From Lab Fruit Flies to Mosquito Extermination in 30 Years

Louis Pasteur famously compared science and its application to a tree and it’s fruit. The path from a fundamental discovery to application can be a long and winding one, but rewarding none the less.

Mosquito

Discoveries in basic genetics have now enabled scientists to wipe out lab populations of the malaria mosquito, Anopheles gambiae. (Anthony Cornel)

Professor Ken Burtis, faculty advisor to the Chancellor and Provost, recently came across an exciting example. Burtis was looking for a study for his first year seminar class when he found a paper from Andrea Crisanti’s lab at Imperial College London. Crisanti’s team was able to wipe out a lab population of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes by introducing a disrupted gene for sex determination and using CRISPR “gene drive” technology to spread it through the population. Within eight generations, there were no female mosquitoes left for breeding.

Physics Nobel for Optical Tweezers, Enabled Single Molecule DNA Work

The 2018 Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to Arthur Ashkin of Bell Labs, Gérard Mourou, École Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France
and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and Donna Strickland, University of Waterloo, Canada for work on laser pulses that led to the development of “optical tweezers” that use lasers to manipulate small objects. 

The invention of optical tweezers made it possible for UC Davis biologists led by Professor Stephen Kowalczykowski and the late Professor Ron Baskin to design experiments where they could manipulate and observe single DNA molecules being copied in real time. In 2001, they used optical tweezers to move a tiny bead with a piece of DNA attached under a microscope, where they could watch a helicase enzyme unwind the DNA — the first step to copying or repairing it.

Study Challenges Evolution of How Humans Acquired Language

By Karen Nikos-Rose

A gene implicated in affecting speech and language, FOXP2, is held up as a “textbook” example of positive selection on a human-specific trait. But in a paper in the journal Cell on Aug. 2, researchers challenge this finding. Their analysis of genetic data from a diverse sample of modern people and Neanderthals saw no evidence for recent, human-specific selection of FOXP2 and revises the history of how we think humans acquired language.

Brain graphic

What makes us human? The FOXP2 gene has been associated with uniquely human language abilities. But a new study with a wider variety of people shows no evidence of selection for FOXP2 in modern humans. (Image by Brenna Henn, UC Davis)

Of Mice and…Gorillas? Mouse Gene Catalog as a Conservation Tool

Gorilla

Mice share a similar set of genes to humans and gorillas. A catalog of the functions of all mouse genes could help in conservation efforts for endangered species.

A new study from the International Mouse Phenotyping Consortium, which includes the UC Davis Mouse Biology Program, shows how the growing catalog of mouse genes could be applied to save endangered species. The paper was published May 24 in the journal Conservation Genetics.

Data Dump: 11,000 Donate Stool Samples to Gut Microbiome Project

By Greg Watry

The American Gut Project has just produced the largest study yet of microbial diversity in human poop. With “contributions” from more than 11,000 citizen scientists, the team led by researchers at UC San Diego has compiled a public reference database on the human gut microbiome, published May 15 in the journal mSystems. The study is a step forward in understanding how factors such as diet, antibiotics and mental health relate to the microbes living in the human gut.

Using DNA Databases to Track Down the Golden State Killer Suspect

It’s been widely reported that investigators got a break in the East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer case when they uploaded a DNA profile to a genealogy database, GEDmatch, and identified relatives of the suspect, Joseph DeAngelo. Did they get lucky, or did they have a good chance of finding him? UC Davis population biologists Graham Coop and M. D. “Doc” Edge have written a nice explainer of the science behind this search.

DNA overlap between first cousins and their common grandmother (GCBias.org)

Podcast: The Earth BioGenome Project

This month I talk to Professor Harris Lewin, one of the organizers of the Earth BioGenome Project. The ambitious project to sequence the genomes of all eukaryotic life on Earth within ten years is described in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Listen: Three Minute Egghead: The Earth BioGenome Project

More information

Earth BioGenome Project Aims to Sequence DNA from All Complex Life on Earth (news release)

Earth BioGenome Project to Sequence All Life: Partnership Announced at World Economic Forum in Davos (news release)

Investigating the Seagrass Microbiome

By Karley Marie Lujan

Seagrass carpets the seafloor creating a unique and vital ecosystem in shallow marine environments. Sea turtles graze on seagrass leaves while smaller organisms seek refuge in the green fields but, on the microscopic level, seagrass is also home to microbial communities. Such microbes compose the seagrass microbiome and potentially play a role in seagrass ecology.

Turtle and seagrass

Sea turtles and other marine animals browse on seagrass meadows. (NOAA photo)

UC Davis graduate student Cassie Ettinger identifies and characterizes seagrass-associated microbial communities. A study published last year in the journal PeerJ suggests how understanding the role of these microbes could reveal new information about seagrass sulfur cycling and establish seagrass as a model organism.

Taking Cues From Speech Recognition, New Machine Learning Algorithm Finds Patterns in RNA Structures

By Greg Watry

Software inspired by speech recognition technology could help scientists understand the secret language inside cells. A machine learning algorithm called patteRNA, designed by UC Davis researchers, rapidly mines ribonucleic acid, commonly called RNA, for specific structures, providing a new method to establish links between structure, function and disease.

The study, co-authored by integrative genetics and genomics Ph.D. student Mirko Ledda and Assistant Professor Sharon Aviran, UC Davis Genome Center, appears in Genome Biology.

Deciphering the biological role of RNA structures

RNA is essential to all biological processes, from gene expression and regulation to protein synthesis. While DNA stores an organism’s genetic information, RNA puts that genetic information to use.

How Population Genetics Can Help Breed a Hardier Honey Bee

by Greg Watry

The western honey bee (Apis mellifera), the world’s most important pollinator for agriculture, is facing a crisis. Parasitic mites, colony collapse and climate change threaten hives. California, as the seasonal home of nearly half of the continental United States’ managed honey bee colonies, is a prime location for monitoring bee populations. And honey bee health, key to the nation’s largest fresh produce economy, is vital to the Golden State.

A foraging honeybee. Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey.