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Microscope 1

CRISPR enters its first human clinical trials

CRISPR scissor
© traffic_analyzer/getty images plus
CUTTING ROOM Scientists will soon wield the molecular scissors CRISPR/Cas9 in the human body. Some people with a form of inherited blindness will have the gene editor injected into their eyes, where researchers hope it will snip out a mutation. Two other trials are CRISPR editing cells outside of the body to treat cancer or blood disorders.
Since its debut in 2012, CRISPR gene editing has held the promise of curing most of the over 6,000 known genetic diseases. Now it's being put to the test.

In the first spate of clinical trials, scientists are using CRISPR/Cas9 to combat cancer and blood disorders in people. In these tests, researchers remove some of a person's cells, edit the DNA and then inject the cells back in, now hopefully armed to fight disease.

Researchers are also set to see how CRISPR/Cas9 works inside the human body. In an upcoming trial, people with an inherited blindness will have the molecular scissors injected into their eyes.

Those tests, if successful, could spur future trials for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and a wide variety of other genetic diseases, affecting millions of people worldwide.

"CRISPR is so intriguing," says Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at the University of Chicago Divinity School, "and so elegant."

But big questions remain about whether CRISPR/Cas9 can live up to the hype.

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Better Earth

Russia's Northern Fleet seeks confirmation of new Arctic islands discovery

Arctic islands
© Lev Fedoseev/TASS
Islands in the Arctic
The surveyors will land on Pakhtusov Island to search for traces of the first expeditions and historic artifacts

The Northern Fleet sailors plan to confirm the discovery of new islands and other geographic objects that emerged from ice caps near the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, the Northern Fleet's press service reported on Monday.

"The Northern Fleet's surveyors who carry out missions onboard the Altai rescue tugboat and the Gorizont survey vessel will confirm and detail the geographic discoveries made based on space monitoring data," the report says.

The press service reported that both vessels are currently found in the Kara Sea. The Gorizont's crew is carrying out hydrographic research in the Bely Island area. The vessel entered the Kara Sea several days ago through the Kara Strait.

The integrated expedition to study Franz Josef Land onboard the Altai vessel passed through the Matochkin Shar Strait that separates the Yuzhny and Severny islands of the Franz Josef Land archipelago. On Monday, the explorers will land on Pakhtusov Island to search for traces of the first expeditions and historic artifacts.
Map Arctic expedition
© Arctic Econ
Area of Northern Fleet's expedition and discovery


Scientists turn living cells into computers and recording devices

New DOMINO technology and DNA
The new DOMINO technology can combine and layer multiple DNA reading and writing events.
US scientists have developed a new technology they say can turn living cells into computers and recording devices, with programs encoded in their DNA.

DOMINO (DNA-based Ordered Memory and Iteration Network Operator), which works much like the gene-editing system CRISPR, can execute cascades of DNA writing events - where one DNA mutation event triggers another - in response to biological signals.

Writing in the journal Molecular Cell, the team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the technology enables the deep interrogation of biology and the use of engineered cells as devices that can process, monitor, and store information occurring within cells and/or their environment.

Potentially it could be used to create sensors that sit in the body collecting and storing information for health monitoring, or in systems to measure and record contamination in rivers and waterways.

"We need better strategies to unravel how complex biology works, especially in diseases like cancer where multiple biological events can occur to transform normal cell into diseased ones," says senior author Timothy Lu.


It's raining plastic: US Geological survey finds plastic in the rocky mountains

© Peter Pryharski/Unsplash
Bear Lake Trailhead, Colorado.
While a team of researchers from the US Geological Survey (USGS) was analyzing rainwater samples for nitrogen pollution, they found something they weren't expecting - plastic.

In a new report, aptly titled "It is raining plastic", the team explain that plastics were identified in over 90 percent of the rainwater samples they took at eight different sites, most of which are between Denver and Boulder, Colorado.

While it wouldn't be surprising for microplastics to contaminate most sample sites, considering the abundance of plastic in urban locations, some of these sites are remote. One of them, called CO98, is 3,159 metres (10,400 feet) above sea level in the Rocky Mountains.


Indian researchers develop biosensor device to detect heart disease

doctors hospital
© AFP 2019/ Prakash Singh
Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad Researchers are collaborating with research institutions across the world to develop a device to detect heart disease with high speed, sensitivity and reliability. Their ground-breaking work has recently been published in the reputed peer-reviewed Journal of Materials Chemistry B.

The Research Team is headed by Prof Renu John, Head, Department of Biomedical Engineering, IIT Hyderabad. Their work not only offers promise in the diagnosis or prediction of heart disorders within minutes but can also be extended to detection of other diseases.


Mystery of DNA methylation uncovered by scientist in Denmark

DNA Methylation
© DTU Biosustain
To a large extent, DNA methylation, which regulates vital cell functions, is still a mystery to the scientific world. Now, scientists have developed a method to quickly couple methylation enzymes to their respective methylation pattern. This finding could become essential for successful gene engineering in many species.

All species mark their DNA with methyl groups. This is done to regulate gene expression, distinguish indigenous DNA from foreign DNA, or to mark old DNA strands during replication. Methylation is carried out by certain enzymes called methyltransferases, which decorate DNA with methyl groups in certain patterns to create an epigenetic layer on top of DNA.

Until now, scientists have not been struggling to tell which enzymes are responsible for which patterns. But in a new study, recently published in Nature Communications, scientists from The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability (DTU Biosustain) at Technical University of Denmark have coupled enzymes with specific methylation patterns in two bacteria.

"Knowing which enzyme does what opens up to a lot of applications. With this knowledge, you can construct model organisms with artificial methylomes, mimicking the methylation pattern of the strain you want to introduce DNA to. In this way you can ensure 'survival' of introduced DNA," says Specialist and first-author of this paper Torbjørn Ølshøj Jensen from DTU Biosustain.

Microscope 2

Refining the CRISPR method

dots are genes
© ETH Zurich/Carlo Cosimo Campa
Genes and proteins in cells interact in many different ways. Each dot represents a gene; the lines are their interactions. For the first time, the new method uses biotechnology to influence entire gene networks in one single step.
Researchers at ETH Zurich have refined the famous CRISPR-Cas method. Now, for the very first time, it is possible to modify dozens, if not hundreds, of genes in a cell simultaneously.

Everyone's talking about CRISPR-Cas. This biotechnological method offers a relatively quick and easy way to manipulate single genes in cells, meaning they can be precisely deleted, replaced or modified. Furthermore, in recent years, researchers have also been using technologies based on CRISPR-Cas to systematically increase or decrease the activity of individual genes. The corresponding methods have become the worldwide standard within a very short time, both in basic biological research and in applied fields such as plant breeding.

Bizarro Earth

Scientists mull astrobiological implications of scorched exoplanet

exoplanet LHS 3844b
© Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/R.Hurt (IPAC)
An artist’s conception of the Earth-sized exoplanet LHS 3844b which orbits a small star 49 light-years from Earth.
Astronomer Laura Kreidberg admits she was initially a bit worried about her latest results. Examinations of a planet orbiting the red dwarf star LHS 3844 seemed to indicate that the rocky super-Earth, 30 percent larger than our world, possessed little or no atmosphere.

Kreidberg's concern stemmed from the fact that researchers are in the midst of a heated debate about the habitability of planets around red dwarfs, which make up 70 percent of the stars in our galaxy. A universe teeming with life is more likely if the worlds orbiting these diminutive entities, which are smaller and cooler than our sun, could be a good abode for biology.

But red dwarfs are harsh hosts, emitting frequent flares containing x-rays and ultraviolet radiation that could sterilize a planet, as well as energetic stellar winds that can strip it of its protective atmosphere. Kreidberg and her colleagues' findings, appearing today in Nature, could be seen as a mark against the idea that planets around small red stars could provide a nurturing environment.


Real-life SkyNet? Pentagon wants to use AI to develop new weapons and vehicles

killer robot
Despite numerous science fiction stories and famous scientists cautioning humanity against using artificial intelligence in various weapons systems, it seems that the Pentagon has disregarded these warnings.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which operates under the US Department of Defence, has devised a new four-year project aimed at developing artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes. This AI, in turn, is expected to help the Pentagon in its development of new vehicles, weapons, and equipment embedded with various cyber systems.

In papers related to the project, DARPA explains that currently the development of such "cyber physical systems" (CPS) takes an enormous amount of time and resources, whereas the AI would reduce the gap between the system's inception and its deployment "from years to months".

CPS development currently involves contractors coming up with alternative designs for certain CPS sub-systems, each of them solving the tasks with various levels of efficiency. However, testing each design for functionality, efficiency and reliability takes time and thus many suggestions are dropped without being considered, potentially leaving out promising solutions.

Alarm Clock

Invasion of the 'frankenbees': The latest developments in genetically modified pollinators


Beekeepers are sounding the alarm about the latest developments in genetically modified pollinators.

The spring of 2008 was brutal for Europe's honeybees. In late April and early May, during the corn-planting season, dismayed beekeepers in Germany's upper Rhine valley looked on as whole colonies perished. Millions of bees died. France, the Netherlands and Italy reported big losses, but in Germany the incident took on the urgency of a national crisis. "It was a disaster," recalled Walter Haefeker, German president of the European Professional Beekeepers Association. "The government had to set up containers along the autobahn where beekeepers could dump their hives."

An investigation in July of that year concluded that the bees in Germany died of mass poisoning by the pesticide clothianidin, which can be 10,000 times more potent than DDT. In the months leading up to the bee crisis, clothianidin, developed by Bayer Crop Science from a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, had been used up and down the Rhine following an outbreak of corn rootworm. The pesticide is designed to attack the nervous system of crop-munching pests, but studies have shown it can be harmful to insects such as the European honeybee. It muddles the bees' super-acute sense of direction and upsets their feeding habits, while it can also alter the queen's reproductive anatomy and sterilize males. As contaminated beehives piled up, Bayer paid €2m (£1.76m) into a compensation fund for beekeepers in the affected area, but offered no admission of guilt.