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Week in Review: April 21–25

Evolution of Y chromosome; delivering gene with “bionic ears”; diversity of an important cyanobacterium; charting genome-sequencing progress; blockbuster pharma deals

By | April 25, 2014

Y chromosome genes persist

WIKIMEDIA, ARCHAEOGENETICSTwo independent teams have uncovered evidence to suggest that a core set of Y chromosome genes are critical not just for sex determination, but also for transcription, translation, and other regulatory functions throughout the genome. Their work was published in Nature this week (April 23).

In the face of lingering theories that the Y chromosome is on its way to extinction, these papers provide “a tremendous rational for why these genes have been retained,” said geneticist Carlos Bustamante of Stanford Medical School, who was not involved in the work.

Boosting “bionic ears”

UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALESResearchers have long sought to deliver brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to the cochlea to stimulate neuronal growth and treat hearing loss. Now, a team from the University of New South Wales has come up with a new solution—loading up cochlear implants with BDNF before surgery. Once implanted, the devices deliver the gene locally via brief electric bursts. The team’s work was published in Science Translational Medicine this week (April 23).

“Using BDNF to grow spiral ganglion cell neurites toward electrodes is an old idea (yet still an important one), but the use of the electrode array to focus targeted gene therapy as described is highly innovative,” Jay Rubinstein from the University of Washington, who was not involved in the work, told The Scientist in an e-mail.

Genomically diverse ocean microbe

MIT, CARLY SANKERExamining the high-light–adapted strain of the cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus, scientists from MIT and their colleagues unearthed high diversity within individual genomes.

“What was also surprising here was the diversity in the core genome, that [the bacteria] have different alleles,” said the study’s lead author Sallie Chisholm. “This covariation between the core alleles and flexible gene content, and its fine scale resolution, represents a new dimension of microdiversity within wild Prochlorococcus populations,” she and her colleagues wrote in their report, published this week (April 24) in Science.

How many species have been sequenced?

WIKIMEDIAThe Scientist scans the tree of life, searching for gaps in genome sequencing data, as various consortia begin to  pool data and develop collaborative analysis and storage solutions. As more and more species are sequenced, said Igor Grigoriev, head of the fungal genomics program at the US Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Insitute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, California, crosstalk among sequencing communities will enable scientists “to ask broader scientific questions across the domains of life.”

“Many computational scientists and bioinformaticians are working alongside biologists to analyze and organize the sequencing data. This is a major challenge but I have a lot of optimism because there is plenty of innovation and energy in this field,” Klaus Peter Koepli, one of the principle investigators of the Genome 10K project and visiting scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., told The Scientist. “There are many obstacles to reconstructing the phylogeny of all living things, but it’s a great goal.”

More news:

Does Brain Training Work?
Experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of games that claim to improve cognitive function.

Other news in life science:

New Resubmission Policy at NIH
The National Institutes of Health is now allowing grant applicants to resubmit unsuccessful proposals as new.

Females in Charge
Insects in Brazil go beyond simple behavioral sex-role reversal. In these animals, the females use an erectile organ to penetrate the male’s genital chamber.

Adult-to-Stem Cells
An international team has created human embryonic stem cells from adult skin cells for the first time.

Researchers Question Tamiflu Review
Critics claim updated analysis of antiviral medication was statistically weak and based on unreliable randomized clinical trial data.

Money Microbiome
Swabbing cash circulating in New York City reveals more than 3,000 different types of bacteria.

News of interest elsewhere:

Thanks to a law passed this week (April 23), Vermont is the first state to require that foods containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients be labeled as such, The New York Times reported.

The pharmaceutical sector has had a roller coaster year already, and this week was especially jarring, as industry giants announced massive asset-swapping and acquisition deals. In order to focus on HIV drug development, vaccines, and consumer-health products, drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) withdrew itself from oncology research and development when it sold its cancer-drug unit to Novartis. In return, Novartis sold its vaccine division to GSK. Altogether, GSK and Novartis traded more than $20 billion worth of assets. In addition, Eli Lilly acquired Novartis’s animal health division. According to Reuters, “such swapping of assets is rare in any sector, yet it can make a lot of sense where companies are committed to playing to their strengths by building up certain businesses and divesting others, while avoiding the pitfalls of large-scale mergers.”

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