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biotechnology

Variations within neurons

Caption: Single-cell analysis helps to reveal subtle, but important, differences among human cells, including many types of brain cells.
Credit: Shutterstock, modified by Ryan M. Mulqueen

Imagine how long it would take to analyze the 37 trillion or so cells that make up the human body if you had to do it by hand, one by one! Still, single-cell analysis is crucial to gaining a comprehensive understanding of our biology. The cell is the unit of life for all organisms, and all cells are certainly not the same. Think about it: even though each cell contains the same DNA, some make up your skin while others build your bones; some of your cells might be super healthy while others could be headed down the road to cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.

So, it’s no surprise that many NIH-funded researchers are hard at work in the rapidly emerging field known as single-cell analysis. In fact, one team recently reported impressive progress in improving the speed and efficiency of a method to analyze certain epigenetic features of individual cells [1]. Epigenetics refers to a multitude of chemical and protein “marks” on a cell’s DNA—patterns that vary among cells and help to determine which genes are switched on or off. That plays a major role in defining cellular identity as a skin cell, liver cell, or pancreatic cancer cell.

The team’s rather simple but ingenious approach relies on attaching a unique combination of two DNA barcodes to each cell prior to analyzing epigenetic marks all across the genome, making it possible for researchers to pool hundreds of cells without losing track of each of them individually. Using this approach, the researchers could profile thousands of individual cells simultaneously for less than 50 cents per cell, a 50- to 100-fold drop in price. The new approach promises to yield important insights into the role of epigenetic factors in our health, from the way neurons in our brains function to whether or not a cancer responds to treatment.

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MinION sequencing device

Caption: MinION sequencing device plugged into a laptop/Oxford Nanopore Technologies

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost 15 years since we successfully completed the Human Genome Project, ahead of schedule and under budget. I was proud to stand with my international colleagues in a celebration at the Library of Congress on April 14, 2003 (which happens to be my birthday), to announce that we had stitched together the very first reference sequence of the human genome at a total cost of about $400 million. As remarkable as that achievement was, it was just the beginning of our ongoing effort to understand the human genome, and to use that understanding to improve human health.

That first reference human genome was sequenced using automated machines that were the size of small phone booths. Since then, breathtaking progress has been made in developing innovative technologies that have made DNA sequencing far easier, faster, and more affordable. Now, a report in Nature Biotechnology highlights the latest advance: the sequencing and assembly of a human genome using a pocket-sized device [1]. It was generated using several “nanopore” devices that can be purchased online with a “starter kit” for just $1,000. In fact, this new genome sequence—completed in a matter of weeks—includes some notoriously hard-to-sequence stretches of DNA, filling several key gaps in our original reference genome.

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Original vs. CRISPR stored images

Credit: Seth Shipman, Harvard Medical School, Boston

There’s a reason why our cells store all of their genetic information as DNA. This remarkable molecule is unsurpassed for storing lots of data in an exceedingly small space. In fact, some have speculated that, if encoded in DNA, all of the data ever generated by humans could fit in a room about the size of a two-car garage and, if that room happens to be climate controlled, the data would remain intact for hundreds of thousands of years! [1]

Scientists have already explored whether synthetic DNA molecules on a chip might prove useful for archiving vast amounts of digital information. Now, an NIH-funded team of researchers is taking DNA’s information storage capabilities in another intriguing direction. They’ve devised their own code to record information not on a DNA chip, but in the DNA of living cells. Already, the team has used bacterial cells to store the data needed to outline the shape of a human hand, as well the data necessary to reproduce five frames from a famous vintage film of a horse galloping (see above).

But the researchers’ ultimate goal isn’t to make drawings or movies. They envision one day using DNA as a type of “molecular recorder” that will continuously monitor events taking place within a cell, providing potentially unprecedented looks at how cells function in both health and disease.

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Cells labeled with barcodesA little more than a decade ago, researchers began adapting a familiar commercial concept to genomics: the barcode. Instead of the black, printed stripes of the Universal Product Codes (UPCs) that we see on everything from package deliveries to clothing tags, they used short, unique snippets of DNA to label cells. These biological “barcodes” enable scientists to distinguish one cell type from another, in much the same way that a supermarket scanner recognizes different brands of cereal.

DNA barcoding has already empowered single-cell analysis, including for nerve cells in the brain. Now, in a new NIH-supported study, DNA barcoding helps in the development of a new method that could greatly streamline an increasingly complex and labor-intensive process: screening for drugs to combat cancer.

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Four NIH-supported science breakthroughs for 2015A new year has arrived, and it’s going to be an amazing one for biomedical research. But before diving into our first “new science” post of 2016, let’s take a quick look back at 2015 and some of its remarkable accomplishments. A great place to reflect on “the year that was” is the journal Science’s annual Top 10 list of advances in all of scientific research worldwide. Four of 2015’s Top 10 featured developments directly benefited from NIH support—including Science’s “Breakthrough of the Year,” the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technique. Here’s a little more on the NIH-assisted breakthroughs:

CRISPR Makes the Cut: I’ve highlighted CRISPR/Cas9 in several posts. This gene-editing system consists of a short segment of RNA that is attached to an enzyme. The RNA is preprogrammed to find a distinct short sequence of DNA and deliver the enzyme, which acts like a scalpel to slice the sequence out of the genome. It’s fast and pretty precise. Although CRISPR/Cas9 isn’t brand-new—it’s been under development as a gene-editing tool for a few years—Science considered 2015 to be “the year that it broke away from the pack.”

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