Scientists map wheat genome

July 17, 2014

Bread is a staple food for one third of the world’s population, and accounts for a huge 20 per cent of the world’s calorie intake.

In terms of science however, wheat has been rather overlooked. Until now that is.

Since 2011, scientists and members of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, have worked to find out what exactly the humble grain is made of. On Tuesday, they published the first draft genome sequence of “common” or “bread wheat”: an accomplishment which they believe could help farmers meet the ever-increasing demand for a high-quality crop – something which is particularly important in the context of climate change and an ever-growing population.

The research, published in the journal Science on Tuesday, reveals the result of what has been nearly 3 years work and around USD 68 million. The team of scientists, including researchers from Germany, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Canada has so far succeeded in deciphering the blueprint for nearly all the genes of bread wheat and roughly 60 percent of the whole genome.

The unusual size and form of the genome made the sequencing especially difficult for the team, the article said. Indeed, that of wheat contains a staggering 100,000 or so genes, 5 times more than the human genome, which contains roughly 20,000.

The largely repetitive nature of the wheat genome also made its untangling more difficult.

The advantages of the project are manifold. “Wheat improvement is crucial to ensure food security and the development of sustainable agriculture in a context of climate change and growing population,” said Frederic Choulet, plant genomicist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), and one of the lead researchers on the project.

The new draft genome is also expected to significantly decrease the time it will take to identify and isolate genes of interest to plant breeders, such as those which express resistance to heat, stress, insects, or disease.

The consortium plans to finish the full genome within three years. “We have a clear path forward for completing high quality sequences of all bread wheat chromosomes,” said Kellye Eversole, the consortium’s executive director.

Source: The Japan Times; National Geographic

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Universal biosensor takes the guesswork out of diagnosis

February 12, 2013

The growing problem of antibiotic resistance can at last be tackled. The US pharmaceutical company Abbott has developed the PLEX-ID universal biosensor ; a device capable of identifying all bacteria, viruses and fungi known to cause infectious disease in humans, including previously unidentified microbes.

Tests suggest the PLEX-ID universal biosensor is more accurate than the standard method of identification. The standard method involves growing the offending pathogen in a dish and then identifying it by its shape and characteristics, which can take time and be subject to human error. Doctors are often forced to prescibe an antiobotic without first having a positive identification of the microbe causing the disease or infection.

The PLEX-ID combines and adapts two existing techniques. Microbe samples from fluids such as saliva and blood are processed to isolate the genetic material. Regions of this DNA are selected according to their likely origin and copied. From this, the composition of base pairs A, G, C and T – can be calculated. Cross-checking base pair compositions for multiple DNA regions against a database of genetic “fingerprints” of known microbes reveals the bug’s identity. A repeatedly blank result suggests the microbe is new, and one whose profile matches some DNA regions but not all implies that a known microbe has mutated

The universal biosensor can currently identify microbes in 8 hours. If the smaller version of the device, currently in development, can do so within 5 hours as planned, it could allow doctors to postpone treatment until they have an accurate diagnosis. Rapid and accurate identification of pathogens could help decrease morbidity and also help stall the increase in antibiotic resistant pathogens.

EVERY day, doctors prescribe antibiotics based on an educated guess about which bugs are causing the symptoms they see before them. Sometimes they guess wrong and it can take days or even weeks for tests to identify the true culprits. In the meantime, people are taking ineffective drugs, which contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

PLEX-ID has been used for research purposes for several years, with early work focused on identifying potential biological warfare agents. In 2003, an earlier model correctly identified a new kind of coronavirus as the cause of SARS, and six years later, it was used to identify the first two cases of H1N1 swine flu in the US.

Mark Wilcox at the University of Leeds in the UK, a member of one of several independent groups evaluating the device for clinical use said that in most cases, taking ineffective antibiotics while waiting for a definitive diagnosis doesn’t harm people, because their immune systems fight the bugs anyway. It could however, be fatal for those with impaired immunity.

Wilcox presented preliminary findings from his group’s analysis at a Society for Applied Microbiology meeting in London last month. They found that PLEX-ID outperformed a culture-based approach in identifying the bacterial and fungal pathogens in 250 human tissue and fluid samples. Other tests suggested that the device is also more sensitive than sequencing small regions of the genome to identify the microbe.

Sourced from New Scientist

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Two’s company; is three a crowd?

September 17, 2012

The government have asked the regulatory authority HFEA to launch a public consultation exercise to gauge public opinion on a new scientific technique that will allow the creation of IVF babies with three genetic parents. Public opinion may sway Parliament to make significant changes to current laws on human fertilisation and embryology. The public will be able to voice their thoughts on what are being called ‘unchartered territory’ techniques through online questionnaires on the HFEA’s website, public meetings in London and Manchester, and opinion polls.

The conception of a child using a third genetic contributor would involve using all the nuclear DNA of the mother and father but with the addition of a very small quantity of donated mitochondrial DNA from a donated egg which would replace damaged DNA. This donated DNA would account for only 0.2% of our genetic make-up. By using healthy donated mitochondria instead of damaged DNA, debilitating and fatal diseases caused by defects in mitochondrial DNA would be avoided. Such diseases can lead to muscle failure, blindness, deafness, heart problems and even death.

Children who suffer mitochondrial diseases will have received the damaged DNA from their mother, although a mother with the disease will not necessarily always pass it on to her offspring. Approximately one in 200 children British-born children has some sort of mitochondrial disease. For some it causes only mild disease; for others none at all; but for others yet it can be fatal. It is thought that, should the new techniques go ahead, only around 15 women a year would qualify for IVF treatment involving the replacement of damaged mitochondria. The treatment could however prevent numerous later generations from suffering such diseases. Many parents who have lost children to mitochondrial diseases are strongly in favour of the new IVF.

There are however ethical arguments against the new techniques, said to outweigh the benefits of the treatment. Some fear that if such meddling with genetics is legalised, it could eventually lead to a ‘brave new world’ of designer babies. Others cite the difficult problem of what status to afford the mitochondria donor in the process; will she be anonymous, or contactable by the child (as full sperm and egg donors are), since she has contributed to the child’s DNA?

Such questions will remain at bay for now at least, as it is estimated that research will take another four years before treatment can begin, if approved. The final decision on the matter will be made by the HFEA, who regular IVF clinics and fertility research.

Sources include: The Huffington Post, The Guardian, BBC News

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