Genetics 2010: MOHB rule

In Boston this weekend, researchers from diverse fields and backgrounds have converged to discuss how traditional model organisms like yeast, flies and the worm C. elegans, promise to contribute to the understanding and hopefully the treatment of human disease. It’s the third biennial meeting called Genetics 2010: Model Organisms to Human Biology (which has the inexplicably pleasing acronym, MOHB). Scott Hawley of the Stowers Institute and current president of the Genetics Society of America, which organized the meeting, is a fly researcher. In his opening remarks yesterday evening, he noted that the divide between biologists studying human biology and those studying model organisms is often too great. “We want to reach out and have more contact with people doing other things,” he said. With a line up of talks on everything from personal genomics to sex determination neurogenetics and infectious disease, it promises to deliver that kind of contact.

Cool time keeping

Tick tock tick tock—the sound of an atomic clock that loses a second once every 3 billion years.

But why do we need such an accurate clock? On Saturday Nobel Prize-winning physicist William Phillips mesmerized the crowd speaking about atomic clocks at the World Science Festival event Einstein, Time and the Explorer’s Clock. This wasn’t a normal session. The standing room only auditorium was buzzing with the excitement and impatience of kids not yet in their teens. And Phillips was no regular speaker, equally awing kids and adults.

Read more

Interfacing with our machines

John Hockenberry, a journalist and moderator for the Mind and Machine: The Future of Thinking session, started Friday nights even at the WSF by talking about our relationships with machines. He is wheelchair bound as a result of an accident decades ago. But the wheelchair isn’t an impediment, Hockenberry explains, “it’s me!” There is a sense of intimacy with this machine—a sense of it being part of him and his self image.

So he asked the philosopher of science and technology on the panel, Luciano Floridi, how old is this sense of self with a tool and machine? Old. For the Greeks preparing for battle the sense of self extended to the armor and sword. Food for thought: Floridi stated that you can have the same brain but in a different body—the platform is not important, it’s the software that counts.

Read more

Morality, responsibility, and neuroscience

If we can explain violence—from biological, psychological, and sociological angles—are people more or less responsible for their violent acts?

Bridging neuroscience with law and morality, Thursday night’s Brutality and the Brain event at the World Science Festival commenced with the neuroscience of violent behavior and psychopaths and ended in a more philosophical realm of what is socially acceptable and how we define morality. Aptly enough, the packed auditorium first watched a collage of old coverage of atrocious acts of violence—such as the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and the more recent Virginia Tech shooting. As the gravity of the images and the criminals behind them sunk in, veteran journalist and moderator Walter Isaacson asked the panel, has science, namely neuroscience, taught us that evil and violence are part of human nature? (This question was sort of answered— equivocal yes—though the first one posed here, not surprisingly, never was).

Read more

World Science Festival: Scientists explore grey matters at The Moth

Cross posted from Nature Medicine’s Spoonful of Medicine blog.

What do a Nobel prize-winning physicist, a stem cell scientist and a video game pioneer have in common? They were all onstage at New York University’s Webster Hall on Thursday night to talk about how science impacted their lives — in ways both humorous and poignant — at The Moth, New York’s quirky storytelling venue.

Read the rest of the post on the Spoonful blog.

World Science Festival: Gala of Science

There was something for everyone’s taste in the “cool cup of science” — as actor Alan Alda introduced it — that made up the opening gala for this year’s World Science Festival in New York. The evening included an impressive roster of artists, from Yo-Yo Ma to John Lithgow to Kelli O’Hara; and an equally impressive line-up of scientists, including Stephen Hawking, the physicist to whom the evening’s performances paid tribute.WSF logo.bmp

The Festival is now in its third year and seems to be gaining momentum and profile in the city — you can see the listing of events here, (some of which are being streamed on the web) and blog coverage here . Nature will also be blogging from a few select events.

Read more

Hunter-gatherer Children Seek Food

Among early hunter-gatherers, one of the fundamental characteristics that differentiated these humans from apes was routine food sharing, beyond initial parenting.

With virtually all such tribes long ago wiped out, anthropologists have a difficult time trying to study and understand the basic factors of cooperation and altruism underlying this effort at survival that is a hallmark of human evolution.

Read more

AACR 2010: Cancer genomes keep coming

Cancer genomes have been a hot topic at this year’s AACR. I stopped in to see a session hosted by Elaine Mardis, Washington University’s genome maven whose been an author on most of the big cancer genome papers to date. In the session, we heard from Todd Golub of the Broad Institute, who gave preliminary results on the multiple myeloma genome, which hasn’t yet been published.

It looked like it has produced several interesting new potential cancer genes to look into. Though I won’t go into too much detail, here are some of the basic stats. They looked at cancers from 38 individuals sequencing both cancer cells and normal cells. They fully sequenced 23 of the individuals, and they did what’s called whole exome sequencing for 16 (in which they just sequence protein coding regions). One patient was sequenced by both methods.

The data produced a big list of mutations, but researchers have learned tricks for paring down such lists to find the so-called ‘drivers’ of cancer. By, for example, looking for mutations that appear frequently in cancer cells from different individuals. They came up with a short list of a dozen leading candidates. Four have been well characterized. Among the others, Golub found genes involved in regulating translation, the process by which RNA is made into protein, and even a gene implicated in susceptibility to Parkinson disease.

AACR 2010: The Thermos approach to cancer biology

More research presented today at AACR’s 101st annual meeting shed some light on the mind blowing complexity of cancer. At this morning’s plenary sessions, Alan Balmain of the University of California San Francisco showed how the simple model of cancer initiation leading to progression and metastasis was a vast oversimplification. Cancer cells, he says require help from otherwise normal stromal cells, blood vessels, and inflammatory cells. And while much of the research presented at this meeting has been about cataloguing mutations that are gained in cancer, he’s been trying to better understand the underlying genetic background that plays a role in intrinsic susceptibility to cancers.

It’s hard to pull such genes out from studies of humans, so he crossed two strains of mouse, one that is susceptible to cancer and one that is relatively resistant, essentially creating a heterogeneous population of offspring with variable susceptibility to cancer. On these mice he did gene expression analysis for different skin samples and tumor samples. This analytical approach helps to uncover genes that are working in concert to influence cancer susceptibility, thus exposing deeper networks of genes at play in the process that can have interlinked function. Mice that were susceptible to tumors, for example were enriched for expression of genes involved in determining an epidermal skin cell fate, as opposed to a sebaceous or follicle fate. Genes involved in mitosis were upregulated, wound healing genes were upregulated, and genes for reigning in the inflammatory response were upregulated.

Balmain went a bit more into depth on the inflammatory genes however. Generally inflammation is generally associated with increased cancer susceptibility, but anti-inflammatory drugs have different effects on the development of skin tumors. Sometimes increasing tumor spread and other times preventing against it. Balmain’s systems biology approach has indicated a number of genes related to controlling inflammation and shows how they could be related to cancer susceptibility in his mouse population. See a paper on it from last year, here. But it’s complex relationship. It’s times like this that I consider the Thermos: it keeps things hot and it keeps things cold. Whenever something seems to have an important job in biology like preventing cancer, it almost always does exactly the opposite with a subtle shift in context.