The Internet has been burning up with an ice age storyline over the past few days: Researchers in Japan led by Akira Iritani announced their plan to clone a woolly mammoth within four to six years, recreating a colossal beast not seen on Earth in thousands of years. But as enthusiastic as DISCOVER is for cloned mammoths (and believe us, we’re psyched), the project is still a long way from success.
First, the backstory.
Researchers from Kinki University’s Graduate School of Biology-Oriented Science and Technology began the study in 1997. On three occasions, the team obtained mammoth skin and muscle tissue excavated in good condition from the permafrost in Siberia. However, most nuclei in the cells were damaged by ice crystals and were unusable. The plan to clone a mammoth was abandoned. [Daily Yamiuri]
That initial effort was a DISCOVER cover story back in 1999. Now, though, the dream is back, thanks to newly developed methods to get around that icy problem.
The team, which has invited a Russian mammoth researcher and two US elephant experts to join the project, has established a technique to extract DNA from frozen cells, previously an obstacle to cloning attempts because of the damage cells sustained in the freezing process. Another Japanese researcher, Teruhiko Wakayama of the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology, succeeded in 2008 in cloning a mouse from the cells of another that had been kept in temperatures similar to frozen ground for 16 years. [AFP]
Earlier today we noted that Robert Edwards won a 2010 Nobel Prize for his work developing in vitro fertilization. But more than three decades after Edwards’ work came to fruition with the first IVF child’s birth, the technique is still somewhat haphazard—two-thirds of the time, it doesn’t lead to a live birth. Now, with a new approach to watching the first day or two of an embryo’s existence, scientists may be able to take a leap forward in both their understanding of a life’s first moments and in the success rate of IVF.
In a study published in Nature Biotechnology, Connie Wong and colleagues watched nearly 250 embryos develop over six days. They made the videos like the one seen above using time-lapse photography at the microscopic level, which showed the key differences between successful and failed embryos.
Successful embryos had an initial cytokinesis, or division of the cell’s cytoplasm, lasting between 0 and 33 minutes, a gap between first and second cell divisions lasting 7.8 – 14.3 hours, and an interval between second and third cell divisions of 0 – 5.8 hours. The pattern was so uniform that it was possible to automate the analytical process, using a computer algorithm to predict whether embryos would go on to develop successfully. [Nature]
Robert G. Edwards.
Edwards’ work creating in vitro fertilization led to the birth of four million babies, and now it has garnered him the Nobel Prize.
Dr. Edwards, a physiologist who spent much of his career at Cambridge University in England, spent more than 20 years solving a series of problems in getting eggs and sperm to mature and successfully unite outside the body. His colleague, Dr. [Patrick] Steptoe, was a gynecologist and pioneer of laparoscopic surgery, the method used to extract eggs from the prospective mother. Dr. Steptoe, who presumably would otherwise have shared the prize, died in 1988. [The New York Times]
The good news: By combining the DNA of parents with genetic material from a third person, scientists might have developed a way for women with rare genetic disorders to have healthy children. The bad news: The ethical complications involved are so messy that it might be a long time coming.
The researchers outline their work in a study in this week’s Nature. On the surface, the idea is fairly simple. They took the nuclei out of the father’s sperm and the mother’s egg, and transplanted them into a donor’s egg cell that had its nucleus removed, but whose mitochondria remained in the cell’s cytoplasm. What you get is the genetics of both parents, plus the mitochondrial DNA of the host. This technique was pioneered in monkeys last summer, but researchers have now done a proof-of-principle study with human cells.
Mitochondria are often called cellular power plants, because they provide most of the cell’s energy. They also contain their own batch of so-called mitochondrial DNA that can, when mutated, give rise to disease. “What we’ve done is like changing the battery on a laptop,” said lead author Professor Doug Turnbull. “The energy supply now works properly, but none of the information on the hard drive has been changed. A child born using this method would have correctly functioning mitochondria, but in every other respect would get all their genetic information from their father and mother” [BBC News].
Louise Brown, the first baby conceived through in vitro fertilization, will be turning 32 this year, and most people born through IVF are still younger than 30. While the technique has become commonplace for would-be parents struggling with fertility problems, doctors note that the long-term effects of the procedure still aren’t certain. Now, some scientists are saying they see slight differences in the DNA expression of people born via IVF, and that it’s possible they could be at higher risk for conditions like cancer or diabetes later in life.
Says lead researcher Carmen Sapienza said “By and large these children are just fine, it’s not like they have extra arms or extra heads, but they have a small risk of undesirable outcomes” [The Guardian]. Rather, the team found a very subtle impact. In 75 IVF babies and 100 naturally conceived ones, they examined 700 genes that particularly interested the researchers because they are linked to fat cell development, insulin signaling, and other functions associated with diseases for which people tend to be at higher risk as they age. The scientists checked DNA methylation, a modification to DNA which affects gene expression, and found that 5 to 10 percent of IVF babies had abnormal patterns of methylation.
Sapienza’s team published the study in October in Human Molecular Genetics, but his work is picking up attention after he spoke at the American Association of the Advancement of Science meeting in San Diego.