Ferreting Out Genomic Secrets


Ferret in a Colorado conservation center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Not only is the ferret (Mustela putorius furo) adept at navigating a dirt field or threading electrical cables through piping (in New Zealand, ferrets can be registered as electrician assistants), this furry 5-pounder ranks as a real heavyweight for studying respiratory diseases. In fact, much of our current thinking about influenza is influenced by research with ferrets.

Now, the ferret will stand out even more. As reported online in Nature Biotechnology, NIH-funded researchers recently sequenced the genome of the sable ferret, the type that is bred in the United States as a pet. By studying this genetic blueprint like an explorer would a map, scientists can perform experiments to learn more systematically how the ferret copes biologically with common or emerging respiratory pathogens, pointing the way to improved strategies to preserve the health and well being of humans and ferrets alike.

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From Ebola Researchers, An Anthem of Hope

One Truth Video screenshot

After watching this music video, you might wonder what on earth it has to do with biomedical science, let alone Ebola research. The answer is everything.

This powerful song, entitled “One Truth,” is dedicated to all of the brave researchers, healthcare workers, and others who have put their lives on the line to save people during the recent outbreak of Ebola virus disease. What’s more, it was written and performed by seven amazing scientists—one from the United States and six from West Africa.

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Copying and Reading the Book of Life Inside One Cell, Accurately

Microwell strip

Caption: The genome researchers collaborated with materials science engineers to create the arrays of microwells or compartments that each capture a single cell.
Credit: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

Decoding the complete DNA genome in a single cell has been a major goal of technology developers. But the methods aren’t quite able to deal with that yet.  So, for scientists to do this, they first need to make multiple copies of the DNA inside. Until now, the copying technology hasn’t been as accurate as scientists would like. If you think of the genome like a book, then our current copiers replicate certain chapters thousands of times, others just a few, and some not at all. As you can imagine, if you tried to read one of these copies, you’d be quite confused—and you certainly couldn’t rely on your reading for any medical purposes.

Now, NIH-funded researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have developed a new molecular technique that can accurately and uniformly copy the DNA inside a single cell [1]. Using this technique, they’ve already made some surprising discoveries.

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DNA’s Double Anniversary

Images of the first publication of DNA's structure adjacent to the image on the cover of the published human genome

April 25 is a very special day. In 2003, Congress declared April 25th DNA Day to mark the date that James Watson and Francis Crick published their seminal one-page paper in Nature [1] describing the helical structure of DNA. That was 60 years ago. In that single page, they revealed how organisms elegantly store biological information and pass it from generation to generation; they discovered the molecular basis of evolution; and they effectively launched the era of modern biology.

But that’s not all that’s special about this date. It was ten years ago this month that we celebrated the completion of all of the original goals of the Human Genome Project (HGP), which produced a reference sequence of the 3 billion DNA letters that make up the instruction book for building and maintaining a human being. The $3 billion, 13-year project involved more than 2,000 scientists from six countries. As the scientist tasked with leading that effort, I remain immensely proud of the team. They worked tirelessly and creatively to do something once thought impossible, never worrying about who got the credit, and giving all of the data away immediately so that anyone who had a good idea about how to use it for human benefit could proceed immediately. Biology will never be the same. Medical research will never be the same. Continue reading