Tag Archives: genetics

Researchers edit coral genes, hope to understand how to save them

Enlarge (credit: NOAA)

Coral reefs are the poster-organisms for ecosystem services, aiding fisheries, promoting biodiversity, and protecting land from heavy waves. Unfortunately, we seem to be repaying them by killing them. Our warming oceans are causing coral bleaching and death, rising sea levels will force them to move, and the acidification of our oceans will make it harder for them to form reefs. It would be nice if we could help them, but interventions are difficult to design when you don’t know enough about coral biology.

Now scientists have announced a new tool is available to study corals: genetic editing provided by the CRISPR/Cas9 system. The ability to selectively eliminate genes could help us understand how corals function normally and could eventually provide a tool

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DNA from the poop of extinct four-meter-tall birds reveals lost ecosystem

Enlarge (credit: York Museums Trust staff)

A thousand years ago, gigantic 12-foot-tall flightless birds roamed New Zealand, snacking peacefully on plants and fungi. Then humans came along. Within two hundred years, the giant moa—along with a host of their close cousins—were dead at our species’ hands.

What did the world of the moa look like? Even though New Zealand has lots of well-preserved wilderness, studying that won’t give us an answer. When a species disappears, it takes a chunk of its ecosystem with it, so understanding the ramifications of the moa extinction can help us better understand the environment that many surviving species—some of them critically endangered—evolved in.

Some important answers lie in something the moa left behind: ancient bird poop. It tells us that

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Odd vertebrate gets rid of hundreds of genes early in development

Enlarge / There’s no jaw on the front of that face, and all the tissues you see have deleted hundreds of key developmental genes. (credit: Michael Heck, Oregon Fish and Wildlife)

Sea lampreys are parasites native to the northern and western Atlantic Ocean that suck blood and other vital fluids from their fellow fish. They have the distinction of possibly being the first destructive invasive species in North America; they entered the Great Lakes in the 1830s through the Welland Canal and have been killing trout there ever since.

They also have the distinction of having split off from the rest of the vertebrate lineage very early on, about 550 million years ago, before the evolution of jaws. This makes lampreys useful as a model

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Why understanding the genetics of my heart disease isn’t much help

Enlarge (credit: mgstanton)

Atrial fibrillation is a heart disorder that causes the upper chambers of the heart to spasm instead of beating regularly. While that sounds dangerous, the lack of a regular heartbeat itself isn’t dangerous. Instead, a-fib causes lots of indirect problems that can be debilitating or fatal. We’re making progress in understanding the disease, as evidenced by two new papers that identify a total of 18 genes that predispose people to a-fib.

That should be exciting news. And it should be especially exciting to me, since I could have easily contributed to that study—as one of its subjects. I have a-fib, which I seem to have inherited from my mother.

Getting a better understanding of a disease can open all sorts of possibilities

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