Genetics & Molecular Biology

FOXP2 may be the gene that makes us human - or so the hype goes. Hyped or not, FOXP2 is rightly a focus of intense research, since it is a gene that clearly has a major effect on human speech. Mutations in FOXP2 are responsible for some rare but strange language disorders, such as the inability to learn grammatical skills or make the proper mouth/facial movements to properly articulate words. 

Following on the heels of 'missing links' in the popular media earlier this month, you might expect that research on mice carrying a "humanized version" of a gene believed to influence speech and language will have references to cartoons and mice that talk.

In reality, it's nothing so outrageous but the research can still teach us about our evolutionary past - even if the mice don't speak.
In March, we took a critically acclaimed critical look at the genetics of superpowers in the X-Men movie franchise.  In addition to Cath Ennis's recommendation that Nature put a hard-working rugbyologist on the payroll doing movie reviews, Karl Haro von Mogel1 from Biofortified was kind enough to include our effluvia in the 29
I happened to get my hands on some interesting literature on pre-natal genetic screening, literature that amply reinforces my impression that clinical genetic testing is still in the dark ages.

Let's say you (or your wife/fiance/girlfriend) are pregnant, and you're interested in taking a blood test to see if your baby is going to develop a neural tube defect, like spina bifida. Should you take the test?

In this case, it's a no-risk test (unlike amniocentesis) that involves measuring a blood protein called AFP. Here's what the pamphlet I've got says:

- There is a 1:1000 chance that your baby will have spina bifida.
- The blood test can identify 80% of spina bifida cases.
Take a look at your dog. If you don't have a dog, then check this out:

Wikimedia commons.Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1. What dogs may look like.

It appears that some superbugs have evolved to develop the ability to manipulate the immune system - and that can be a good thing, say a team of researchers at The University of Western Ontario.

Some processes that reduce the lethal effects of toxins from superbugs allow humans and microbes to co-evolve, a discovery that may lead to novel alternatives to antibiotics that specifically target the toxic effects of these superbugs.
It is the concentration of a few signaling molecules that determines the fate of individual cells during the early development of organisms, say a team of molecular biologists writing in Current Biology.   Pia Aanstad of the University of Innsbruck and colleagues report that a variety of molecular mechanisms accounts for the interpretation of the concentration of the signaling molecule Hedgehog. 

The development of an organism is a complex process to which a dozen or hundreds of signaling molecules contribute. Some of these molecules have dozens of functions in the fruit fly and in humans alike.
Systems biology is a trendy field right now, but, despite the fact that it's hyped as some amazing, new, holistic approach to biology, the questions systems biologists are asking aren't new.

Check out this paper from 1985: a model of an extremely simple biological system that, in spite of its simplicity, senses its environment and makes decisions - lambda phage, a virus that infects bacteria.
You're sitting in a room filled with a gazillion air molecules - how likely is it that most of those air molecules will spontaneously end up in the corner of the room opposite of where you're sitting?

Most likely you're not too concerned about this scenario, because something like that, a massive fluctuation in the distribution of air molecules in the room, is extremely unlikely, to put it mildly.

When you have zillions of air molecules bouncing around in a room (zillions here being on the order of 10^28 molecules of the various gases that make up air), the fluctuations away from the average distribution are miniscule.
A class of drugs already approved as cancer treatments might also help to beat alcohol addiction. That's the conclusion of a discovery in flies of a gene, dubbed happyhour, that has an important and previously unknown role in controlling the insects' response to alcohol. Animals with a mutant version of the gene grow increasingly resistant to alcohol's sedative effects, the research shows. The researchers report further evidence that the gene normally does its work by blocking the so-called Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF) pathway. That EGF pathway is best known for its role in cancer, and drugs designed to inhibit the EGF receptor, including erlotinib (trade name Tarceva) and gefitinib (trade name Iressa), are FDA-approved for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer.