed industrial countries hectarage in 2012. Of these, the five lead developing countries in biotech crops are China and India in Asia, Brazil and Argentina in Latin America, and South Africa on the continent of Africa, which collectively grew 71.4 million hectares (44% of global) and together represent ~40% of the global population of 7 billion.

In 2001, the world society gathered and made a pledged, now known as the Millennium Development Goal (MDG), to cut down poverty by 50% until 2015. Poverty in the developing country was at 46% of the population in 1990, while in 2005 it decreased to 27%. Substantial improvements might come once with the introduction of the new generation of biotech crops like drought tolerant maize planned for release in North America in 2013, biotech maize in China, Golden Rice (biotech genetically-modified rice that contains enhanced levels of beta carotene) in the Philippines in 2013/2014, a new biotech potato named “Fortuna” resistant to late blight (responsible for production losses of $7.5 billon worldwide).

Much more in in depth information can be found at the ISAA.

Scientists engineer ‘super mice’

Scientists from the École Polytenchnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), with the aid of colleagues  from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the University of Lausanne, managed to improve the muscle constitution of mice by knocking out genetically a “co-repressor” of the DNA transcription process. The end product are mice that are faster, stronger and healthier – meet the new generation of super mice!

The researchers reduced the expression of a nuclear receptor corepressor (NCoR1) in the muscles tissue, which lead to increased muscle mass, enhanced exercise performance and increased oxidative capacity. When NCoR1 is reduced, several transcription factors that regular muscle functions are activated.

“There are now ways to develop drugs for people who are unable to exercise due to obesity or other health complications, such as diabetes, immobility and frailty,” says Ronald M. Evans, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory, who led the Salk team. “We can now engineer specific gene networks in muscle to give the benefits of exercise to sedentary mice.”

The genetically engineered mice proved to be genuine marathonists, running a lot faster and longer than normal mice; in fact, the super mice proved that they could run twice as much. That’s not all either, they also exhibited better cold tolerance too. Also, although the corpulence of the mice being studied was fundamentally changed,  no weight-related diseases have been induced. “The specimens that became obese via this treatment did not suffer from diabetes, unlike mice who become obese for other reasons,” notes  EPFL professor Johan Auwerx, who lead the research.  So far no side effects have been observed.

Check out the video below which perfectly illustrates the researchers’ work and results. World Radio Switzerland also has an audio interview with professor Auwerx on their website.

Unlike previous experiments that focused on “genetic accelerators” this work shows that suppressing an inhibitor is a new way to build muscle. Examination under a microscope confirmed that the muscle fibers of the modified mice are denser, the muscles are more massive, and the cells in the tissue contain higher numbers of mitochondria —- cellular organelles that deliver energy to the muscles.

The results rendered by mice were replicated with the same remarkable results in nematodes C. elegans, hinting that it might be an evolutionary conserved mechanism.

Scientists believe the research, which was recently published in the journal Cell, are a great leap forward towards better understanding the complicated mechanisms of living organisms, in particular the little-studied roles of corepressors.

 “This could be used to combat muscle weakness in the elderly, which leads to falls and contributes to hospitalizations,” emphasizes Auwerx. “In addition, we think that this could be used as a basis for developing a treatment for genetic muscular dystrophy.”

What about those universal soldiers projects? Super mice, super soldiers, super toasters. Still, I find all of this genuinely super.


Enzyme allows mice to eat more, and gain less weight

Mice altered to express the IKKbeta enzyme (right column) in their fat had smaller globules of fat in their subcutaneous adipose tissue (top row) and in their liver (bottom row) than normal mice (left column). (Credit: Xu Lab)

Scientists have genetically engineered mice able to express a certain enzyme, which allows for an increased metabolic rate. The lab mice infussed with this enzyme in their fat tissue were able to eat more, but gain far less weight than their naturally bred brethren.

It’s generally acknowledged that obesity and inflammation cause insulin resistance, however it’s not perfectly understood why this happens. Embarking on a research that seeks to clarify how obesity and inflammation affect insulin resistance, Brown University researchers changed the sequence of events for transgenically engineered mice by inducing inflammation via the IKKbeta enzyme in their fatty tissue before they were obese.

They then procedeed in administrating a fatty diet to two groups of mice, one altered, the other natural, with all mice starting at the same weight. They observed that 22 weeks on a high-fat diet, however, altered male mice weighed less than 38 grams while unaltered male mice weighed more than 45 grams. After switching to a less fatty diet, the weight differences between the two groups weren’t as evident, however they remained statistically significant.

“Turning on this molecule has a very dramatic impact on lipid metabolism,” says Haiyan Xu, assistant professor of medicine at Brown University and corresponding author of a paper describing the research published online in the journal Endocrinology.

The altered mice not only managed to eat more and gain less weight, but due to their accelerated metabolism, researchers could observe they had lower sugar levels in their blood, after a glucose shot, than those of the control mice. An insulin shot was also administered, and researchers also remarkably observed how insulin was more effective.

Scientists are now trying to figure out the mechanisms through which IKKbeta enzyme can increase metabolic performance. One thing’s for certain for the researchers responsible for the study: obesity and inflammation are both promoters of insulin resistance, and obesity seems to be the worse one, Xu says. “Lower body weight is always a beneficial thing for influencing insulin sensitivity. Reduced adiposity wins over increased inflammation.”


Glowing dog

Scientists genetically engineer glowing dog

In what’s maybe the most startling research I’ve been granted to read about recently, scientists from South Korea at Seoul National University, home to the world’s only strictly genetic engineering curricula, have successfully created a dog that can glow in the dark.

The genetically modified female beagle, named Tegon, was born in 2009 using a cloning technique which could help find cures for human diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Far from being a twisted joke, the whole experience can be marked as practice. By inserting genes into dogs that cause human illnesses and then swithiching these on and off, researchers are able to study them and come up with cures.

Glowing dog

(c) Genesis

The dog’s remarkable translucent ability was rendered possible after the South Korean scientists added eGFP (enhanced green flourescent protein) to the nucleus of a cell and placing it inside of an egg. The researchers, who completed a two-year test, said the ability to glow can be turned on or off by adding a drug to the dog’s food, called doxycycline.

“The creation of Tegon opens new horizons since the gene injected to make the dog glow can be substituted with genes that trigger fatal human diseases,” lead researcher Lee Byeong-chun said.

The same somatic cell nuclear transfer technology, which was used to create Tegon, was employed for the creation of Snoopy, the first cloned dog, in 2005 at the same university. Two years ago, the same scientists, produced Ruby Puppy, or Ruppy, a red-fluorescent-glowing dog.

The whole $3 million study can be read in detail at Genesis, the Journal of Genetics and Development.


Gene therapy for Parkinson disease boasts remarkable results

While gene-therapy is still regarded as a very innovative practice, it seems like the procedure might take traction as of today when remarkable results were concluded after the first successful double-blind gene therapy for Parkinson disease. In the case of this dreadful disease, medical researchers injected patients with a a gene that codes for glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD), an enzyme that catalyses production of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Usually Parkinson patients produce too little GABA in their brains, and as a result overstimulation in an area of the brain called the subthalamic nucleus occurs, which in turn inhibits dopamine secretion, which is vital for movement. This is why Parkinson patients are described as having tremors, sluggish movements, rigid muscles and impaired posture and balance.

Andrew Feigin of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York, and colleagues conducted a double-blind test for GAD gene-therapy on a group of 65 patients. In this particular case, double-blind test refers to the fact that patients were grouped into patients who received a placebo surgery (a simple saline solution injected in the back of the skull) and those receiving real surgery (the skull was drilled and a virus containing the GAD gene was injected). Neither patients, nor researchers knew who was given a placebo or not when test results came in, apart from the surgeons – hence the double-blind test.

In the trial, 22 Parkinson’s patients had a gene inserted in their brains to produce more GABA, while twenty-three patients received the placebo. Six months later, researchers analyzed the results and came up with something remarkable – gene therapy patients showed improvements in their motor functions of 23.1 per cent, while also remarkably interesting those who were given a sham procedure scored an improved of  just 12.7 per cent.  The researchers rated the patients’ symptoms, including the severity of tremors and stiffness, and came up with a single “motor score” that represented how well they could move.

The treatment is intended for a subgroup of Parkinson’s patients — those who do not respond to medication very well. Of the 1 million to 1.5 million Americans with Parkinson’s, about 10 to 15 percent of them, or 100,000 to 200,000 people, fit into this category, said study researcher Dr. Michael Kaplitt, vice chairman for research in the Department of Neurological Surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

The therapy came just in time for Dr. Walter Liskiewicz, 60, a Jackson oral surgeon so disabled with Parkinson’s that he could not walk before his July 2009 procedure.Now, he not only walks with a cane but he’s back playing a harmonica and writing smooth jazz.

The study “brings us much closer to having a gene therapy that might be ready for general use,” Kaplitt said. The work paves the way for gene therapies for other types of brain diseases, he said. “I think we are now helping to facilitate and to accelerate the development of a whole host of gene therapies … for diseases such as Alzheimer‘s disease, epilepsy [and] depression,” he said.

The results are indeed very satisfying, but since the actual procedure was made only on 22 Parkinson patients, further investigation is required.

image via knowabouthealth.com

What Is Genetic Engineering



So according to Wikipedia, genetic engineering involves the isolation, manipulation and reintroduction of DNA into cells or model organisms, usually to express a protein to reach desired effects. The aim is to introduce new characteristics or attributes physiologically or physically, such as making a crop resistant to a herbicide, introducing a novel trait, enhancing existing ones, or producing a new protein or enzyme. So basically it is a genetic trick to make plants or animals or even umans adapt to the needs we have. It is say a way of tricking mother nature. What happens in it is that there is a set of technologies which is being used for changing the genetic makeup of cells and moving the genes across species boundaries to produce novel organisms. It is a very hard task and it involves genetic material and other biologically important chemicals.

This could happen in nature. A brown dog is bred with a white dog and you may get a puppy who has a totally different colour. But the colour range is limited and the odds are it resembles brown and white. For getting a purple puppy you have to breed toward one only if the necessary purple genes were available somewhere in a dog or at least a near relative to dogs. Ideally (though this is not the case so far), a genetic scientist has no such problems. He can take the gene which makes purple from a sea urchin or just a purple flower and use it and he could insert it and achieve the needed colour. But purple puppies fun as they may be are not of any real use and so there are other, more serious uses for genetic engineering.

The uses are practically unlimited. You can cure illnesses and conditions which are very dangerous. Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, and arthritis are easier to treat with genetic engineering. Also the food problem in some countries has been solved or at least postponed thanlks to it. n fact, about 60 percent of our food has some sort of biotechnology in it; that is not necesarily good. By taking traits from one organism and putting it into a food it can last longer, taste better, and grow faster and larger. It can also be designed to be more immune to certain diseases. Many industrial branches are using bacteria to produce chemicals and also many other uses. But there are risk. The food could be altered or it could lack vitamins. When used careless it could do more damage than good with certain diseases. But hopefuly people are going to learn how to control this type of technology and use it to aid mankind.