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Institute for Society and Genetics, In the News – Fearing Climate Change Databases May Be Threatened in Trump Era, UCLA Scientists Work to Protect Them

LA Times

On a rainy Inauguration Day morning, dozens of students, archivists, librarians, professors and other concerned citizens gathered in a UCLA classroom, poring over the Department of Energy website. They sifted through pages covering a broad spectrum of topics, from energy-efficient buildings and solar power to transportation and bioenergy. The goal of Friday’s workshop, which ran more than six hours: To protect publicly available climate data on government websites – data that some feared could be deleted or otherwise degraded by a new administration that has indicated its aversion to climate science.

“Climate change data is specifically under attack,” said Joan Donovan, a researcher with UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics who spoke on a panel at the event. “There are real stakes to doing the work we’re doing today.” Without good data, researchers said, you can’t make good policy. Scientific data, carefully taken over many decades, are essential for crafting a long-term strategy to deal with climate change. “I am not ‘post-truth’ and neither should you be,” Donovan told the attendees. “Today we are fighting a war of information.”

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UC San Diego Biologists Unlock Code Regulating Most Human Genes

InitiatorMolecular biologists at UC San Diego have unlocked the code that initiates transcription and regulates the activity of more than half of all human genes, an achievement that should provide scientists with a better understanding of how human genes are turned on and off. The discovery of this critical DNA sequence code—what molecular biologists term the “human Initiator”—is detailed in a paper in the February 10 print issue of the journal Genes & Development. An advance copy of the paper is now online.

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Sustainable LA Grand Challenge Awards $1M to 8 Research Projects

The UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge awarded its second round of competitive research grants this month, providing $1 million to eight new projects led by UCLA researchers who will study self-driving cars, improve ways to capture and distribute solar power, map wild mammals in urban L.A., and more.

The Sustainable LA Grand Challenge is a university-wide research initiative to transition the Los Angeles region to 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent local water, and an enhanced ecosystem and human health by 2050. This second annual round of research grants awarded by Sustainable LA focuses on renewable energy, transportation and urban ecosystems.

The competitive grants are possible thanks to the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation, which provides funding for this Grand Challenge, including research that will implement the Sustainable LA Work Plan. Their generous $5 million gift is supporting at least three rounds of similar grants from 2016 to 2018.

ISG is pleased to announce that Jessica Lynch Alfaro (PI, ISG), together with Tony Friscia (IBP), Jamie Lloyd-Smith (EEB), Chris Kelty (ISG), and Katherine Prager (EEB) has been awarded a UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge Grant of $225,000 for the project, “Urban Ecology of Los Angeles Mammals: Biodiversity, Pathogen Risks, and Public Perceptions.”

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Zika-linked Birth Defects More Extensive Than Previously Thought, UCLA-led Research Finds

New UCLA-led research finds that Zika-linked abnormalities that occur in human fetuses are more extensive — and severe — than previously thought, with 46 percent of 125 pregnancies among Zika-infected women resulting in birth defects in newborns or ending in fetal death. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that damage during fetal development from the mosquito-borne virus can occur throughout pregnancy and that other birth defects are more common than microcephaly, when babies are born with very small heads. Further, these defects may only be detected weeks or months after the baby is born, said Dr. Karin Nielsen, the study’s senior author and a professor of clinical pediatrics in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Mattel Children’s Hospital. “This means that microcephaly is not the most common congenital defect from the Zika virus,” Nielsen said. The absence of that condition does not mean the baby will be free of birth defects, she added, because “there are problems that are not apparent at birth” and such difficulties may not be evident until the age of six months.

The new study was based on a larger sample size of 345 women in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who were enrolled from September 2015 through May 2016. Of those women, 182, or 53 percent, tested positive for Zika in the blood, urine or both. In addition, 42 percent of the women who did not have Zika were found to be infected with chikungunya, another mosquito-borne virus; 3 percent of Zika-positive women also had chikungunya.

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Seahorses are Weird, and Their Genome Knows Why

seahorseMale pregnancy. A long, tube-shaped mouth with no teeth. A body covered with bony plates. These are the odd, quintessential features of seahorses, but why? Scientists dove into this question on Wednesday by publishing the first complete sequence of a seahorse genome. “We have discovered an array of changes in the genome, which helps to explain why the seahorse looks the way it does,” said Byrappa Venkatesh, a study co-author and molecular biologist with the Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore. What they found explains many of the creature’s oddities. For instance, seahorses are missing “P/Q-rich SCPP” genes, which cause minerals to collect into teeth. This toothy void may explain why seahorses develop their narrow, straw-like mouths.

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Penn Scientists Use CRISPR for First Time to Correct Clotting in Newborn and Adult Mice

The Jackson LaboratoryCRISPR/Cas9, a powerful genome editing tool, is showing promise for efficient correction of disease-causing mutations. For the first time, researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a dual gene therapy approach to deliver key components of a CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene targeting system to mice to treat hemophilia B. This disorder is also called factor IX deficiency and is caused by a missing or defective clotting protein. Their research will be presented during the 58th Annual American Society of Hematology Meeting and Exposition in San Diego from December 3-6 (Abstract #1174).

“This study provides convincing evidence for efficacy in a hemophilia B mouse model following in vivo genome editing by CRISPR/Cas9,” Wang said.

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Our Brains Have A Basic Algorithm That Enables Our Intelligence, Scientists Say

brainOur brains have a basic algorithm that enables us to not just recognize a traditional Thanksgiving meal, but the intelligence to ponder the broader implications of a bountiful harvest as well as good family and friends. “A relatively simple mathematical logic underlies our complex brain computations,” said Dr. Joe Z. Tsien, neuroscientist at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, co-director of the Augusta University Brain and Behavior Discovery Institute and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Cognitive and Systems Neurobiology. Tsien is talking about his Theory of Connectivity, a fundamental principle for how our billions of neurons assemble and align not just to acquire knowledge, but to generalize and draw conclusions from it. “Intelligence is really about dealing with uncertainty and infinite possibilities,” Tsien said. It appears to be enabled when a group of similar neurons form a variety of cliques to handle each basic like recognizing food, shelter, friends and foes. Groups of cliques then cluster into functional connectivity motifs, or FCMs, to handle every possibility in each of these basics like extrapolating that rice is part of an important food group that might be a good side dish at your meaningful Thanksgiving gathering. The more complex the thought, the more cliques join in. That means, for example, we cannot only recognize an office chair, but an office when we see one and know that the chair is where we sit in that office.

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Breakthrough As Gene-Editing Technique Restores Sight To Blind Animals

cell-nucleiBlind animals have had their vision partially restored using a revolutionary DNA editing technique that scientists say could in future be applied to a range of devastating genetic diseases. The study is the first to demonstrate that a gene editing tool, called Crispr, can be used to replace faulty genes with working versions in the cells of adults – in this case adult rats. The latest study, published in the journal Nature, demonstrates that adult rats that had been engineered to have a genetic form of blindness called retinitis pigmentosa could be treated using Crispr gene therapy. “We were able to improve the vision of these blind rats,” said co-lead author Reyna Hernandez-Benitez, also of the Salk Institute. “This early success suggests that this technology is very promising.”

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