A modern look at ancient DNA
Well over 15,000 years ago, a man and a bear died in a cave in the Jura Mountains in modern-day Switzerland. That was the end of the story for millennia—until their remains were discovered in 1954 by researchers investigating the cave. Further work in the 1990s uncovered the fact that the man had, in fact, shot the bear with an arrow. This established their bond beyond a coincidentally shared grave, identifying the man as a hunter-gatherer. Now, thousands upon thousands of years after he lived, geneticists are developing new methods to analyze this hunter-gatherer’s DNA in an effort to better understand genetic diversity in ancient humans—and how that compares to our diversity today.
Steering the biomedical workforce away from the iceberg
In 2014, Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus published an article in PNAS detailing the pitfalls and challenges of the structure of the biomedical workforce. Though many have written about and discussed these problems before, people seemed to pay attention to the conversation this time. Scientists at all stages of their careers started having discussions, planning workshops, writing papers – they got involved.
The 2014 article described the perpetual disequilibrium of the biomedical science workforce pipeline: it generates “an ever-increasing supply of scientists vying for a finite set of research resources and employment opportunities.” In the traditional academic path, students earn PhDs, complete postdoctoral fellowships, and go on to secure tenure-track faculty positions. But it’s become increasingly clear that simply not enough traditional tenure-track faculty jobs exist for the number of new PhDs – by a huge margin.
The past two years have produced a wealth of ideas on how to “turn the Titanic” of biomedical research in the US. The time is ripe for young scientists to help grab the ship’s wheel. To get an idea of how things are progressing and ways graduate students and postdocs can get involved, Genes to Genomes spoke with some of the community leaders who are making waves and pushing for change.
Inherit the wand: the genetics of wizardry in Harry Potter
Scientists are known for being critical thinkers, experimental experts, and data enthusiasts. It’s probably no surprise that many of us are also undeniable nerds. Eric Spana, Assistant Professor of the Practice in Biology at Duke University and long-time GSA member, is no exception.
“We all have some type of nerd-ism, whether it’s Harry Potter, Marvel, Shakespeare, or sports,” he says. “Everyone is a fan of something a little more than they should be.”
Authentic ethics in synthetic biology
While the science behind the synthetic yeast genome project is cutting edge, the ethical questions surrounding it aren’t new.
The scientists of the Sc2.0 project have a goal that sounds akin to science fiction – they’re working toward building a completely synthetic yeast genome. This new strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, affectionately named Sc2.0, will be used to study fundamental properties of chromosomes, genome organization, gene content, function of RNA splicing, the extent to which small RNAs play a role in yeast biology, the distinction between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, and questions relating to genome structure and evolution. In addition to the hard science, the project faces a series of challenges in setting ethical boundaries, educating policy makers and the public, and building a governance plan.
Genes to Genomes spoke with Debra J. H. Mathews, PhD, MA, a geneticist and ethicist at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. She played an important role in developing the Sc2.0 Statement of Ethics and Governance published in August in GENETICS. We asked about her views on the education, governance, and scientific goals of the project. She asserts that the ethical questions facing synthetic biology scientists are not new issues; they’re new combinations of existing questions.