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Week in Review: June 3–7

Crowdsourcing biomedical research; bird flu contagion?; zebrafish shed light on inherited muscle disorder; the economics of the Human Genome Project; the epigenetics of pair bonding

By | June 7, 2013

Computation challenges spark collaboration

WIKIMEDIA, W.REBELSeveral open-source biomedical challenges are pitting groups of researchers against each other in the name of science. The Big Data computational challenges, for example, hosted by Sage Bionetworks and DREAM (Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessments and Methods), are sharing genomic and clinical data, from which researchers are devising models to predict outcome and survival. The models, which are also shared among challenge contestants, are then vetted against real-life survival data and scored based on the accuracy of their predictions.

“A tsunami of omics data have shown us that many diseases we thought were quite simple are increasingly complex with multiple sub-types,” Sage-cofounder Stephen Friend told The Scientist. “Meshing these data with clinical outcomes to develop predictors of who is likely to respond to therapy or who is likely to have aggressive disease is an audaciously large problem that necessitates working off of each other's insights. This just simply cannot be done by one lone scientist.”

Mutations could make bird flu contagious

WIKIPEDIA, M EICKMANNStructural analyses of current strains of H5N1 and H7N9 avian influenza suggest that just one mutation could be enough to render the viruses transmissible between humans. Though there have been no definitive cases of human-to-human transmission yet, the deadly nature of infections acquired from birds has many fearing a possible pandemic. Understanding how the viruses might evolve to become contagious should help public health officials prepare for such an outbreak.

“These viruses are rapidly evolving and our stockpiles of vaccine are largely based on outdated strains,” said Ram Sasisekharan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who led the study. “We hope that our discoveries will help us to stay ahead of the curve by ensuring that vaccines are stockpiled against strains that are closest to adapting to humans.”

Clues about muscle disease

WIKIPEDIA, JAGIELLONIANStudying zebrafish, University of Michigan researchers have uncovered a gene, called Stac3, that appears to be the cause of a rare inherited muscle disorder called Native American myopathy (NAM). Zebrafish with mutations in Stac3 didn’t exhibit the normal tail twitch response to being prodded, never coiled and uncoiled their bodies as the fish normally do, and typically died as larvae. The team recognized that the human version of the gene, called STAC3, has previously been linked to Native American myopathy (NAM), a genetic disease characterized by weak muscles and shortened joints. Sequencing five NAM patients and 13 healthy relatives, the researchers found that people with the disorder carry a single STAC3 mutation that, when introduced into zebrafish, mirrored the disease.

“The idea that the human counterpart may be an important disease gene was always at the back of our minds, especially since there are many muscle diseases with unknown [causes],” University of Michigan researcher John Kuwada, who led the study, told The Scientist.

Does Big Science really pay?

FLICKR, TONY KENNICKJohn Morrow, CEO of Newport Biotech Consultants, argues that the Human Genome Project (HGP) did not generate the sizable return on investment estimated by analysts. Specifically, as President Barack Obama cited in his State of Union address in February, the Battelle Institute has calculated that the $3.8 billion investment on the HGP generated an impressive $796 billion torrent of rewards, along with 310,000 jobs. “Although one can’t dispute the contribution of the human genome data to various areas of basic research, I would challenge the examples that the authors use to buttress their arguments,” Morrow writes. “Many of those discoveries were accomplished years before even the rough copy of the HGP was available in 2000. Indeed, there were products and therapeutics in the marketplace well in advance of the publication of the HGP.”

Understanding the economics is critical, Morrow says, as the government gears up for its recently announced, $100 million BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, which some have said could reap a similar return on investment as the HGP.

Epigenetics help prairie voles bond

ZUOXIN WANGLifelong monogamy between prairie vole partners may be attributable to epigenetic modifications. Specifically the acetylation of histones in the brain near the promoter regions of genes encoding receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin, molecules that have previously been associated with prairie vole pair-bonding, could underlie the species’ lasting mate choice, according to a paper published this week in Nature Neuroscience.

“It’s the first time anyone’s shown any epigenetic basis for partner preference,” said Jeremy Day, a neuroepigeneticist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who was not involved in the study. And there are likely numerous other genetic modification involved in pair-bonding, he added. “I think this is probably just the tip of the iceberg as far as which modifications are involved.”

Other news in life science:

Fossil Sheds Light on Early Primates

The ancient remains of a tiny primate suggest it likely ate insects, lived in trees, and weighed less than an ounce.

Hottest Research of 2012 Revealed

Analysis of citation data from last year suggests that genomics is still the most influential field of research.  

Health Budget Distress

The National Institutes of Health has released a fact sheet on its budget pain following the sequester.

Mammoth Blood Gives Hope for Cloning?

Some question the supposition that viable cells and DNA will be found in a remarkably preserved carcass, purported to harbor fresh muscle tissue and flowing blood.

Snapshots of Shifting Bonds

Researchers use atomic force microscopy to produce stunning images of a molecule reconfiguring its atomic bonds. 

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