Week in Review: August 15–19

Hacking the E. coli genome; massive exome data set analyzed; an improved RNA-amplifying ribozyme; pesticide exposure associated with bee declines; Zika infects adult neural progenitor cells 

Aug 19, 2016
Tracy Vence

Recoded genome

Harvard University’s George Church and colleagues have designed a recoded E. coli genome, which they’ve partially synthesized in the lab. The genome contains just 57 codons instead of the normal 64. The team’s results were published in Science this week (August 18).

“We created something that really pushes the limit of genomes,” study coauthor Nili Ostrov of Harvard told The Scientist. Church added: “It’s arguably the largest and most radical genome engineering project.”

“It is a bit surprising to see how plastic the genome could be,” University of Edinburgh synthetic biologist Patrick Cai, who was not involved with the work, wrote in an email. “It is also very exciting to see [that] technologies such as computational design, de novo synthesis and assembly, as well as a range of phenotyping assays are now mature to support genome refactoring at this scale.”

Exome data analysis

Members of the Exome Aggregation Consortium (ExAC) and scientists who used the group’s data published their analyses of information from the largest repository of human genetic variation to date.

“The important part of the work is the large number of [exomes],” said Stephen Scherer from the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto, Canada, who was not involved in the work told The Scientist in an email. “This is good data that research and clinical communities can use in different ways.”

“This is the deepest anyone has gone for any substantial part of the [human] genome,” said Jay Shendure of the University of Washington in Seattle who was also not involved in the research.

RNA-amplifying ribozyme

Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, have used in vitro evolution to produce an RNA polymerase ribozyme that can synthesize functional RNAs and amplify short RNA templates. Their results were published in PNAS this week (August 15).

“It’s really beautiful work and a major step towards the realization of RNA self-replication,” Philipp Holliger of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, U.K., who was not involved in the work wrote in an email to The Scientist.

Pesticide problem

In an 18-year field study, scientists from the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and Fera Science Limited have identified an association between declines in populations of wild bee species and neonicotinoid pesticide use in fields of oilseed rape. The team’s findings appeared in Nature Communications this week (August 16).

“Taken as a whole, the paper provides the best evidence I’ve seen to indicate that neonicotinoids applied to oilseed rape have had a measurable impact on the distributions of wild bee species that feed on the crop,” Bill Kunin, an ecologist at the University of Leeds who was not involved in the work, wrote in an email.

Other news in life science:

US Government: Zika in Puerto Rico a Public Health Emergency
Local officials can now apply for additional federal funding to help slow the spread of Zika virus.

Zika Update
More local transmission within the U.S.; babies born with costly birth defects; virus persists in a patient’s semen for six months

Zika Infects Adults Neural Progenitors Too
A mouse study shows that the virus has tropism for adult proliferative neural progenitor cells and immature neurons.

UK Government Guarantees EU Funding
British scientists will continue to receive grants from the European Union, including its flagship program Horizon 2020.

Student Alleges His Team Didn’t Earn CRISPR Patent
A former researcher at the Broad Institute has suggested the University of California, Berkeley, team deserves credit for inventing the gene-editing technique.

Exploring Alternative Codon Usage in Yeast
Newly discovered amino acid reassignment could have implications for certain biotech applications and RNA-based evolutionary theories.