Genetics & Molecular Biology

The political fray has entered into the world of genetics, and as usual, our politicians have no real idea what they are talking about. In an October 24th speech about children with special needs, Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for Vice-President, made the following statement about funding for
IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Since Palin's comments on fruit fly research are getting some commentary, it's a good time to review the value of model organisms in basic research.

One of the things budding geneticists, biochemists and cell biologists learn very quickly when they enter grad school is that studying humans is usually not the best way to successfully tackle the most interesting research questions. You can ask questions about human biology, but to answer them you generally turn to an elite club sometimes called the Security Council of biology: the bedrock group of five model organisms.
I have complained recently about the state of basic research support in Canada, as the current government is pushing for more short-sighted, applied, industry-oriented work. This is as nothing compared to the attitude of some politicians south of the 49th.

Here is how a recent paper of mine began*:
Clubfoot, one of the most common birth defects, has long been thought to have a genetic component. Now, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis report they have found the first gene linked to clubfoot in humans.

By studying a multi-generation family with clubfoot, the scientists traced the condition to a mutation in a gene critical for early development of lower limbs called PITX1. While other genes are also likely to be linked to clubfoot, the new finding is a first step toward improved genetic counseling and the development of novel therapies.
Genetically, the Germans and British are very close to each other but the genetic distances between the Swedes and Eastern and Western Finns are larger, and the diversity in these populations is lower.

A recent study shows that genetic differences in Central Europe appear smaller than between and even within North European populations.    The study, led by researcher Päivi Lahermo from Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) and University of Helsinki, Finland, and professor Juha Kere from Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.

The understanding of genetic variation in human populations is important not only for obtaining information on population history, but also for successful studies of genetic factors behind human diseases, says Juha Kere. 
Scientists in Cambridge, UK, using a mouse with a human chromosome in its cells, discovered that gene expression, contrary to what was previously thought, is mostly controlled by regulatory DNA sequences.

Mice and humans (and most vertebrates) share the majority of their genes but a distinct gene regulation – so, when and where these shared genes become activated – assures their many individual characteristics, and knowledge of this regulation is crucial if we want one day to be able to control gene expression.

An enigma unique to flowering plants  has been solved, say researchers from the University of Leicester (UK) and POSTECH, South Korea.  Scientists already knew that flowering plants, unlike animals, require not one but two sperm cells for successful fertilization.  Double fertilization is essential for fertility and seed production in flowering plants so increased understanding of the process is important.

But the mystery of this ‘double fertilization’ process was how each single pollen grain could produce ‘twin’ sperm cells. One to join with the egg cell to produce the embryo, and the other to join with a second cell in the ovary to produce the endosperm, a nutrient-rich tissue, inside the seed.
Your desires for genome voyeurism, that is. Harvard geneticist George Church has managed to get 10 people to fork over a big chunk of change to have their entire genomes sequenced - that is, the entire thing, not just the SNPs that you get from 23andMe for $400.  Not only did those people pay to have their genomes sequenced, but they agreed to sign away their privacy and expose their naked genomes to the world. Go check it out at

The NY Times has the backstory.

Scientists in Israel are reporting the first successful spinning of a key natural protein into strong nano-sized fibers about 1/50,000th the width of a human hair. The advance could lead to a new generation of stronger, longer-lasting biocompatible sutures and bandages to treat wounds. The study is scheduled for the November 10 issue of Biomacromolecules.
As many readers here know, evolution isn't just some esoteric topic disconnected from the rest of biology. It's a core theory that is underlies all of biology. Today our department heard a talk from Dr. Sudhir Kumar, a U of Arizona Arizona State University scientist who is using evolutionary theory to improve our ability to predict which mutations are likely to cause disease (PDF).