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DNA sequencing

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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Chances are you know someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s estimated that more than 2 million Americans struggle with this mental health condition, characterized by unwanted recurring thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors, such as excessive hand washing or constant counting of objects. While we know that OCD tends to run in families, it’s been frustratingly difficult to identify specific genes that influence OCD risk.

Now, an international research team, partly funded by NIH, has made progress thanks to an innovative genomic approach involving dogs, mice, and people. The strategy allowed them to uncover four genes involved in OCD that turn out to play a role in synapses, where nerve impulses are transmitted between neurons in the brain. While more research is needed to confirm the findings and better understand the molecular mechanisms of OCD, these findings offer important new leads that could point the way to more effective treatments.


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Cancer OddsWe humans are wired to search for a causative agent when something bad happens. When someone develops cancer, we seek a reason. Maybe cancer runs in the family. Or perhaps the person smoked, never wore sunscreen, or drank too much alcohol. At some level, those are reasonable assumptions, as genes, lifestyle, and environment do play important roles in cancer. But a new study claims that the reason why many people get cancer is simply just bad luck.

This bad luck occurs during the normal process of cell division that is essential to helping our bodies grow and remain healthy. Every time a cell divides, its 6 billion letters of DNA are copied, with a new copy going to each daughter cell. Typos inevitably occur during this duplication process, and the cell’s DNA proofreading mechanisms usually catch and correct these typos. However, every once in a while, a typo slips through—and if that misspelling happens to occur in certain key areas of the genome, it can drive a cell onto a pathway of uncontrolled growth that leads to cancer. In fact, according to a team of NIH-funded researchers, nearly two-thirds of DNA typos in human cancers arise in this random way.

The latest findings should help to reassure people being treated for many forms of cancer that they likely couldn’t have prevented their illness. They also serve as an important reminder that, in addition to working on better strategies for prevention, cancer researchers must continue to pursue innovative technologies for early detection and treatment.


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Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2016Happy New Year! While everyone was busy getting ready for the holidays, the journal Science announced its annual compendium of scientific Breakthroughs of the Year. If you missed it, the winner for 2016 was the detection of gravitational waves—tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime created by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago! It’s an incredible discovery, and one that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago.

Among the nine other advances that made the first cut for Breakthrough of the Year, several involved the biomedical sciences. As I’ve done in previous years (here and here), I’ll kick off this New Year by taking a quick look of some of the breakthroughs that directly involved NIH support:


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