Sequencing the DNA in a scoop of dirt can tell scientists what creatures are living nearby, a new study using soil from safari parks shows, and the amount of DNA present can even tell how many individuals of each species there are, which could allow field biologists to get preliminary surveys of species. But though the team managed to identify nearly all the species they had expected in the parks, from wildebeest to elephants, they are still addressing how to take samples that accurately represent the area’s biodiversity—one would have to avoid elephant latrines or wildebeest sleeping areas, for instance—and there is the additional problem that rare or small creatures, like insects, might easily be missed. That said, it’s still an unusual and interesting way to take a look at an area’s inhabitants without actually tracking them down.
Read more at Scientific American.
Image courtesy of malcyzk / flickr
RNAs from rice can survive digestion and make their way into mammalian tissues, where they change the expression of genes.
What’s the News: It’s no secret that having lunch messes with your biochemistry. Once that sandwich hits your stomach, genes related to digestion have been activated and are causing the production of the many molecules that help break food down. But a new study suggests that the connection between your food’s biochemistry and your own may be more intimate than we thought. Tiny RNAs usually found in plants have been discovered circulating in blood, and animal studies indicate that they are directly manipulating the expression of genes.
Children of older mothers, scientists have long known, are at higher risk for certain genetic disorders such as Down syndrome. But the father’s age is matters, too. As a father’s age increases, research shows, so does his child’s risk of mental illness, schizophrenia and autism in particular. In Scientific American, Nicole Grey explores the link between a father’s age and his child’s health, as well as the tricky questions about what mechanisms are behind the that link: genes, epigenetic changes, environment, or some combination of the three.
What’s the News: Whether genes can be property is an ongoing controversy in the world of biotechnology, and last week saw the latest court battle in that war: Upon appeal, a suit brought by the ACLU charging that genes aren’t products of human ingenuity and thus cannot be patented was settled largely in favor of Myriad Genetics, the biotech company that has patents on two BRCA genes. The genes are linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, and plaintiffs charged that Myriad’s exclusive test for the genes kept patients from getting second opinions.
A detailed description of the court’s reasoning can be found over at Ars Technica. But for those of you who are thinking, what? someone else can own my genes?, chew on this: About 20% of human genes are patented or have patents associated with them, according to a comprehensive analysis. Here’s why.
What’s the News: What if the egg is fine and the sperm is dandy, but you still can’t seem to have a baby? Couples who are having trouble conceiving can testify to the frustration of learning that there’s no clear reason for their infertility. Now, however, scientists have found a genetic mutation that makes outwardly normal sperm much less fertile, potentially explaining many such cases and suggesting new routes to conception.
What’s the News: By knocking out a single gene, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have significantly increased the physical endurance of lab mice, as explained in their recent paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. The researchers also found that certain variants of the same gene may be linked to greater endurance in humans.
What’s the News: Scientists have been rooting around in the rice genome for years, and the same goes for wheat. But now the long-recalcitrant potato genome has finally been sequenced. Time for a celebration? Perhaps, but biologists can’t rest for long: in addition to the just-published genome, there are still three more to sequence in each commercial potato.
What’s the News: When personal genotyping service 23andMe was founded in 2006, most people were understandably focused on the benefits and the dangers of knowing your chances of getting an incurable disease. But a major part of the company’s business plan was eventually leveraging their users’ information to explore the genetic basis of disease.
With more than 100,000 people now in their database, 23andMe has been turning that into a reality. They’ve just published their first paper focusing on the origins of disease, pinpointing two new areas of the genome involved in Parkinson’s.
What’s the News: While you may be able to hide your age with makeup and plastic surgery, don’t think that your deception is foolproof. Researchers have now developed a technique to ascertain your age to within five years using only your saliva. The new method, published in the journal PLoS One, could someday be used by forensic experts to pinpoint the age of crime suspects.