By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D.
Scientists reveal proposal to build human genome from scratch
The limits of genomic engineering took another step forward with the publication of a proposal in Science to synthesize a human genome from the ground up. The project, called the Human Genome Project – Write or HGP-write, seeks to take the progress made by the original Human Genome Project in reading a human genome one step further, and “learn by building” in order to test our understanding of how genetic information results in a living, functioning cell. “You know all the parts needed [to make a chromosome], so you take these parts and rebuilt it,” said chromosome biologist Torsten Waldminghaus of Philipp University of Marburg in Germany who is not a part of this project. “If it’s functional, you see that you were right.”
HGP-write originally made headlines back in May with the report that a private, invite-only meeting of 150 scientists would be held at Harvard Medical School to discuss the project. The meeting was criticized for excluding the media and asking participants to not contact the media or post to Twitter about it. Concerns about the private meeting stemmed from not being able to have an open dialogue with other scientists and the public about ethical concerns surrounding the topic of “Einstein genomes” or “human beings without biological parents.” The meeting organizers including George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, clarified the project’s intentions by saying the goal was to create functioning cells, not people. The recently published proposal goes on to further clarify the intentions of HGP-write, including several “stepping stone” pilot projects such as constructing specific chromosomes to model human diseases and potentially developing cells powered by “baseline” human genomes, containing the most common pan-human alleles (or allele ancestral to a given human population) at each position. (Kelly Servick, Science Insider)
UK government slammed for losing track of its own research
An independent analysis into the commissioning and publication of the UK government’s policy-related research has found significant problems, delays and overall confusion. The London-based science-advocacy group, Sense About Science, instigated the analysis as a “response to media stories of government research being suppressed or withheld” and had “the aim of determining the scale and significance of the problem and to look into potential remedies” according to their website. The UK government spends around $3.6 billion US per year on research related to policy-issues, both conducted in house and out-sourced to external researchers. This information is then (theoretically) used to make government decisions in policy areas ranging from social and public policies, to health and climate change.
While all of this research was funded and conducted, the analysis found that there is no “comprehensive account” or centralized mechanism to find out just what research has been done, how much public money was spent, or whether any of it was published and accessible. “Sir Stephen [the lead investigator] has revealed that we don’t know what has become of millions of pounds worth of government-commissioned research because government itself doesn’t know whether it was published, or where it all is now,” said Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science. The report recommended that the UK government establish a central and searchable database of all government-commissioned research and commit to the prompt and routine publication of any work that has been used in deciding government policy. (Daniel Cressey, Nature News)
The superbug that doctors have been dreading just reached the U.S.
On May 26th, researchers from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center published their findings that for the first time, a person in the United States was found to be carrying bacteria resistant to an antibiotic of last resort, colistin, a polymyxin antibiotic. The sample of E. coli came from a 49 year old woman in Pennsylvania and was found to be carrying a colistin-resistance gene, known as mcr-1. This gene, first discovered in China in late 2015 in pigs treated with colistin, most worryingly was found to be located on a small piece of circular DNA known as a plasmid, allowing it to be easily shared and spread among bacterial strains. Similarly, the American sample also contained plasmid-borne mcr-1, leading to fears about when (not if) bacteria with other resistance genes might come in contact with it and gain additional resistance.
“It basically shows us that the end of the road isn’t very far away for antibiotics — that we may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive care units, or patients getting urinary-tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in an interview. While Congress recently increased spending in the 2016 fiscal year by at least $375 million for the purpose of battling antibiotic-resistant bacteria, one would hope that this latest incident on American soil would further spur action at the highest levels including urgent action to improve detection, control outbreaks and especially prevent new cases by improving prescribing patterns so that antibiotics are used only when necessary. In addition, significant research is needed into the link between antibiotic use in food animal products and the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. (Lena H. Sun and Brady Dennis, Washington Post)
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