Climate change: Improving heat tolerance in trees

Is it possible to improve tolerance of trees to high temperatures and other types of stress derived of climate change? A research group of the Universidad Politcnica de Madrid (UPM), led by Luis Gmez, a professor of the Forestry School and the Centre for Plant Biotechnology and Genomics (CBGP), is studying the tolerance of trees using molecular and biotechnological tools. The research work was published in the last issue of the journal Plant Physiology.The obtained poplars in this project, with the collaboration of the Universidad de Mlaga, are significantly more tolerant to high temperatures than the control trees. These trees are also more tolerant to drought, to the presence of weed-killer, to in vitro and ex vitro crops, to contamination and other ways of abiotic stress that have an applied interest for forestry. This work is a continuation of a project started by of a research team of the UPM a decade ago. This study focuses on mechanisms that plant cells use to protect themselves from stress factors.Due to the human pressure on forests, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is promoting intensive plantations as an alternative to meet the global demand of wood and other products. Besides, plantations have social and economic benefits (job creation, wealth and rural development). This model change has significant ecological consequences.The role of forests is essential for climate change mitigation and biodiversity preservation, amongst others. A documentary “El Bosque Protector,” co-produced by the UPM and available on “A la Carta” of RTVE shows the result of this study. Tree farming plantations as a realistic alternative will be possible if the current yield significantly increases. …

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Genetic chip will help salmon farmers breed better fish

Atlantic salmon production could be boosted by a new technology that will help select the best fish for breeding.The development will enable salmon breeders to improve the quality of their stock and its resistance to disease.A chip loaded with hundreds of thousands of pieces of DNA — each holding a fragment of the salmon’s genetic code — will allow breeders to detect fish with the best genes.It does so by detecting variations in the genetic code of each individual fish — known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). These variations make it possible to identify genes that are linked to desirable physical traits, such as growth or resistance to problematic diseases, for example sea lice infestations.Salmon breeders will be able to carry out the test by taking a small sample of fin tissue.The chip carries over twenty times more genetic information than existing tools. Similar chips have already transformed breeding programmes for land-farmed livestock including cattle and pigs.Salmon farming contributes around half a billion pounds to the UK economy each year and provides healthy, high quality food. Worldwide, approximately 1.5 million tonnes of Atlantic salmon are produced every year.Scientists from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and Edinburgh Genomics initiative developed the chip with researchers from the Universities of Stirling and Glasgow. They worked with industrial partners Affymetrix UK and Landcatch Natural Selection. The work was funded by the UK’s innovation agency — the Technology Strategy Board — and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.The chip is highlighted in a study published today in the journal BMC Genomics and it will be available to breeders and farmers from March 2014.Dr Ross Houston, of The Roslin Institute, said: “Selective breeding programmes have been used to improve salmon stocks since the 1970s. This new technology will allow the best breeding fish to be selected more efficiently and accurately, particularly those with characteristics that are difficult to measure such as resistance to disease”Dr Alan Tinch, director of genetics at Landcatch Natural Selection, said: “This development takes selective breeding programmes to a whole new level. It is an extension to the selective breeding of salmon allowing more accurate identification of the best fish to create healthier and more robust offspring.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Edinburgh. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Oil composition boost makes hemp a cooking contender

Scientists at the University of York today report the development of hemp plants with a dramatically increased content of oleic acid. The new oil profile results in an attractive cooking oil that is similar to olive oil in terms of fatty acid content having a much longer shelf life as well as greater heat tolerance and potentially more industrial applications.Researchers in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) in the Department of Biology at York say that high oleic acid varieties are a major step towards developing hemp as a commercially attractive break crop for cereal farmers. The research is published in Plant Biotechnology Journal.Using fast-track molecular plant breeding, the scientists selected hemp plants lacking the active form of an enzyme involved in making polyunsaturated fatty acids. These plants made less poly-unsaturated fatty acids and instead accumulated higher levels of the mono-unsaturated oleic acid. The research team used conventional plant breeding techniques to develop the plants into a “High Oleic Hemp” line and higher oleic acid content was demonstrated in a Yorkshire field trial.Oil from the new line was almost 80 per cent oleic acid, compared with typical values of less than 10 per cent in the standard hemp line. This high mono-unsaturated/low poly-unsaturated fatty acid profile increases the oil’s thermal stability and oil from the new line was shown to have around five times the stability of standard hemp oil. This not only makes the oil more valuable as a cooking oil but also increases its usefulness for high temperature industrial processes.As oilseed rape faces declining yields and increasing attacks from pest and disease, UK farming needs another break crop to ensure the sustainability of its agriculture and maintain cereal yields. An improved hemp crop, yielding high quality oil would provide an excellent alternative. Hemp is a low-input crop and is also dual-purpose, with the straw being used as a fibre (for bedding, composites and textiles), for biomass and as a source of high value waxes and secondary metabolites.Professor Ian Graham, from CNAP, said: “The new line represents a major improvement in hemp as an oil crop. Similar developments in soybean and oilseed rape have opened up new markets for these crops, due to the perceived healthiness and increased stability of their oil.”In 2014 field trials of the new High Oleic Hemp are being rolled out across Europe in order to establish agronomic performance and yield under a range of environmental conditions in advance of launching a commercial crop.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of York. …

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Ranking disease-causal mutations within whole genome sequences

Researchers from the University of Washington and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology have developed a new method for organizing and prioritizing genetic data. The Combined Annotation-Dependent Depletion, or CADD, method will assist scientists in their search for disease-causing mutation events in human genomes.The new method is the subject of a paper titled “A general framework for estimating the relative pathogenicity of human genetic variants,” published in Nature Genetics.Current methods of organizing human genetic variation look at just one or a few factors and use only a small subset of the information available. For example, the Encyclopedia Of DNA Elements, or ENCODE, catalogs various types of functional elements in human genomes, while sequence conservation looks for similar or identical sequences that have survived across different species through hundreds of millions of years of evolution. CADD brings all of these data together, and more, into one score in order to provide a ranking that helps researchers discern which variants may be linked to disease and which ones may not.”CADD will substantially improve our ability to identify disease-causal mutations, will continue to get better as genomic databases grow, and is an important analytical advance needed to better exploit the information content of whole-genome sequences in both clinical and research settings,” said Gregory M. Cooper, Ph.D., faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha and one of the collaborators on CADD.The goal in developing the new approach was to take the overwhelming amount of data available and distill it down into a single score that can be more easily evaluated by a researcher or clinician. To accomplish that, CADD compares and contrasts the properties of 15 million genetic variants separating humans from chimpanzees with 15 million simulated variants. Variants observed in humans have survived natural selection, which tends to remove harmful, disease-causing variants, while simulated variants are not exposed to selection. Thus, by comparing observed to simulated variants, CADD is able to identify those properties that make a variant harmful or disease-causing. C scores have been pre-computed for all 8.6 billion possible single nucleotide variants and are freely available for researchers.”We didn’t know what to expect,” Cooper said, “but we were pleasantly surprised that CADD was able not only to be applicable to mutations everywhere in the genome but in fact do a substantially better job in nearly every test that we performed than other metrics.”The CADD method is unique from other algorithms in that it assigns scores to mutations anywhere in human genomes, not just the less-than two percent that encode proteins (the “exome”). This unique attribute will be crucial as whole-genome sequencing becomes routine in both clinical and research settings.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. …

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Genetically modified tobacco plants are viable for producing biofuels

Oct. 14, 2013 — In her PhD thesis Ruth Sanz-Barrio, an agricultural engineer of the NUP/UPNA-Public University of Navarre and researcher at the Institute of Biotechnology (mixed centre of the CSIC-Spanish National Research Council, Public University of Navarre and the Government of Navarre), has demonstrated, for the first time, the viability of using specific tobacco proteins (known as thioredoxins) as biotechnological tools in plants. Specifically, she has managed to increase the amount of starch produced in the tobacco leaves by 700% and fermentable sugars by 500%. “We believe that these genetically modified plants,” she explained, “could be a good alternative to food crops for producing biofuels, and could provide an outlet for the tobacco-producing areas in our country that see their future in jeopardy owing to the discontinuing of European grants for this crop.”Thioredoxins (Trxs) are small proteins present in most living organisms. In the course of her research Ruth Sanz demonstrated the capacity of the thioredoxins f and m in tobacco as biotechnological tools not only to increase the starch content in the plant but also to increase the production of proteins like human albumin. “For some time Trxs have been known to have a regulating function in living organisms, but in the thesis we have shown that they can also act by helping other proteins to fold and structure themselves so that they become functional.”Human albumin is the most widely used intravenous protein in the world for therapeutic purposes. It is used to stabilize blood volume and prevent the risk of infarction, and its application in operating theatres is almost a daily occurrence. It is also used in burns, surgical operations, haemorrhages, or when the patient is undernourished or dehydrated, and in the case of chronic infections and renal or hepatic diseases.Although commercial albumin is extracted from blood, the lack of a sufficient volume in reserve has prompted many researchers to seek new formulas for obtaining this protein on a large scale economically and safely. “We have come up with an easier, cheaper procedure for producing it in the tobacco plant and extracting it. By fusing the genes encoding the Trxs f or m, we increased the amount of recombinant protein (the albumin, in this case). …

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Autism gene stunts neurons, but growth can be restored

Sep. 12, 2013 — Brown University researchers have traced a genetic deficiency implicated in autism in humans to specific molecular and cellular consequences that cause clear deficits in mice in how well neurons can grow the intricate branches that allow them to connect to brain circuits. The researchers also show in their study (online Sep. 12, 2013, in Neuron) that they could restore proper neuronal growth by compensating for the errant molecular mechanisms they identified.The study involves the gene that produces a protein called NHE6. Mutation of the gene is directly associated with a rare and severe autism-related condition known as Christianson syndrome. But scientists, including senior author Dr. Eric Morrow, have also associated the protein with more general autism.”In generalized autism this protein is downregulated,” said Morrow, assistant professor of biology in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cellular Biology, and Biochemistry at Brown and a psychiatrist who sees autism patients at the Bradley Hospital in East Providence. “That meant to us that downregulation of NHE6 is relevant to a sizeable subset of autism.”The NHE6 protein helps to regulate acidity in the endosomes of cells. These endosomes are responsible for transporting material around cells and for degrading proteins including ones that signal neurons to grow the elaborately branched axons and dendrites that form neural connections.In their experiments the researchers measured acidity in the endosomes of brain cells of normal mice and in mice with mutations in the NHE6 gene. They found that the mutant mice had significantly higher endosome acidity. …

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Genome of elastomeric materials creates novel materials

Sep. 9, 2013 — A wide range of biologically inspired materials may now be possible by combining protein studies, materials science and RNA sequencing, according to an international team of researchers.”Biological methods of synthesizing materials are not new,” said Melik C. Demirel, professor of engineering science and mechanics, Penn State. “What is new is the application of these principles to produce unique materials.”The researchers looked at proteins because they are the building blocks of biological materials and also often control sequencing, growth and self-assembly. RNA produced from the DNA in the cells is the template for biological proteins. Materials science practices allow researchers to characterize all aspects of how a material functions. Combining these three approaches allows rapid characterization of natural materials and the translation of their molecular designs into useable, unique materials.”One problem with finding suitable biomimetic materials is that most of the genomes of model organisms have not yet been sequenced,” said Demirel who is also a member of the Materials Research Institute and Huck Institutes of Life Sciences, Penn State. “Also, the proteins that characterize these materials are notoriously difficult to solubilize and characterize.”The team, lead by Ali Miserez, assistant professor, School of Materials Science and Engineering, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, looked at mollusk-derived tissues that had a wide range of high-performance properties including self-healing elastomeric membranes and protein-based polymers. They combined a variety of approaches including protein sequencing, amino acid composition and a complete RNA reference database for mass spectrometry analysis. They present their results in a recent issue of Nature Biotechnology.The researchers looked at three model systems. …

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Collagen clue reveals new drug target for untreatable form of lung cancer

Aug. 29, 2013 — Collagen, the stuff of ligaments and skin, and the most abundant protein in the human body, has an extraordinary role in triggering chemical signals that help protect the body from cancer, a new study reveals.Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, have uncovered a series of chemical signals sent out by collagen that appear to protect against cancer’s growth.Boosting those signals could act as an effective treatment for cancers that grow in the presence of collagen, including squamous cell lung cancer, for which no targeted treatments currently exist.And the findings suggest that switching off these chemical signals, as some treatments for leukemia do, is likely to be counter-productive in cancers where interaction with collagen plays an important role.The study was funded by The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), the Wellcome Trust and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).The ICR team explored the role of signals triggered by collagen in human embryonic kidney cells, a type of cell often used in studies of this type. They analysed the role of a molecule called DDR2, which relays signals from collagen as a means of maintaining tissue structure and function, and is mutated in some forms of squamous cell lung cancer.They treated cells with collagen, and found that DDR2 responded by activating a second protein called SHP-2, in a process that appears to be important in protecting against the growth of some cancers. But a specific mutant form of DDR2 present in some squamous cell lung cancers seemed unable to signal through SHP-2, suggesting the loss of function had left the tissue vulnerable to cancer growth.That finding offers an exciting opportunity to design the first targeted treatments for squamous cell lung cancer, perhaps by mimicking the action of SHP-2 to re-erect the normal controls against cancer’s growth in the presence of collagen.Dr Paul Huang, Team Leader in Protein Networks at The Institute of Cancer Research, said: “We knew collagen was capable of slowing the growth of some cancer types, presumably by maintaining the structure of tissues, but our new study for the first time identifies how this effect occurs in lung cancer.”We sifted through data on 428 different proteins stimulated by collagen, and isolated just one we think can play a key role in protecting tissues from cancer. Identifying this molecular trigger opens up the prospect of targeted treatments for squamous cell lung cancer.”Importantly, we also highlighted the duplicitous nature of this important signalling network. Although we know it directs a lot of cellular processes that can contribute to cancer — such as differentiation, proliferation and motility — in the presence of collagen, it actually seems to protect against cancer. That means we will need to treat cancers that develop in collagen-rich environments differently to blood cancers such as leukemia.”Professor Alan Ashworth, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, said: “Survival rates for lung cancer remain extremely poor, and one of the ways to improve this is to discover new ways of targeting the disease with drugs. This new study is valuable for two reasons — it identifies an exciting new potential route for treating lung cancers, and it also shows us why some other approaches are unlikely to work.”Scientifically, these results are very interesting as they demonstrate how one of the most common proteins in the human body plays a role not only in building the structure of tissues but also in cancer.”

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Creating plants that make their own fertilizer

Aug. 24, 2013 — Since the dawn of agriculture, people have exercised great ingenuity to pump more nitrogen into crop fields. Farmers have planted legumes and plowed the entire crop under, strewn night soil or manure on the fields, shipped in bat dung from islands in the Pacific or saltpeter from Chilean mines and plowed in glistening granules of synthetic fertilizer made in chemical plants.No wonder biologist Himadri Pakrasi’s team is excited by the project they are undertaking. If they succeed, the chemical apparatus for nitrogen fixation will be miniaturized, automated and relocated within the plant so nitrogen is available when and where it is needed — and only then and there.”That would really revolutionize agriculture,” said Pakrasi, PhD, the Myron and Sonya Glassberg/Albert and Blanche Greensfelder Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences and director of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES) at Washington University in St. Louis.Engineering with biological partsAlthough there is plenty of nitrogen in the atmosphere, atmospheric nitrogen is not in a form plants can use. Atmospheric nitrogen must be “fixed,” or converted into compounds that make the nitrogen available to plants.Much of modern agriculture relies on biologically available nitrogenous compounds made by an industrial process, developed by German chemist Fritz Haber in 1909. The importance of the Haber-Bosch process, as it eventually was called, can hardly be overstated; today, the fertilizer it produces allows us to feed a population roughly a third larger than the planet could sustain without synthetic fertilizer.On the other hand, the Haber-Bosch process is energy-intensive, and the reactive nitrogen released into the atmosphere and water as runoff from agricultural fields causes a host of problems, including respiratory illness, cancer and cardiac disease.Pakrasi thinks it should be possible to design a better nitrogen-fixing system. His idea is to put the apparatus for fixing nitrogen into plant cells, the same cells that hold the apparatus for capturing the energy in sunlight.The National Science Foundation just awarded Pakrasi and his team more than $3.87 million to explore this idea further. The grant will be administered out of I-CARES, a university-wide center that supports collaborative research regionally, nationally, and internationally in the areas of energy, the environment and sustainability.This award is one of four funded by the National Science Foundation jointly with awards funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in the United Kingdom. The teams will collaborate with one another and meet regularly to share progress and successes.A proof of principleAs a proof of principle, Pakrasi and his colleagues plan to develop the synthetic biology tools needed to excise the nitrogen fixation system in one species of cyanobacterium (a phylum of green bacteria formerly considered to be algae) and paste it into a second cyanobacterium that does not fix nitrogen.The team includes: Tae Seok Moon, PhD, and Fuzhong Zhang, PhD, both assistant professors of energy, environmental and chemical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University; and Costas D. …

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Divers willingness to pay for biodiversity could help conservation efforts

Aug. 20, 2013 — Now teeming with life, a new study using the “Tamar Reef” shows that divers assign economic importance to aspects of reef biodiversity. These findings could help underwater conservation efforts.According to the study published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, divers were willing to pay to improve the reef’s attributes and were able to differentiate and rank their preferences of biodiversity, numbers of fish and corals, coral species richness, fish species richness, coral size, coral abundance, and fish abundance.Respondents ranked biodiversity as the most desirable value, while fish abundance was the least important.”This result was exiting to us, since it shows that the general public as well as scientists place a high value on biodiversity and that visitors understand the fundamentals that constitute a coral reef community,” says Dr. Nadav Shashar of BGU’s Marine Biology and Biotechnology Program in Eilat, Israel.”This may help direct conservation efforts undertaken in designing future marine reserves and pre-planned artificial reefs.”Dr. Shashar and his team surveyed 295 divers to evaluate their willingness to pay for improving various elements of a coral reef. They were shown a series of photographs of the BGU-created Tamar Reef with varied densities and compositions of fish and coral species.The researchers focused on the overall aesthetic value of each component, but also how divers’ aesthetic preferences compare with scientific biodiversity attributes that might be of interest for conservation purposes.The artificial reef project is a collaboration between Israelis and Jordanians to restore the local Gulf reef culture. The Tamar Reef was the first of four reefs installed in the Red Sea. Students and faculty from both countries work together in studying the artificial reef and how it affects the marine ecology in the area.Special coral nurseries were developed to augment coral diversity. Small fragments developed into large corals and were planted on the artificial reefs.”One of the nurseries developed into an entirely new ecosystem of a floating coral reef with all types of fish; we even filmed a turtle stopping by to feed,” Shashar explains.”We are not just studying biodiversity but helping to reestablish fish and marine life that has been depleted in the Gulf.”The study was partly supported by the US-AID MERC program under grant number TA-MOU-05-M25-069 and by the Halperin and the Schechter foundations.

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Mechanism behind squids’ and octopuses’ ability to change color revealed

July 25, 2013 — Color in living organisms can be formed two ways: pigmentation or anatomical structure. Structural colors arise from the physical interaction of light with biological nanostructures. A wide range of organisms possess this ability, but the biological mechanisms underlying the process have been poorly understood.Two years ago, an interdisciplinary team from UC Santa Barbara discovered the mechanism by which a neurotransmitter dramatically changes color in the common market squid, Doryteuthis opalescens. That neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, sets in motion a cascade of events that culminate in the addition of phosphate groups to a family of unique proteins called reflectins. This process allows the proteins to condense, driving the animal’s color-changing process.Now the researchers have delved deeper to uncover the mechanism responsible for the dramatic changes in color used by such creatures as squids and octopuses. The findings — published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in a paper by molecular biology graduate student and lead author Daniel DeMartini and co-authors Daniel V. Krogstad and Daniel E. Morse — are featured in the current issue of The Scientist.Structural colors rely exclusively on the density and shape of the material rather than its chemical properties. The latest research from the UCSB team shows that specialized cells in the squid skin called iridocytes contain deep pleats or invaginations of the cell membrane extending deep into the body of the cell. This creates layers or lamellae that operate as a tunable Bragg reflector. …

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Genomic imprinting maintains a reserve pool of blood-forming stem cells in mouse bone marrow

July 17, 2013 — Hematopoietic stem cells — bone marrow-derived adult stem cells that give rise to the wide variety of specialized blood cells — come in two flavors: the reserve force sits quietly waiting to be called upon while the active arm continually proliferates spawning billions of blood cells every day. In their latest study, researchers at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research reveal a new mechanism that is critical in maintaining the delicate balance between the two.Publishing in the July 17 advance online issue of Nature, the team led by Stowers Investigator Linheng Li, Ph.D., reports that genomic imprinting, a process that specifically shuts down one of the two gene copies found in each mammalian cell, prevents the reservists from being called up prematurely.”Active HSCs (hematopoietic stem cells) form the daily supply line that continually replenishes worn-out blood and immune cells while the reserve pool serves as a backup system that replaces damaged active HSCs and steps in during times of increased need,” explains Li. “In order to maintain a long-term strategic reserve of hematopoietic stem cells that lasts a lifetime it is very important to ensure that the back-up crew isn’t mobilized all at once. Genomic imprinting provides an additional layer of regulation that does just that.”Sexual reproduction yields progeny with two copies, or alleles, for each gene, one from the mother and one from the father. Most genes are expressed from both copies but in mammals and marsupials a small subset of genes receives a mark, or “imprint” during the development of egg or sperm cells. These genomic imprints not only differentiate between genes of maternal and paternal origin and but specifically shut down one copy of those genes in the offspring.Genomic imprinting is an important mechanism for regulating fetal growth and development and, not surprisingly, faulty imprinting has been linked to human disease. But whether imprinting also plays a role in adult stem cells had remained elusive.Earlier mouse studies by Li and his collaborators had indicated that the expression of several imprinted genes changes as hematopoietic stem cells embark on their journey from quiescent reserve cells to multi-lineage progenitor cells, which form the many highly specialized cell types that circulate within the blood stream.For the current study, the Stowers researchers focused on a differentially imprinted control region, which drives the reciprocal expression of H19 from the maternal allele and Igf2 (Insulin growth factor 2) from the paternal allele.The study’s first author Aparna Venkatraman, Ph.D., formerly a postdoc in the Li Lab and now an independent investigator at the Centre for Stem Cell Research at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, developed a mouse model that allowed her to specifically excise the imprinting control region from the maternal allele. As a result, the H19 gene, which restricts growth, was no longer active while the Igf2 gene, which promotes cell division, was now expressed from both the paternal and the maternal allele.To gauge the effect off the loss of imprinting control on the maintenance of the quiescent hematopoietic stem cell pool, Venkatraman analyzed the numbers of quiescent, active and differentiated hematopoietic stem cells in mouse bone marrow.”A large number of quiescent hematopoietic stem cells was activated simultaneously when the epigenetic control provided by genomic imprinting was removed,” explains Venkatraman. “It created a wave of activated stem cells that moved through the different maturation stages.”She then followed up with a closer look at role of the Igf2 signaling pathway in coaxing quiescent hematopoietic stem cells to start dividing and maturing into multi-lineage progenitors that ultimately give rise to specialized blood cells.Igf2, an important growth factor, is highly active during fetal development and its misregulation leads to overgrowth disorders such as Beckwith-Wiedemann Syndrome. It exerts its growth promoting effects through the Igf1 receptor, which induces an intracellular signaling cascade that stimulates cell proliferation.The expression of the Igf1 receptor itself is regulated by H19. …

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Helping RNA escape from cells’ recycling process could make it easier to shut off disease-causing genes

June 24, 2013 — Nanoparticles that deliver short strands of RNA offer a way to treat cancer and other diseases by shutting off malfunctioning genes. Although this approach has shown some promise, scientists are still not sure exactly what happens to the nanoparticles once they get inside their target cells.A new study from MIT sheds light on the nanoparticles’ fate and suggests new ways to maximize delivery of the RNA strands they are carrying, known as short interfering RNA (siRNA).”We’ve been able to develop nanoparticles that can deliver payloads into cells, but we didn’t really understand how they do it,” says Daniel Anderson, the Samuel Goldblith Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “Once you know how it works, there’s potential that you can tinker with the system and make it work better.”Anderson, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, is the leader of a research team that set out to examine how the nanoparticles and their drug payloads are processed at a cellular and subcellular level. Their findings appear in the June 23 issue of Nature Biotechnology. Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, is also an author of the paper.One RNA-delivery approach that has shown particular promise is packaging the strands with a lipidlike material; similar particles are now in clinical development for liver cancer and other diseases.Through a process called RNA interference, siRNA targets messenger RNA (mRNA), which carries genetic instructions from a cell’s DNA to the rest of the cell. When siRNA binds to mRNA, the message carried by that mRNA is destroyed. Exploiting that process could allow scientists to turn off genes that allow cancer cells to grow unchecked.Scientists already knew that siRNA-carrying nanoparticles enter cells through a process, called endocytosis, by which cells engulf large molecules. The MIT team found that once the nanoparticles enter cells they become trapped in bubbles known as endocytic vesicles. This prevents most of the siRNA from reaching its target mRNA, which is located in the cell’s cytosol (the main body of the cell).This happens even with the most effective siRNA delivery materials, suggesting that there is a lot of room to improve the delivery rate, Anderson says.”We believe that these particles can be made more efficient. …

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Artificial sweetener a potential treatment for Parkinson’s disease

June 17, 2013 — Mannitol, a sugar alcohol produced by fungi, bacteria, and algae, is a common component of sugar-free gum and candy. The sweetener is also used in the medical field — it’s approved by the FDA as a diuretic to flush out excess fluids and used during surgery as a substance that opens the blood/brain barrier to ease the passage of other drugs.Now Profs. Ehud Gazit and Daniel Segal of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, along with their colleague Dr. Ronit Shaltiel-Karyo and PhD candidate Moran Frenkel-Pinter, have found that mannitol also prevents clumps of the protein α-synuclein from forming in the brain — a process that is characteristic of Parkinson’s disease.These results, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry and presented at the Drosophila Conference in Washington, DC in April, suggest that this artificial sweetener could be a novel therapy for the treatment of Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. The research was funded by a grant from the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation and supported in part by the Lord Alliance Family Trust.Seeing a significant differenceAfter identifying the structural characteristics that facilitate the development of clumps of α-synuclein, the researchers began to hunt for a compound that could inhibit the proteins’ ability to bind together. In the lab, they found that mannitol was among the most effective agents in preventing aggregation of the protein in test tubes. The benefit of this substance is that it is already approved for use in a variety of clinical interventions, Prof. Segal says.Next, to test the capabilities of mannitol in the living brain, the researchers turned to transgenic fruit flies engineered to carry the human gene for α-synuclein. To study fly movement, they used a test called the “climbing assay,” in which the ability of flies to climb the walls of a test tube indicates their locomotive capability. In the initial experimental period, 72 percent of normal flies were able to climb up the test tube, compared to only 38 percent of the genetically-altered flies.The researchers then added mannitol to the food of the genetically-altered flies for a period of 27 days and repeated the experiment. …

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To germinate, or not to germinate, that is the question…

June 10, 2013 — Scientists at the University of York have uncovered new insights into the way seeds use gene networks to control when they germinate in response to environmental signals.Timing of seed germination is crucial for survival of plants in the wild and is also important for commercial seed production where there is a need to ensure uniform growth.A cold environment can signal an imminent winter so the mother plant produces dormant seeds that will not grow until the following spring. A warmer environment can signal an early summer with the mother plant producing seeds that grow immediately allowing another generation to grow before winter.Researchers at the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) in the Department of Biology at York have found that a regulator gene called SPATULA can control the expression of five other regulatory genes that are known to effect when a seed germinates. The research, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Garfield Weston Foundation, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS).The CNAP research group, led by Professor Ian Graham, used the model oilseed plant called Arabidopsis to gain new insights into how the gene networks operate. They found that different varieties of Arabidopsis respond differently when this network of regulatory genes is disturbed. Some become more dormant and others less reflecting the different environmental responses of varieties that have evolved in different parts of the world.Professor Graham says: “Plants are clever in many ways. The complexity of the gene toolkit controlling seed germination is quite remarkable. During seed set, plants are able to respond to a variety of environmental signals from temperature to day-length, light quality and nutrient availability.“Discoveries such as this should underpin the development of better quality seeds for farmers. Since seed dormancy is one of the first traits to be addressed when domesticating a crop, the work should also aid in the rapid domestication of wild species into novel crops for a range of different applications.”

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Researchers design photobioreactor to produce biofuel from algae

May 24, 2013 — Researchers at the University of Alicante have patented a new device that allows more efficiently to cultivate microalgae and can be used as raw material for biofuel or for other valuable substances in the agri-food or pharmaceutical industry.

The Research Group in Polymer Processing and Pyrolysis at the University of Alicante is the team that has designed and developed this device, consisting of a photobioreactor, easily scalable to larger production, which has attracted the interest of both Spanish and foreign firms in the sector of biotechnology.

The director of the research group, Antonio Marcilla Gomis, explained that the novelty of this photobioreactor compared to those existing is that it allows mass production, less cleaning and maintenance operations, better use of CO2 and better light transfer to cultivation.

During the last decade, growing concerns about oil depletion and global warming have prompted wide research into fuel production from biomass.

This is because biofuels can provide environmental improvements in reducing greenhouse gases, which would not be achieved with the use of oil.

Algae can provide many advantages, because they breed quickly, do not require agricultural land and not even need clean or fresh water to grow, but more importantly they produce an oil that can be converted into biodiesel fuel type, as Marcilla Gomis states.

The design of this novel technology aims to overcome any difficulties or problems that have been presented over the years with the use of other similar cropping systems.

“The subject on the cultivation of microalgae is having a major boom in terms of research in the last fifteen years as an alternative energy to oil,” he said.

However, as Marcilla Gomis clarified, the cost of the production of microalgae for energy “is still far from what would be a profitable process comparable to oil.”

“This does not mean that in a few years it may be so,” this researcher expressed, who underlined that U.S. and Asia multinational firms are interested in a position in this field.

For example, as he reveals, in the U.S. there is an ongoing project, strategically aimed at precisely the achievement of non-oil fuel as an alternative energy source to supply the military and civil transport.

Apart from biomass to produce biofuels, microalgae can be used to achieve other substances of great industrial value in various sectors, such as food, pharmaceuticals or cosmetics.

Depending on the crop species, they can get antibiotics, polyunsaturated fatty acids, enzymes, proteins, vitamins, triglycerides or antioxidants.

At present, there is no similar photobioreactor in the market, and therefore, it is thought of as “a powerful potential technology for international marketing.”

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