Genetics & Molecular Biology

A study of gene expression in chickens, frogs, pufferfish, mice and people has revealed surprising similarities in several key tissues. Researchers writing in BioMed Central's open access Journal of Biology have shown that expression in tissues with a limited number of specialized cell types is strongly conserved, even between the mammalian and non-mammalian vertebrates.
Researchers say they have uncovered new evidence suggesting factors other than genes could cause obesity, finding that genetically identical cells store widely differing amounts of fat depending on subtle variations in how cells process insulin.  Findings indicate that the faster a cell processes insulin, the more fat it stores.

Learning the precise mechanism responsible for fat storage in cells could lead to methods for controlling obesity.  
In parallel human and mouse studies, two groups of researchers have come to the same conclusion: that a new kind of gene is associated with progressive hearing loss. The new gene, a microRNA, is a tiny fragment of RNA that affects the production of hundreds of other molecules within sensory hair cells of the inner ear.   The research provides important new genetic understanding of a condition that is common in humans but remains poorly understood.
A protein that the heart produces during its early development reactivates the embryonic coronary developmental program and initiates migration of heart cells and blood vessel growth after a heart attack, researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have found.

The molecule, Thymosin beta-4 (TB4), is expressed by embryos during the heart's development and encourages migration of heart cells. The new findings in mice suggest that introducing TB4 systemically after a heart attack encourages new growth and repair of heart cells. The research findings indicate that the molecule affects developmental gene expression as early as 24 hours after systemic injection. The study will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology.

Researchers have reported that they have been able to determine the molecular structure of a plant photolyase protein that is surprisingly similar to two cryptochrome proteins that control the "master clock" in humans and other mammals. They have also been able to test how structural changes affect the function of these proteins.

The problem of how to model a biological system has been staring me in the face every day in recent months, and I need a place to indulge in baseless speculation. So if you stick around here at Adaptive Complexity for the next few weeks, you are going to get treated to a dose of half-baked, semi-coherent (at best), partially thought-out musings on what it takes to model a biological system.
Geneticists have tackled a question that has perplexed humanity since the dawn of time: does love at first sight truly exist?

Maybe, according to a study published in the April 2009 issue of the journal GENETICS.  A team of scientists from the United States and Australia say they have discovered that, at the genetic level, some males and females are more compatible than others, and that this compatibility plays an important role in mate selection, mating outcomes, and future reproductive behaviors. In experiments involving fruit flies, the researchers found that before mating, females experience what amounts to "genetic priming," making them more likely to mate with certain males over others.

Today, if you like playing with electricity, you can hop over to Amazon and buy the Extreme Snap Circuits set and put together transistors, switches, lamps, motors, resistors, and capacitors to build all sorts of fun projects, from an auto-off night light to the perpetually entertaining space war timer. More ambitious engineers can buy off-the-shelf parts to build appliances, computers, and control systems for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.

What if you could engineer biology this way? What would you build? Physicist and scientific prophet Freeman Dyson would love to build genetically engineered pets and ornamental plants. Standford biologist Drew Endy envisions a collection of standardized biological parts called BioBricks, off-the-shelf modules that biological engineers can assemble like snap circuits into amazing biological machines. An annual undergraduate competition, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition draws teams of biogeeks who design glowing microbes that spell "Hello World" on an agar plate and  gut bacteria that smell like mint or bananas.

This all sounds exciting, but what's the reality? Do biological engineers, or synthetic biologists (as they are most commonly called) have anything close to the know-how of today's electrical or aerospace engineers? The answer, obviously, is no.
Some regions of our genomes are under permanent lockdown because they are hazardous to our health - or at least the health of our future offspring. These secured regions include large swaths of parasite-infested DNA - DNA that contains transposable elements, virus-like genetic parasites that have the ability to hop around the genome and cause harmful mutations.

Because out of control transposable elements are a major danger, cells (ours and those of most other organisms) have an elaborate maximum-security system for shutting these bad boys down. Just how this lockdown system works is an active area of research, and a recent paper revealed how plant cells enforce security and prevent prison breaks by these DNA parasites.
A team of researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Engineering in Medicine (MGH-CEM) has found the first evidence of cell-to-cell communication by amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, rather than by known protein signaling agents such as growth factors or cytokines. Their report will appear in an upcoming issue of the FASEB Journal and has been released online.