Week in Review: February 27–March 3

Remembering Eugene Garfield; protecting citizens from their own genes; a suicide switch for stem cells; storing movies on DNA; sterilizing insects with Wolbachia

Mar 3, 2017
Joshua A. Krisch

A tribute to our founder

Eugene Garfield, scientometrics pioneer and founder of The Scientist, died on February 26 at age 91. Garfield earned a PhD in structural linguistics. He created the journal impact factor as well as the Science Citation Index, solidifying his legacy as the father of modern scientometrics.

“Eugene Garfield established The Scientist as a ‘labor of love,’” said The Scientist’s Editor in Chief Mary Beth Aberlin. “More than 30 years later, it is an honor to carry on his legacy.”

See “TS Picks: Remembering Eugene Garfield

DNA discrimination?

In the U.S., under the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it should be illegal for health insurers to deny coverage or raise premiums due to genetic testing results. But are some people still falling through the cracks, and facing genetic insurance discrimination?

“At this moment in time, I don’t think any insurance companies are actively discriminating or underwriting on the basis of genetic testing,” Harvard University geneticist Robert Green told The Scientist.

Shubhayan Sanatani, a pediatric cardiologist at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital, is not convinced. “There’s a certain complacency and trust,” he told The Scientist. “We often just sort of assume things are working fine because we haven’t heard any noise.”

How Wolbachia sterilize infected insects

Wolbachia bacteria infect arthropods and manipulate their breeding habits—only allowing infected males to reproduce successfully with infected females, for instance—to ensure their own survival. On February 27, two papers published in Nature and Nature Microbiology explained how Wolbachia pull it off. The secret appears to be two bacterial genes that encode proteins that then work in concert.

“It’s really exciting,” microbiologist Steven Sinkins of the University of Glasgow, U.K., who was not involved in the work, told The Scientist. “For Wolbachia researchers this has been the big unanswered question—how the bacteria induce this reproductive manipulation—and this is a convincing breakthrough in terms of identifying the genes that are responsible.”

Interrogating murine interneurons

Specialized nerve cells known as somatostatin-expressing interneurons may play a role in controlling how information flows in the mouse brain as it shifts from a passive, resting mode to an active, alert one. In a study published in Science this week (March 2), researchers at New York University described how the activity of these interneurons change across different cortical states when mice transition from a resting state to active whisker movements.

DNA flash drive

One gram of DNA has a storage density of 215 petabytes. Yaniv Erlich of Columbia University and Dina Zielinski of the New York Genome Center are pushing the limits of DNA storage. In a study published this week (March 2) in Science, the researchers reported having encoded six large files—including a film and an operating system—into DNA, which they then copied multiple times, before recovering the files without any errors.

“Most previous studies reported some issues getting the data back from the DNA, some gaps [in the information retrieved],” Erlich told The Scientist, “but we show it’s easy.”

Toward safer iPSC-based therapies

One drawback of burgeoning stem cell therapies is the risk of tumor formation. But in a study published this week (March 2) in Stem Cell Reports, scientists at the Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo, Japan, and their colleagues described a promising method of inducing apoptosis to stop these cells from proliferating in mice.

“The use of a ‘suicide gene’ in stem cell–derived therapies is certainly an obvious safety modification that a number of groups have been pursuing,” Cynthia Dunbar of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute who was not involved in the study told The Scientist.

Microbe-enhanced skin care

People with atopic dermatitis tend to have large, unbridled populations of Staphyloccocus aureus on their skin, plus reduced populations of “beneficial” bacteria that studies have suggested are necessary to keep Staph at bay. On February 22, dermatologist Richard Gallo of the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues presented a new approach to this problem in Science Translational Medicine: personalized skin lotions, tailored to harness each patients’ own microbiome to decrease Staph infections.

“We selected specific strains of the [beneficial] bacteria that are deficient on patients’ skin, expanded them, placed them in lotion, rubbed them on the skin, and decreased the Staph colonization of these patients,” Gallo told The Scientist.

Gut feeling

Irritable bowel syndrome can be associated with anxiety and depression, suggesting a possible link between the gut and the brain. In a March 1 study in Science Translational Medicine, researchers McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, and their colleagues demonstrated that mice that received transplants of human IBS-associated microbiota also displayed behavioral signs of anxiety.

“This [study] is a wonderful demonstration for the functionality of the microbiota, showing gut bacteria from subjects with irritable bowel syndrome can induce both gastrointestinal issues, as well as the anxiety that is co-morbid with IBS,” microbiologist Sarkis Mazmanian of Caltech who was not involved in the work wrote in an email to The Scientist.

Other news in life science

Meet the First Artificial Embryo Made From Stem Cells
Researchers report growing a mouse embryo using two types of early stem cells.

Trump’s Budget May Cut Science Funding
The president’s 2018 budget request tips the scales in favor of military spending and away from civilian funding agencies, such as the NIH and NSF.

Scientists to Trump: Appoint a Science Advisor
Thousands of researchers and science supporters sign an open letter to the president.

Trump Signals Support for Women in STEM
The president has signed two bills encouraging NASA and the NSF to recruit women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professions.

WHO Lists Antibiotic Development Priorities
The World Health Organization outlines critical-, high-, and medium-priority antibiotic development initiatives, calling on the public and private sectors to invest in additional R&D.

Kite’s CAR T-Cell Therapy Success
More than one-third of lymphoma patients in a Phase 2 trial were clear of disease at six months, and no new safety concerns arose since the company’s three-month follow up.

Update: Juno Throws in the Towel on CAR-T Trial
Following several deaths, the cell therapy aimed at treatment-resistant lymphomas would have had to return to a Phase 1 safety trial.

Study: Most Long Noncoding RNAs Likely Functional
Nearly 20,000 lncRNAs identified in human cells may play some role in cellular activities.

Study: Resurrecting Extinct Species Could Harm Living Ones
De-extinction efforts could divert resources away from conserving endangered species.

See “Science Policy in 2017