Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Genetics Community Online

Nature Publishing Group has just released a new genetics education website called Scitable. It represents a new generation of making science content and experts available to undergraduate students and the general public. My first impression of this is that it is pretty impressive. Community-based learning is widely recognized as an effective learning strategy, and it will be interesting to see how scientists, students, and the general public react to Scitable.

For more on the potential uses of Scitable for developing a genetics community - see my column on For now, check out the site and let me know what you think. Should this be the way that education is addressed in the future?

Links for Scitable were repaired on January 23rd

Friday, January 16, 2009

This Isn't Science Fiction Anymore

Sometime an event occurs which makes it actually look like I might know what I am talking about.....

This past week in my human genetics class, we discussed the possibility of turning back the clock on adult stem cells to make them behave like embryonic stem cells. The lure of embryonic (or ES cells) is that they have not yet realized their genetic destiny, and therefore have the potential to become any stem cell. Of course, the main problem has been where ES cells were obtained from - most cells come from left-over in vitro fertilization (IVF) events, and some people have expressed a concern over the ethical use of these cells.

In the December 10th edition of Science (vol 322, issue 5099), the editors of the journal awarded the 2008 Breakthrough of the Year to the process that generates an induced pluripotent stem cell, or iPS. iPS cells are adult stem cells that have been genetically altered to behave like ES cells - opening up the possibility that they may be developed as a alternative source of stem cells. Furthermore, research in this area has suggested that it may be possible to develop iPS cells as a form of treatment for a wide variety of diseases, including Down Syndrome, Huntington disease, and juvenile diabetes. Anyone who has an interest in stem cells, and the future of medicine, should definitely read this article. Sometimes the facts are more interesting than the fiction!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Synthetic Biology 2.0

While the scientific community, and most of the intelligent world, has widely accepted that the theory of natural selection is underlying mechanism of organic evolution, until recently our studies of evolutionary processes have been confined to the examples from a small plant orbiting an insignificant star in a mid-sized galaxy. From this limited viewpoint we know that evolution is intimately connected with life... but as scientists, we would love to expand the reaches of our database.

The study of synthetic biology was until recently a theoretical science. Engineers, biochemists, and geneticists proposed mechanisms by which molecules and cells could evolve the basic characteristics of life through pathways other than those found on Earth. However, in recent the study of synthetic biology has progressed from a theoretical to an applied science. For example, we already know that it is possible to change the structure of the genetic code in the laboratory (see "Synthetic Life Makes Synthetic Proteins"). Now, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute have demonstrated that RNA molecules can evolve the ability to increase replication efficiency in the lab (see "Artificial Molecules Evolve in the Lab"). Each of these steps brings us one step closer to truly understanding life.

There is little doubt that the work of the researchers at the Scripps Research Institute demonstrates an evolutionary process. However, some will still argue that this is just another lab-based example of evolution, and that we don't really know for sure that the system demonstrated in the lab would work in the "natural" environment. The true test of whether synthetic biology is a viable demonstration of natural selection will only come when we finally get a glimpse of proto-life on other planets and moons. Europa, Titan, maybe even Mars, may hold "snapshots" of how early chemical evolution occurred. For too long biologists have focused simply on life on this planet. If we truly want to understand evolution and life, we need to start expanding our horizons.