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This microbe no longer needs to eat food to grow, thanks to a bit of genetic engineering

BY ROBERT F SERVICE
SCIENCE MAGAZINE
Synthetic biologists have performed a biochemical switcheroo. They’ve re-engineered a bacterium that normally eats a diet of simple sugars into one that builds its cells by absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2), much like plants. The work could lead to engineered microbes that suck CO2 out of the air and turn it into medicines and other high-value compounds. Continue Reading →

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Cops Now Using Warrants To Gain Access To DNA Services’ Entire Databases

BY TIM CUSHING
TECHDIRT
Cops have discovered a new source of useful third-party records: DNA databases. Millions of people have voluntarily handed over personal information to a number of services in exchange for info on medical markers or distant family members.

Investigators are submitting DNA samples from cold cases in hopes of tracking down criminals who’ve managed to evade them for years. It has led to the closing of some cases, which is all agencies need to argue for continued access to DNA samples from millions of users. Continue Reading →

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The world’s first Gattaca baby tests are finally here

BY ANTONIO REGALADO
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
Anxious couples are approaching fertility doctors in the US with requests for a hotly debated new genetic test being called “23andMe, but on embryos.”

The baby-picking test is being offered by a New Jersey startup company, Genomic Prediction, whose plans we first reported on two years ago.

The company says it can use DNA measurements to predict which embryos from an IVF procedure are least likely to end up with any of 11 different common diseases. In the next few weeks it’s set to release case studies on its first clients. Continue Reading →

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The DNA database used to find the Golden State Killer is a national security leak waiting to happen

BY ANTONIO REGALADO MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW

A private DNA
ancestry database that’s been used by police to catch criminals is a
security risk from which a nation-state could steal DNA data on a
million Americans, according to security researchers. Security flaws in the service, called GEDmatch,
not only risk exposing people’s genetic health information but could
let an adversary such as China or Russia create a powerful biometric
database useful for identifying nearly any American from a DNA sample. GEDMatch,
which crowdsources DNA profiles, was created by genealogy enthusiasts
to let people search for relatives and is run entirely by volunteers. It
shows how a trend toward sharing DNA data online can create privacy
risks affecting everyone, even people who don’t choose to share their
own information. “You
can replace your credit card number, but you can’t replace your
genome,” says Peter Ney, a postdoctoral researcher in computer science
at the University of Washington. Continue Reading →

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New federal rules limit police searches of family tree DNA databases

BY JOCELYN KAISER
SCIENCE
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released new rules yesterday governing when police can use genetic genealogy to track down suspects in serious crimes—the first-ever policy covering how these databases, popular among amateur genealogists, should be used in law enforcement attempts to balance public safety and privacy concerns. Continue Reading →

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Russian biologist plans more CRISPR-edited babies

BY DAVID SYRANOSKI
NATURE
A Russian scientist says he is planning to produce gene-edited babies, an act that would make him only the second person known to have done this. It would also fly in the face of the scientific consensus that such experiments should be banned until an international ethical framework has agreed on the circumstances and safety measures that would justify them. Continue Reading →

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Genetically modified mosquitoes breed in Brazil

BY FABIAN SCHMIDT
DW.COM SCIENCE

An attempt to contain the populations of the yellow fever mosquito Aedes aegypti in Brazil may have failed. It appears that gene mutations have been transferred to the local population.

The British company Oxitec had released about 450,000 male mosquitoes every week in the city of Jacobina in the Bahia region with official permission over a period of 27 weeks. The experminet was designed to control the infectious diseases dengue, zika and yellow fever.

The gene modification called OX513A in the mosquitoes was designed in such a way that the first descendant generation of the mosquitoes, known as F1, would not reach the adult stage and thus not be able to reproduce. Continue Reading →

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SickKids scientist calls for ‘national strategy’ to get genome sequencing covered in Canada

BY GENNA BUCK
NATIONAL POST
Whole-genome sequencing is not available in Canada yet under any provincial health plan. But Ontario’s health-care quality agency is currently reviewing a proposal to cover it for children with unexplained developmental delay, said Wendy Ungar, director of technology assessment at Toronto’s SickKids hospital, a major Canadian centre for this area of research. Continue Reading →

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World’s first living organism with fully redesigned DNA created

BY IAN SAMPLE
THE GUARDIAN

Scientists have created the world’s first living organism that has a fully synthetic and radically altered DNA code.

The lab-made microbe, a strain of bacteria that is normally found in soil and the human gut, is similar to its natural cousins but survives on a smaller set of genetic instructions.

The bug’s existence proves life can exist with a restricted genetic code and paves the way for organisms whose biological machinery is commandeered to make drugs and useful materials, or to add new features such as virus resistance.

In a two-year effort, researchers at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge read and redesigned the DNA of the bacterium Escherichia coli (E coli), before creating cells with a synthetic version of the altered genome.

The artificial genome holds 4m base pairs, the units of the genetic code spelled out by the letters G, A, T and C. Printed in full on A4 sheets, it runs to 970 pages, making the genome the largest by far that scientists have ever built.

“It was completely unclear whether it was possible to make a genome this large and whether it was possible to change it so much,” said Jason Chin, an expert in synthetic biology who led the project.

The DNA coiled up inside a cell holds the instructions it needs to function. When the cell needs more protein to grow, for example, it reads the DNA that encodes the right protein. The DNA letters are read in trios called codons, such as TCG and TCA.

Nearly all life, from jellyfish to humans, uses 64 codons. But many of them do the same job. In total, 61 codons make 20 natural amino acids, which can be strung together like beads on a string to build any protein in nature. Three more codons are in effect stop signs: they tell the cell when the protein is done, like the full stop marking the end of this sentence.

The Cambridge team set out to redesign the E coli genome by removing some of its superfluous codons. Working on a computer, the scientists went through the bug’s DNA. Whenever they came across TCG, a codon that makes an amino acid called serine, they rewrote it as AGC, which does the same job. They replaced two more codons in a similar way.

More than 18,000 edits later, the scientists had removed every occurrence of the three codons from the bug’s genome. The redesigned genetic code was then chemically synthesised and, piece by piece, added to E coli where it replaced the organism’s natural genome. The result, reported in Nature, is a microbe with a completely synthetic and radically altered DNA code. Known as Syn61, the bug is a little longer than normal, and grows more slowly, but survives nonetheless.

“It’s pretty amazing,” said Chin. When the bug was created, shortly before Christmas, the research team had a photo taken in the lab with a plate of the microbes as the central figure in a recreation of the nativity.

Such designer lifeforms could come in handy, Chin believes. Because their DNA is different, invading viruses will struggle to spread inside them, making them in effect virus-resistant. That could bring benefits. E coli is already used by the biopharmaceutical industry to make insulin for diabetes and other medical compounds for cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart attacks and eye disease, but entire production runs can be spoiled when bacterial cultures are contaminated with viruses or other microbes. But that is not all: in future work, the freed-up genetic code could be repurposed to make cells churn out designer enzymes, proteins and drugs.

In 2010, US scientists announced the creation of the world’s first organism with a synthetic genome. The bug, Mycoplasma mycoides, has a smaller genome than E coli – about 1m base pairs – and was not radically redesigned. Commenting on the latest work, Clyde Hutchison, from the US research group, said: “This scale of genome replacement is larger than any complete genome replacement reported so far.”

“They have taken the field of synthetic genomics to a new level, not only successfully building the largest ever synthetic genome to date, but also making the most coding changes to a genome so far,” said Tom Ellis, a synthetic biology researcher at Imperial College London.

But the records may not stand for long. Ellis and others are building a synthetic genome for baker’s yeast, while Harvard scientists are making bacterial genomes with more coding changes. That the redesigned E coli does not grow as well as natural strains is not surprising, Ellis added. “If anything it’s surprising it grows at all after so many changes,” he said.

Continue Reading →

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The Great White Shark Genome Is Here

BY MEGAN MOLTENI
WIRED
Is there any more daunting animal to study than the great white shark? Just you try attaching a radio transmitter or drawing a tube of blood from a six-ton, razor-toothed, meat-seeking missile. But scientific understanding of these iconic apex predators has been limited by technical challenges as much as human bias for studying species that reside on closer branches of the taxonomic tree. Sharks evolved from the rest of the animal kingdom 400 million years ago—before the first adventurous amphibians left the oceans for dry land. What could the great white possibly teach 21st century humans? Continue Reading →

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