Exposing the contents of your genes
Would you ever consider donating your genome to research? We meet a man who has, and find out why. Plus, we get our hands dirty in the search for new antibiotics, take a look at the ethics of human gene editing, and our gene of the month is getting ahead in life. This is the Naked Genetics podcast for September 2017, brought to you in association with The Genetics Society.
In this episode
01:04 - Would you donate your genome?
Would you donate your genome?
with Colin Smith, University of Brighton
We’ve heard about donating blood, tissue, tumours, organs, or even your whole deceased body for medical research - but would you donate your genome? Colin Smith, Professor of functional genomics at the University of Brighton has done just that. He had his genome sequenced and donated it through a process called Open Consent to the Personal Genome Project UK, meaning that all his genetic data is out there on the internet for anyone to see. This is the kind of thing that most people might feel a little bit nervous about, so when Kat Arney met him at the British Science Festival in Brighton earlier this month, she had a few questions.
Kat - That’s Colin Smith from the University of Brighton. And if you’d like to join the fairly sizeable queue to have your genome sequenced by the Personal Genome Project and release it to the public, you can find out more at https://www.personalgenomes.org.uk/ And there are also projects in the US, Canada and Austria too.
09:43 - Getting dirty with microbiology
Getting dirty with microbiology
with Laura Bowater, University of East Anglia
At the British Science Festival in Brighton, Kat Arney was part of a panel discussion organised by the Biochemical Society focusing on DIY biology - the idea that anyone can get their hands dirty and do some science. And, as she found out from fellow panellist Laura Bowater from the University of East Anglia, some projects are taking that very literally.
Kat - UEA’s Professor Laura Bowater. The Antibiotics Unearthed project is being run by the Microbiology Society - just search online for ‘antibiotics unearthed’ to find out how to post in samples of your favourite soil, or to take part in a pop-up research event near you.
16:06 - Plant molecules make worker bees
Plant molecules make worker bees
Researchers at Nanjing University in China have discovered what’s responsible for the biological switch that determines whether a female honeybee will become a sterile worker or a sexually active queen. Writing in the journal PLOS Genetics, the team discovered that tiny molecular messages produced in plants, known as microRNAs, end up in the pollen and honey that female bee larvae are fed on as they develop.
This mixture, known as bee bread, is only fed to larvae that grow up to be workers, while potential queens feast on royal jelly, produced by special nurse bees. The plant microRNAs seem to affect the activity of particular genes in the developing workers, including an important gene called TOR which is known to be involved in separating workers from queens.
While it’s long been known that the bees’ dietary differences must have something to do with their sexual development, it wasn’t known exactly how this works. And although microRNAs have been shown to affect the activity of genes, this is the first example of microRNAs made by one species affecting the development of another - so it’s news that has created a bit of a buzz.
17:23 - Germs down the generations
Germs down the generations
Scientists at the University of Leicester have discovered that a relatively tiny group of human ancestors, living around 24,000 years ago, are responsible for transmitting an inherited strain of human herpesvirus, known as HHV-6, that still affects millions of people around the world today.
HHV6 is unusual because it can insert itself into the genome and lie low, unlike other herpes viruses, which hide inside neurones and other cells types but don’t usually integrate into our DNA. This also means that they can be passed on down the generations, if they’ve inserted into a cell that will become egg or sperm.
After studying the viral DNA inserted in the genomes of people from the UK, Europe, Japan, China and Pakistan, the scientists found that some of the inherited viruses were very similar to each other and are also located in the same part of the genome in people who weren’t known to be immediately related.
By comparing subtle changes in the virus DNA that had accumulated over thousands of years, the researchers concluded that these viral infections originated in a small number of ancestors thousands of years ago. And although the infection is ancient, up to two per cent of the UK population today carry inherited HHV6, and there are concerns it could reactivate and cause health problems. Understanding more about the genetic legacy of the virus will help to identify its long term effects on health.
19:06 - Ethics and gene editing
Ethics and gene editing
with Jackie Leach Scully, University of Newcastle
It’s time to return to the British Science Festival in Brighton and a fascinating guest lecture organised by the Biochemical Society. Jackie Leach Scully, Professor of Social Ethics and Bioethics at Newcastle University took us through a detailed and careful look at the ethics of gene editing in humans - a hot and exciting topic in the research world, but one that’s fraught with ethical and social implications. Kat Arney started by asking her to clarify what we mean when we talk about human gene editing or genetic engineering.
Kat - Jackie Leach Scully from the University of Newcastle.
28:48 - Gene of the Month - Cerberus
Gene of the Month - Cerberus
According to Greek mythology, Cerberus is the infamous Hound of Hades - the multi-headed guard dog responsible for watching over the gates of hell and making sure none of the naughty people get out, because, fairly obviously, who would want to try and break in? So it’s no surprise that this big bad dog is the inspiration for the name of a gene that can induce extra heads, hearts and livers in frog tadpoles. The story starts with researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, who noticed a particularly abundant messenger RNA in developing tadpoles - messenger RNA being the message that’s produced when a gene is read. When they purified it and injected it into frog embryos, they saw strange double-headed creatures, and some with duplicated organs too. That was back in 1996, and since then scientists have found versions of Cerberus in many other organisms, including mammals and humans - and while altering Cerberus activity isn’t enough to grow animals with extra heads, it seems to be very important for proper development of the head and heart, and also for setting up the differences between the left and right sides of the body. In keeping with the hellbound theme, when Japanese researchers discovered a new gene related to Cerberus in fish, they named it Charon, after the mythical Greek boatman who ferries dead souls across the River Styx to their final destination in Hades. And a version of Cerberus in chickens is known as Caronte, the Italian name for the same character. We don’t know if it’s strictly true to the story, but we do like to imagine that he has extra-large pockets full of dog biscuits for Cerberus’s multiple mouths.