Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Creating Synthetic Life

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. have succeeded in synthesizing the entire genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium, using only the four nucleotides of which all DNA is comprised. It’s an astonishing feat, considering that the M. genitalium genome is nearly 600,000 base pairs long. The next step, say the researchers, is to insert the synthetic DNA into a cell. If all goes well, the DNA will replicate itself and the cell will divide, becoming the first living, self-reproducing organism ever created synthetically in a laboratory.

The synthesis of the entire genome of an organism paves the way for experiments to determine the minimum number of genes required for life – the minimum operating system, so to speak. Looking further to the future, someday it may even be possible to create synthetic organisms for specific purposes, such as manufacturing medicines or cleaning up the environment. We’d better start thinking about how we want to regulate or control this new technology.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Beating Heart is Created in the Laboratory

University of Minnesota researchers have succeeded in producing a beating rat heart in the laboratory. In their experiments, the researchers first removed all the heart cells from a dead rat heart by dissolving them away with a strong detergent, leaving just a scaffold of connective tissue and heart valves. Then they infused cells harvested from the heart of a newborn rat. Within two weeks a new beating heart developed.

The research marks a significant advance in our understanding of what it would take to grow human hearts. However, scientists caution that the ability to produce human hearts for implantation still may be decades away. First, it will have to be shown that the technique can be adapted to larger animals. And second, methods will have to be developed to create the hearts from stem cells rather than cells from a newborn. Obviously, no one would sacrifice a human newborn just to produce a new heart for an adult!

Nevertheless, this is an encouraging first step.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

AIDS proteins

The AIDS virus can only make about 15 proteins on its own. In order to reproduce, it must rely on its ability to force its human host cell to make all of the other proteins it needs.  And with the use of a new genetic screen, researchers at Harvard University have identified at least 273 of these human proteins.  Knowing precisely which human proteins the virus needs may lead to techniques for growing the virus in the laboratory for research purposes, or ways to block one or more of these key proteins in humans without disrupting the human body very much.

Instructors who are especially interested in how viruses reproduce may wish to read the full research article (Science online January 10; "Identification of Host Proteins Required for HIV Infection Through a Functional Genomic Screen") and comment on its findings in class.   The article itself is too difficult for entry-level students. 

Friday, January 11, 2008

Thimerosal and Autism

The results of a study by researchers at the Department of Public Health in California do not support the hypothesis that autism is caused by thimerosal, a preservative containing ethylmercury that was once used in childhood vaccines. The researchers found that the incidence of autism rose steadily in California from 1995 to 2007, even though thimerosal was removed from most childhood vaccines in 2001. If thimerosal were responsible for causing autism there should have been a sharp decline in new cases of autism after 2004. The new findings and a commentary about them are published in The Archives of General Psychiatry.

It is doubtful that the study will do much to reassure parents, however, some of whom continue to believe passionately that their child's autism was a direct consequence of childhood vaccinations despite research findings to the contrary.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Limits of Science

The free online version of the New York Times has a recent article that could be used to start a discussion in your Human Biology classroom about the limits of science. (“Both Sides Cite Science to Address Altered Corn”, Dec. 26, 2007, In this case, Europeans are arguing over whether or not to ban the planting of a pest-resistant strain of genetically modified (GM) corn.

Interestingly, both sides are trying to justify their position on the basis of science. Those opposing the planting of the GM corn argue that one can never be absolutely certain that the new corn is completely safe. They are right, of course; science cannot absolutely prove GM corn’s safety under all known (and as yet unknown!) conditions. On the other hand, those in favor of planting the GM corn argue that according to the currently available scientific evidence, GM corn is “unlikely” to pose a significant risk. They are right, too.

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to ban GM corn will be a public policy decision based not only on the available scientific data, but also on political, economic, and social pressures. Nevertheless, science certainly does have an important role in issues such as this. Points of concern raised during public debate can perhaps be tested by science, improving our confidence in public policy decisions both now and in the future.