One of my pieces for BioTechniques, "The Basis of Blond Hair," was the most popular this summer. Woot!
I'll be first to admit that I wish I had the genetic variant that researchers found in the new study. It would save me a lot of money.
Check out the full list of stories.
Brenda Maribel Corado was walking down a street in Guatamala when two women beat her and snatched away her three-week-old baby girl. Two months later, baby Angela turned up at a church. When Angela’s DNA was tested, Corado and her husband matched with 99.9% accuracy, and the baby girl was reunited with her parents.
Unfortunately, many stories of missing persons don’t end as well as Angela’s. Every year, hundreds of thousands of children are sold into modern-day slavery, often to be sexually exploited, at too young an age to know who they are or where they’re from, according to Jose Lorente of the University of Granada Genetic Identification Laboratory in Spain. Human trafficking—internationally defined as forcible coercion or selling of people—has become a $32 billion international industry.
Read more of my feature at BioTechniques.
Conceiving a child is an emotionally painful and exhausting process for those who struggle with infertility, and the worries don't stop with achieving pregnancy: all expectant parents hope for healthy babies. For individuals with known risks who are undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF), preimplantation genetic diagnosis—in which clinicians remove a cell from an early embryo and screen it for genetic disorders—is a way to select an unaffected embryo, though current techniques analyze only one or a few sites in the genome. The cells of an early embryo are few and precious, so clinicians are keen to learn as much as possible from the limited numbers of cells.
That's one big problem that single-cell whole-genome sequencing methods are promising to resolve in early embryonic development and other fields. Thanks to improved approaches for isolating individual cells and for amplifying and sequencing their tiny complement of DNA or RNA, scientists can scan entire genomes or transcriptomes rather than a few targeted sites, and at higher resolution than was previously possible.
See the rest of my story, a feature on Nature Methods' Method of the Year.
In cancer genome studies, mutational heterogeneity across cancer types and between individual patients has contributed to a large, unwieldy, and suspect list of genes associated with the disease. But a new software program promises to weed out some of the potential artifacts in that list.
Check out the full piece in BioTechniques news.
Image by Mike Lawrence of the Broad Institute.
Before Edward Chu entered his fourth year at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, he took a 12-month sabbatical to launch his first clinical trial. He wanted to evaluate whether patients using an anti-blood-clotting drug, usually to prevent heart attacks, should stop before general surgery. He thought that if he dedicated himself to the project for 12 months, he could wrap up any loose ends before he graduated in 2013. That was optimistic, to say the least.
Check out the rest of my piece at Naturejobs.
I've written about Rett Syndrome for a few years now (a few examples here, here and here). Rett is a rare neurological disorder that primarily affects girls, and shares some features of autism. Although symptoms vary in type and severity, the disorder is marked by a progressive loss of speech and motor skills. Girls with Rett may also have seizures and trouble breathing.
In 1999, scientists found that mutations in a single gene, MECP2, cause Rett. You might think that a single-gene disorder would be easier to understand and eventually cure compared with more genetically complex disorders like autism. Maybe that's true. But researchers are still trying to find out what the MeCP2 protein does.
In the early 90s, Adrian Bird’s group purified MeCP2—which stands for methyl-CpG binding protein 2—and named the protein for its ability to bind parts of the DNA with a chemical tag called a methyl. Methyls tend to dampen the expression of genes, suggesting that MeCP2’s function is to silence genes.
Studies published since then suggest MeCP2 activates or represses the expression of many genes. Other results suggest that the protein binds throughout the genome, influencing the way DNA packs into a cell.
New evidence, published today (December 21) in Cell, shows that MeCP2 binds to spots throughout the genome that are tagged with the chemical, 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC) in mice, and that this interaction may be important for understanding Rett Syndrome.
See the rest of my story at the Rett Syndrome Research Trust blog, as well as a podcast by RSRT director Monica Coenraads.
Life on and off the tenure track
Nicole zur Nieden is expecting her first baby any day. But this is not what keeps her awake at night. It's funding, or the lack thereof, for her research that keeps her tossing and turning. As an assistant professor of cell biology and neuroscience at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), zur Nieden has two more years before going up for her tenure review. Demonstrating that she can pull in funds is the requirement of tenure she feels she has the least control over.
See the rest of my story at New Scientist's career column, The Insider. (Since the story ran, I found out that Nicole had a healthy baby boy.)
Researchers have constructed a new synthetic bacterium that detects Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common microbe and a leading cause of hospital-acquired infections, and explodes, releasing antimicrobials that kill the invaders.
The results, published today (August 16) in Molecular Systems Biology, suggest that the engineered bacteria might eventually be used to prevent or treat infection with P. aeruginosa in humans.
Get the full story at The Scientist.
Creative chemists at Caltech
Some participants in the Amgen Scholars Program (that I write for) posted this awesome musical story about their summer science research at Caltech. To the tune of Michael Bublé's "Haven't Met You Yet," it's "Just Haven't Made You Yet":
Last week, I gave a talk to a group of about 20 local engineers and engineering students at NC State about project management, based on what I learned for my feature in Naturejobs about the career path.
My piece was about management in the life sciences, but engineering projects face many of the same common pitfalls. It's easy for timelines and budgets to get out of control, for clients to have unreasonable expectations about the end results, for the people you're managing to lose interest and 'buy-in.'
It felt strange and somewhat scary to get up in front of experienced project managers and talk about these issues as an outsider, but the audience was super friendly and interactive. Afterwards, people shared their 'war stories' in management, namely about how easily things can get out of control.
Being a good project manager means being able to motivate and inspire the right people from the very beginning of the project, the audience told me. A student asked whether it means you need to be a "people pleaser," and the veterans responded that's not quite it: you're not going to make everyone happy, but you need to respect them and keep them involved.
Some students asked questions about how they can get into management, and we talked about the variety of ways you can build your knowledge in this area, by for example, getting an MBA or a MEM (Master of Engineering Management) or Project Management Professional certification. It doesn't seem like there's a single right answer for how much or what sort of training you should get -- rather, it'll depend on the company you work for and how much technical knowledge your job requires.
Many people learn on the job, and that's okay too (though it can be stressful). It seems like aspects of project management come naturally to some people. (Kind of like how good bedside manners might come more easily to some doctors than others.) In management, I think that the ability to motivate others may be one of those skills that's hard to teach.
The students in the audience seemed eager to pick up these soft skills, though. Many students I've interacted with are focused on having their careers planned out. I think that's great, but I would just say that it's all too common for people to take unexpected paths, for the better. As one audience member said, if you find a person whose job you hope to have one day, ask her how she got to that position. More often than not, you'll find that she took the scenic route.