Week in Review: November 10–14

Funding for African science; microbiome studies may have contamination worries; mind-controlled gene expression; DNA record keeper

By | November 14, 2014

Funding for African research in limbo

FLICKR, NICOLAS RAYMONDAs governments around the world devote money and resources to the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, researchers wonder whether the epidemic will draw funds away from other research programs, or raise awareness and bring in greater funding for African science in general. Many, of course, hope for the latter. Timely responses to these diseases require “top quality scientists and top-quality infrastructure,” Ambrose Talisuna, senior research fellow at the Kemri-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya and head of malaria drug resistance surveillance for East Africa, told The Scientist. “[Donors and governments] should fund these institutions; not just for research but to train quality scientists in Africa.”

What’s in your DNA extraction kit?

FLICKR, CIMMYTLow-level contamination of bacterial DNA is widespread in common DNA extraction kits, according to a study published this week (November 11) in BMC Biology. Any number of contaminating taxa can overpower the true microbial composition of the sample, if starting concentrations are low, the researchers found. “The assumption has been they are sterile,” coauthor Alan Walker of the University of Aberdeen told The Scientist. “What [researchers] need to do is go back and do some negative controls and with a bit of confidence say, ‘they really are in the samples,’ in cases where maybe there are potentially suspicious results.”

Mind-controlled gene expression

WIKIPEDIA, RAMAEEG readings from a sensor fixed to human participants’ foreheads can be translated into signals that trigger gene expression in cells implanted beneath mice’s skin. The electrical energy of a person’s thoughts triggered an infrared LED diode to activate light-inducible genes in the implant. In response to the EEG signal, a surface transmitted the signal to a receiver that powered the infrared LED diode, prompting the genes within the implanted cells to be transcribed and translated into proteins that entered the mouse’s circulation. The technique was described this week (November 11) in Nature Communications.

“It sounds so futuristic and almost mad-scientist-like, but there might be diseases we could control . . .  depending on the state of an individual’s mind,” said synthetic biologist Matthew Bennett of Rice University in Texas who was not involved with the study.

Recording with DNA

MOJTABA AMINResearchers this week (November 13) describe a new DNA editing system that can be triggered by exposure to chemicals or light. Called SCRIBE, for Synthetic Cellular Recorders Integrating Biological Events, the system targets specific DNA throughout the bacterial genome to mark when certain environmental events have taken place. The researchers, led by MIT’s Timothy Lu, published their work this week in Science.

“I think it’s pretty complicated, to some extent,” said Sri Kosuri, a synthetic biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Not everyone is going to use this as their reporter right away, but I thought it was a pretty impressive piece of work.”

Other news in life science:

How a Memory Is Made

Transcription factor levels dictate which neurons in a network store a memory.

Circular Chromosomes Straightened

A newly described method linearizes circular chromosomes in yeast and caps them with telomeres to mimic natural chromosomes.

When Males Kill Young

Many social factors contributed to the evolution of male infanticide in mammal societies.

Chronic Weed Use Shrinks Brain Region

Long-term marijuana smokers have less gray matter in their orbitofrontal cortex than nonsmokers, but other brain circuits may compensate by increasing connectivity.

Seismologists Cleared of Manslaughter

Six Italian earthquake advisors, charged with manslaughter for not sounding the alarm on a 2009 temblor, had their convictions overturned.

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