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Study Shows Genes Unique to Humans Tied to Bigger Brains

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cortical organoid

Caption: Cortical organoid, showing radial glial stem cells (green) and cortical neurons (red).
Credit: Sofie Salama, University of California, Santa Cruz

In seeking the biological answer to the question of what it means to be human, the brain’s cerebral cortex is a good place to start. This densely folded, outer layer of grey matter, which is vastly larger in Homo sapiens than in other primates, plays an essential role in human consciousness, language, and reasoning.

Now, an NIH-funded team has pinpointed a key set of genes—found only in humans—that may help explain why our species possesses such a large cerebral cortex. Experimental evidence shows these genes prolong the development of stem cells that generate neurons in the cerebral cortex, which in turn enables the human brain to produce more mature cortical neurons and, thus, build a bigger cerebral cortex than our fellow primates.

That sounds like a great advantage for humans! But there’s a downside. Researchers found the same genomic changes that facilitated the expansion of the human cortex may also render our species more susceptible to certain rare neurodevelopmental disorders.


Of Mice and Men: Study Pinpoints Genes Essential for Life

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Many people probably think of mice as unwanted household pests. But over more than a century, mice have proven to be incredibly valuable in medical research. One of many examples is how studies in mice are now helping researchers understand how mammalian genomes work, including the human genome. Scientists have spent decades inactivating, or “knocking out,” individual genes in laboratory mice to learn which tissues or organs are affected when a specific gene is out of order, providing valuable clues about its function.

More than a decade ago, NIH initiated a project called KOMP—the Knockout Mouse Project [1]. The goal was to use homologous recombination (exchange of similar or identical DNA) in embryonic stem cells from a standard mouse strain to knock out all of the mouse protein-coding genes. That work has led to wide availability of such cell lines to investigators with interest in specific genes, saving time and money. But it’s one thing to have a cell line with the gene knocked out, it’s even more interesting (and challenging) to determine the phenotype, or observable characteristics, of each knockout. To speed up that process in a scientifically rigorous and systematic manner, NIH and other research funding agencies teamed to launch an international research consortium to turn those embryonic stem cells into mice, and ultimately to catalogue the functions of the roughly 20,000 genes that mice and humans share. The consortium has just released an analysis of the phenotypes of the first 1,751 new lines of unique “knockout mice” with much more to come in the months ahead. This initial work confirms that about a third of all protein-coding genes are essential for live birth, helping to fill in a major gap in our understanding of the genome.


Gene Duplication: New Analysis Shows How Extra Copies Split the Work

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Word cloudThe human genome contains more than 20,000 protein-coding genes, which carry the instructions for proteins essential to the structure and function of our cells, tissues and organs. Some of these genes are very similar to each other because, as the genomes of humans and other mammals evolve, glitches in DNA replication sometimes result in extra copies of a gene being made. Those duplicates can be passed along to subsequent generations and, on very rare occasions, usually at a much later point in time, acquire additional modifications that may enable them to serve new biological functions. By starting with a protein shape that has already been fine-tuned for one function, evolution can produce a new function more rapidly than starting from scratch.

Pretty cool! But it leads to a question that’s long perplexed evolutionary biologists: Why don’t duplicate genes vanish from the gene pool almost as soon as they appear? After all, instantly doubling the amount of protein produced in an organism is usually a recipe for disaster—just think what might happen to a human baby born with twice as much insulin or clotting factor as normal. At the very least, duplicate genes should be unnecessary and therefore vulnerable to being degraded into functionless pseudogenes as new mutations arise over time

An NIH-supported team offers a possible answer to this question in a study published in the journal Science. Based on their analysis of duplicate gene pairs in the human and mouse genomes, the researchers suggest that extra genes persist in the genome because of rapid changes in gene activity. Instead of the original gene producing 100 percent of a protein in the body, the gene duo quickly divvies up the job [1]. For instance, the original gene might produce roughly 50 percent and its duplicate the other 50 percent. Most importantly, organisms find the right balance and the duplicate genes can easily survive to be passed along to their offspring, providing fodder for continued evolution.


Largest Study Yet Shows Mother’s Smoking Changes Baby’s Epigenome

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Pregnant woman smoking

Credit: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Despite years of public health campaigns warning of the dangers of smoking when pregnant, many women are unaware of the risk or find themselves unable to quit. As a result, far too many babies are still being exposed in the womb to toxins that enter their mothers’ bloodstreams when they inhale cigarette smoke. Among the many infant and child health problems that have been linked to maternal smoking are premature birth, low birth weight, asthma, reduced lung function, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and cleft lip and/or palate.

Now, a large international study involving NIH-supported researchers provides a biological mechanism that may explain how exposure to cigarette toxins during fetal development can produce these health problems [1]. That evidence centers on the impact of the toxins on the epigenome of the infant’s body tissues. The epigenome refers to chemical modifications of DNA (particularly methylation of cytosines), as well as proteins that bind to DNA and affect its function. The genome of an individual is the same in all cells of their body, but the epigenome determines whether genes are turned on or off in particular cells. The study found significant differences between the epigenetic patterns of babies born to women who smoked during pregnancy and those born to non-smokers, with many of the differences affecting genes known to play key roles in the development of the lungs, face, and nervous system.


Snapshots of Life: Fish Awash in Color

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Skin cells from a genetically engineered zebrafish

Credit: Chen-Hui Chen, Duke University

If this image makes you think of a modern art, you’re not alone. But what you’re actually seeing are hundreds of live cells from a tiny bit (0.0003348 square inches) of skin on the tail fin of a genetically engineered adult zebrafish. Zebrafish are normally found in tropical freshwater and are a favorite research model to study vertebrate development and tissue regeneration. The cells have been labeled with a cool, new fluorescent imaging tool called Skinbow. It uniquely color codes cells by getting them to express genes encoding red, green, and blue fluorescent proteins at levels that are randomly determined. The different ratios of these colorful proteins mix to give each cell a distinctive hue when imaged under a microscope. Here, you can see more than 70 detectable Skinbow colors that make individual cells as visually distinct from one another as jellybeans in a jar.

Skinbow is the creation of NIH-supported scientists Chen-Hui Chen and Kenneth Poss at Duke University, Durham, NC, with imaging computational help from collaborators Stefano Di Talia and Alberto Puliafito. As reported recently in the journal Developmental Cell [1], Skinbow’s distinctive spectrum of color occurs primarily in the outermost part of the skin in a layer of non-dividing epithelial cells. Using Skinbow, Poss and colleagues tracked these epithelial cells, individually and as a group, over their entire 2 to 3 week lifespans in the zebrafish. This gave them an unprecedented opportunity to track the cellular dynamics of wound healing or the regeneration of lost tissue over time. While Skinbow only works in zebrafish for now, in theory, it could be adapted to mice and maybe even humans to study skin and possibly other organs.


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