From the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, genetic sleuths have been at the forefront in the global effort to monitor SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. By comparing the molecular fingerprints of different virus samples collected in Washington state, they were able to track down the first signs of community spread in the U.S.
On one level, multimedia artist Kate Thompson’s work shows the black-and-white visage of Franklin — the late biochemist whose famous “Photo 51” revealed the double-helix structure of life’s most vital molecule, even though she didn’t get her full share of credit for it.
Look more closely, and you’ll see a mosaic of 2,000 images submitted by the general public as part of UW’s #MemoriesInDNA project.
And if you were to scrape off a few flakes of paint and process them in a DNA lab, you could read out the pixels that make up all of those images and more, translated from the four-letter genetic code of life to the ones and zeroes of digital data.
“This portrait is not only preserving Franklin’s memory, but preserving the data as well, in a form that will be accessible to future generations,” Karin Strauss, co-director of UW’s Molecular Information Systems Laboratory and principal research manager at Microsoft Research, said today in a news release about the art project.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has been working to improve the state of global health through his nonprofit foundation for 20 years, and today he told the nation’s premier scientific gathering that advances in artificial intelligence and gene editing could accelerate those improvements exponentially in the years ahead.
“We have an opportunity with the advance of tools like artificial intelligence and gene-based editing technologies to build this new generation of health solutions so that they are available to everyone on the planet. And I’m very excited about this,” Gates said in Seattle during a keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Such tools promise to have a dramatic impact on several of the biggest challenges on the agenda for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, created by the tech guru and his wife in 2000.
Why do some strings of genetic code remain virtually unchanged despite tens of millions of years of evolutionary divergence? A newly published study that takes advantage of the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR has found that at least some of those DNA strings are essential to keep healthy cells growing and block the growth of tumor cells.
Chinese researcher He Jiankui, who stirred up a global controversy last year when he said his experiment produced twin baby girls with gene-edited traits, has been sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a $430,000 fine, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported today.
A study led by researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science lays out a “parts list” for the brain, including a detailed look at the differences between the parts for human brains and mouse brains.
They say the genetic results, published today in the journal Nature, suggest that relying on mice to study how the brains of men and women work could lead neuroscientists down blind alleys.
“The answer may be that you have to go to species that are more similar to humans,” Ed Lein, an investigator at the Allen Institute who’s also affiliated with the University of Washington, told GeekWire.
It’s not that the basic parts list is all that different: The researchers found that most of the 75 different cell types identified in the human brain, based on genetic makeup, are found in the mouse brain as well.
That commonality applies even to cells that the scientists had previously thought might be uniquely human, such as the “rosehip neurons” discovered last year.
But there are significant differences in the way those genes are expressed — differences that have developed over 75 million years of evolution. “The genes themselves haven’t really changed, but their regulation can change a lot,” Lein said.
As I look back at 2018, I’m seeing some stories that I missed but ended up featuring prominently in other folks’ year-end recaps. So, to even things out, my top-ten list focuses on five developments that we featured in the course of the last 12 months, and five more that didn’t get much play at the time.
The Chinese researcher behind a controversial experiment to produce gene-edited children took the stage at a Hong Kong conference to explain his work, and acknowledged that the international outcry has brought a halt to the experiment.
“The clinical trial was paused due to the current situation,” He Jiankui, a biomedical researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said today at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing.
The university says He (pronounced “Heh”) has been on unpaid leave since January, and today Chinese news outlets reported that his lab on campus has been shut down and sealed off for investigation.
Multiple investigations are being sought in the wake of reports that a Chinese laboratory facilitated the birth of twin girls whose genes had been edited to protect them against the HIV virus that causes AIDS.
There has been no outside confirmation of He’s claims, but geneticists and health policymakers say such claims raise grave ethical issues — including the prospect of creating designer babies, enhancing traits and even introducing exotic new traits.