Organised by the National Human Genome Research Institute each year, National DNA Day in the US on 25 April celebrates the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953 and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Here, we explore the history of DNA and its discovery’s unparalleled effect on science, medicine and the way we now understand the human body.
Discovering DNA’s structure
Using the pictures that she had taken, Franklin was able to calculate the dimensions of the strands and found the phosphates were on the outside of the DNA helix.
Rosalind Franklin working in her lab. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, at the University of Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick deduced the double-helix structure of DNA, describing it as ‘two helical chains each coiled round the same axis’ following a right-handed helix containing phosphate diester groups joining β-D-deoxyribofuranose residues with 3’,5’ linkages.
The discoveries made by these scientists would propel the study of genetics into the modern science we know today. Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine alongside Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Rosalind Franklin, in 1962. You can read their original paper here.
Dolly the sheep
Dolly on display at the National Museum of Scotland, UK.
Dolly is arguably the most famous sheep in the world, having been the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Born in 1996, Dolly was part of a series of experiments at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh to create GM livestock that could be used in scientific experiments.
She was cloned using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, where a cell nucleus from one adult is transferred into an unfertilised developing egg cell of another that has had its nucleus removed, which is then implanted into a surrogate mother.
The scientific legacy of Dolly the sheep. Video: Al Jazeera English
Dolly lived until 2003 when she was euthanised after contracting a form of lung cancer. Many speculated that Dolly’s early death was related to the cloning experiment but extensive health screening throughout Dolly’s life by the Roslin Institute suggest otherwise.
Her creation has led to further cloning projects and could be used in the future to preserve the populations of endangered or extinct species, and has led to significant developments in stem cell research.
In 2009, Spanish researchers announced the cloning of a Pyrenean ibex, which has been extinct since 2000, and was the first cloning of an extinct animal. Unfortunately, the ibex died shortly after birth but there have been a few successful stories since then.
The Human Genome Project
Beginning in 1990 and finishing in 2003, the Human Genome Project was an international research initiative that aimed to write the entire sequence of nucleotide base pairs that make up the human genome, including the mapping of all its genes that determine our physical and functional attributes.
The publicly funded $3bn project was able to map 99% of the human genome with 99.99% accuracy, which included its 3.2bn Mega-base pairs, 20,000 genes and 23 chromosome pairs, and has led to advancements in bioinformatics, personalised medicine and a deeper understanding of human evolution.
For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. Discoveries made by British physicists have changed the way we see the world, and are still used and celebrated today.
It is scientific legend that during one afternoon in his garden in 1666, during which Newton was sat under an apple tree, that an apple fell on his head. This led to a moment of inspiration from which he based his theory of gravity.
Gravity is an invisible force that pulls objects towards each other – anything with mass is affected by gravity – and is the reason why we don’t float off into space and why objects fall when you throw or drop them.
An illustration of Isaac Newton in 1962.
The Earth’s gravity comes from its mass, which ultimately determines your weight. As the different plants in our universe are different masses, our weight on Earth is different to what it would be on Saturn or Uranus.
Whilst Newton’s theory has since been superseded by Einstein’s theory of relativity, it remains an important breakthrough in scientific history. The apple tree that supposedly led to his theory can still be found at Newton’s childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor, in Grantham, UK.
Newton’s apple tree. Image: Martin Pettitt/Flickr
The Higgs boson
As a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, physicist Peter Higgs hypothesised that when the universe began, all particles had no mass. This changed a second later when they came into contact with a theoretical field – later named the Higgs field – and each particle gained mass.
The more a particle interacts with the field, the more mass it acquires and therefore the heavier it is, he postulated. The Higgs boson is a physical manifestation of the field.
A computer generated rendering of the Higgs boson.
Back in 2012, the scientific community celebrated an important discovery made by researchers at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider – the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.
After years of theorised work, they found a particle that behaved the way that the Higgs boson supposedly behaved.
The celebration was warranted, as the discovery of the Higgs boson verified the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which states that the Higgs boson gives everything in the universe its mass. It has been estimated that it cost $13.25bn to find the Higgs boson.
Inside the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. Image: Thomas Cizauskas/Flickr
In 2013, Higgs was presented with the Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with Belgian researcher Franҫois Englert, ‘for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles’.
Having avoided the limelight and media since his retirement, Higgs found out about his win from an ex-neighbour on his way home as he did not have a mobile phone!
Beyond the Higgs: What’s Next for the LHC? Video: The Royal Institution
The success of British physics isn’t slowing down either. It was in Manchester that two Russian scientists discovered graphene, which has influenced a wave of new research and investment into the use of this versatile material set to be a cornerstone for the fourth Industrial Revolution.
In May 2018, the EU proposed a single-use plastics ban intended to protect the environment, save consumers money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the new laws, the EU aims for all plastic bottles to be recycled by 2025, and non-recyclable single-use items such as straws, cutlery, and cotton buds to be banned.
An ambitious step – and arguably necessary – but there is no denying that plastics are extremely useful, versatile and important materials, playing a role in countless applications.
The World’s Plastic Waste Could Bury Manhattan Two Miles Deep: How To Reduce Our Impact. Video: TIME
The challenge to science, industry and society is to keep developing, producing and using materials with the essential properties offered by the ubiquitous oil-based plastics of today – but improving the feedstocks and end-of-life solutions, and ensuring that consumers use and dispose of products responsibly.
A number of innovative solutions have been proposed to help plastics move towards a more sustainable future.
A sweet solution
Deothymidine is one of four nucleosides that make up the structure of DNA. Image: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr
‘Chemists have 100 years’ experience with using petrochemicals as a raw material, so we need to start again using renewable feedstocks like sugars as a base for synthetic but sustainable materials,’ said Dr Antoine Buchard, a Whorrod Research Fellow at the University of Bath, UK.
Dr Buchard leads a group at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies at the University of Bath that are searching for a sustainable solution for single-use plastics. Using nature as their inspiration, the team have developed a plastic derived from thymidine – the sugar found in DNA – and CO2.
With a rapidly increasing population, the world is struggling to meet the demand for food, water, energy, and medicine. In 2011, the global population reached 7bn – approximately the amount of grains of sand you can fit it a post box, says Sir Martyn Poliakoff – and this number has since increased.
On Wednesday 25 April 2018 at his Public Evening Lecture, Sir Martyn discussed the role of photochemistry – the study of light’s effects on chemical reactions – in creating a greener and more sustainable society as essential resources deplete.
‘Chemists have to help address the sustainability challenges facing our society,’ he said. His research group at the University of Nottingham is proving that photochemistry can make an impact.
Fighting Malaria with Green Chemistry. Video: Periodic Videos
There are 1.3bn individuals in the world who are considered ‘profoundly’ poor. To define this Sir Martyn illustrated the profoundly poor ‘can, in their head, list everything they own’.
Today, there are more people worldwide that use mobile phones than toothbrushes. As no one wants to consume less, he asked: ‘Can we provide more for the poor without robbing the rich?’
Read the full article here....
An innovative new screening method using cell aggregates shaped like spheres may lead to the discovery of smarter cancer drugs, a team from the Scripps Research Institute, California, US, has reported.
The 3D aggregates, called spheroids, can be used to obtain data from potentially thousands of compounds using high throughput screening (HTS). HTS can quickly identify active compounds and genes in a specific biomolecular pathway using robotics and data processing.
A spheroid under a confocal microscope. Image: Kota et al./The Scripps Research Institute
The spheroids – 100 to 600 microns thick in diameter – spread in a similar way to cancer cells in the body and are therefore more effective in identifying potential cancer drugs, the team hypothesises.
For this study, the team focused on KRAS – a gene belonging to the RAS family. It is estimated these genes account for one-third of all cancers.
Robots handle assays in a HTS system. Image: NIH/Flickr
Using 2D imaging techniques to diagnose problems with the heart can be challenging due to the constant movement of the cardiac system. Currently, when a patient undergoes a cardiac MRI scan they have to hold their breath while the scan takes snapshots in time with their heartbeat.
Still images are difficult to obtain with this traditional technique as a beating heart and blood flow can blur the picture. This method becomes trickier if the individual has existing breathing problems or an irregular heartbeat.
These problems can lead to trouble in acquiring accurate diagnostics.
Now, a team based at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California, US, have detailed a new technique – MR Multitasking – that can resolve these issues by improving patient comfort and shortening testing time.
‘It is challenging to obtain good cardiac magnetic resonance images because the heart is beating incessantly, and the patient is breathing, so the motion makes the test vulnerable to errors,’ said Shlomo Melmed, Dean of the Cedars-Sinai Center faculty.
An MRI Scanner. Image: Wikimedia Commons
‘By novel approaches to this longstanding problem, this research team has found a unique solution to improve cardiac care for patients around the world for years to come.’
By developing what the team consider a six-dimensional imaging technique, the Center has embraced the motion of a heartbeat by capturing image data continuously – creating a product similar to a video.
‘MR Multitasking continuously acquires image data and then, when the test is completed, the program separates out the overlapping sources of motion and other changes into multiple time dimensions,’ said Anthony Christodoulou, first author and PhD researcher at the Center’s Biomedical Imaging Research Institute.
‘If a picture is 2D, then a video is 3D because it adds the passage of time,’ said Christodoulou. ‘Our videos are 6D because we can play them back four different ways: We can playback cardiac motion, respiratory motion, and two different tissue processes that reveal cardiac health.’
Your guide to a cardiac MRI. Video: British Heart Foundation
Testing ten healthy volunteers and ten cardiac patients, the team said the group found that the method was more comfortable for patients and took just 90 seconds – significantly quicker than the conventional MRI scan used in hospitals. For each of the participants, the scan produced accurate results.
The team are now looking to extend its work into MR Multitasking by focusing on other disease areas, such as cancer.
Biocompatibility in the development of new medical treatments is becoming increasingly important. Implants are traditionally made of materials foreign to the human body – from titanium to silicone – that can cause issues with system toxicity that may lead the body to reject the implant.
Like the human body, a significant proportion of the make-up of hydrogels is water – 90% compared to the body’s 60% – making them a viable modern alternative to the current standard of implants.
At the moment, focus is on the development of hydrogels in drug delivery systems, although its potential stretches further.
Inspired by nature
One such example of hydrogel innovation was developed by researchers at the University of Michigan, US, and the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Finding inspiration from the electric eel, the team created a flexible electrical device that could be used as a power source for implanted health monitors.
The electric eel generates power using transmembrane transport, whereby ion channels control the passage of cations and anions through the membrane in the eel’s electrocytes.
At rest, these ions cancel each other out. However, when triggered, the cation channels become more permeable, shifting the overall potential across the cell. In these instances, the eel can produce up to 600V of electricity.
‘The electric organs in eels are incredibly sophisticated; they’re far better at generating power than we are,’ said Michael Mayer, co-author and Biophysics Professor at the University of Fribourg. ‘But the important thing for us was to replicate the basics of what is happening.’
An electric eel. Image: Scott/Flickr
Firstly, the group dissolved sodium and chloride in the hydrogel and layers built by printing thousands of droplets of the salty gel these were alternated with hydrogel droplets of pure water. Each type of droplet could only conduct cations or anions.
Pressing cells together created a concentration gradient which is stimulated by an external electric current, creating a system similar to the electric eels.
By stacking 2,449 of these cells, Mayer says the hydrogel produced 100W, but the nature of the hydrogel’s internal resistance means the outputs of the cells is only 50µW. The team are now working to improve its efficiency.
‘Maybe the most obvious thing to think as a next step would be to try in some creative way to tap into the existing ionic gradients within the body. Much better of course would be a design where one could tap into metabolic energy to keep an artificial organ always charges,’ said Mayer.
‘That would be the ultimate achievement, but that’s very difficult to reach and we have not approached that part of the problem.’
Currently one of the least digitised industries in the world, the agricultural sector is fast becoming a hub of innovation in robotics. One report suggests the agricultural robotics industry will be worth £8.5bn by 2027.
Feeding the increasing global population – set to hit 8bn by 2023 – is a major concern in the sector, with farmers already stretched to capacity with current technology.
With this said, the European Commission – via Horizon 2020 – has launched a programme and fund to drive research and innovation in the area. Developments in precision agriculture, which uses data and technology for a more controlled approach to farming management, has been particularly encouraging.
But similar to other labour-intensive industries, such as manufacturing, robots could be used to relieve workers in difficult conditions, and there are many projects close to commercialisation.
One such project is SWEEPER – a greenhouse harvesting tool that can detect when sweet peppers are ready to harvest through sensors. SWEEPER runs between the vines on a rail and uses GPS tracking to navigate through its environment.
Although focusing on sweet peppers for this research, the group say that the technology could be applied to other fruits and crops.
The EU-funded consortium in charge of the development of the SWEEPER robot is made up of six academic and industry partners from four countries: Belgium, Sweden, Israel and the Netherlands, where the research is based.
Greenhouses pose harsh working conditions during harvesting season, including excessive heat, humidity, and long hours.
The SWEEPER robot in action. Video: WUR Glastuinbouw
‘The reduction in the labour force has put major pressure on the competitiveness of the European greenhouse sector,’ said Jos Balendonck, project coordinator from Wageningen University & Research, the Netherlands.
‘We hope to develop the technology that will prevent greenhouse food production from migrating out of Europe due to the 40 % expected rise in labour costs over the coming decade.’
Currently testing the second version of the robot, the research group already envision adding improvements – from sensors that can detect vitamin content, sweetness levels and the sweet pepper’s expected shelf life to the ability to alert farmers when crop disease could hit their crops in advance.
A world first
Meanwhile, engineers at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, UK, and agriculture firm Precision Decisions have become the first group to harvest a crop completely autonomously.
The Hands Free Hectare project – funded by Innovate UK – modified existing farming machinery to incorporate open-source data that would allow the control systems to be located externally.
At the start of the season, an autonomous tractor sows the crops into the soil using GPS positioning, and sprays them periodically with pesticides throughout their growth. A separate rover takes soil samples to analyse nutrient content and to check pH levels are maintained.
When the crops begin to sprout from the ground a drone is used to monitor growth by taking images. Finally, a combine harvester controlled from outside of the field harvests the crops.
Kit Franklin, an Agricultural Engineering lecturer at the university, said: ‘As a team, we believe there is now no technological barrier to automated field agriculture. This project gives us the opportunity to prove this and change current public perception.’
Image: Hands Free Hectare
Despite innovation in the area, farmers have been slow to embrace the new technology, partially due to the lack of high quality data available that would allow more flexibility in the sector. Others, including the wider public, worry that development will lead to job losses in the industry.
However, scientists say the jobs will still be there but farmers and agricultural workers will use their skills to control the autonomous systems from behind the scenes instead.
‘Automation will facilitate a sustainable system where multiple smaller, lighter machines will enter the field, minimising the level of compaction,’ said Franklin.
‘These small autonomous machines will in turn facilitate high resolution precision farming, where different areas of the field, and possibly even individual plants can be treated separately, optimising and potentially reducing inputs being used in field agriculture.’
Hailed by some as the future of clean energy, nuclear fusion is an exciting area of research, supported in the UK by the Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) – a government department that aims to establish the UK as a leader in sustainable energy. Here are five things you need to know about nuclear fusion.
1. It powers the sun.
Nuclear fusion occurs when two or more atomic nuclei of a low atomic number fuse to form a heavier nucleus at high energy, resulting in the release of a large amount of energy. However, it is only possible at an extremely high temperature and pressure, which means that currently the input energy required is too high to produce energy commercially. It’s the same process that powers the stars – the sun fuses 620 million tons of hydrogen and makes 606 million metric tons of helium every second.
2. The largest successful reactor is in Oxford.
The MASCOT telemanipulator is the main workhorse for all remote handling activities in JET. Image: The Naked Cat Fighter/Wikimedia Commons
The Joint European Torus (JET) is managed by the UKAEA at the Culham Science Centre in Oxford, UK. JET is a tokamak – a donut-shaped vessel designed around centrally placed fusion plasma, a fourth fundamental state of matter after solid, liquid, and air, containing the charged particles essential for nuclear fusion to occur.
Using strong magnetic fields, the tokamak confines the plasma to a shape that allows it to reach temperatures up to 20 times that of the sun. While still not commercially viable, it is the only operational reactor that can generate energy from nuclear fusion.
3. JET’s successor is due to launch in 2025
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), based in Provence, southern France, is the EU’s successor project to JET – a collaboration between all 28 EU member states as well as China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the US. Its first experiment is due to run in 2025 and, if successful, it will be the world’s largest operating nuclear fusion reactor, producing upwards of 500MW.
4. ITER is the feasibility study for large-scale, carbon-free energy
By 2025, ITER will produce its first plasma, with tritium and deuterium (a combination with an extremely low energy barrier) to be added in 2035, in the hope of allowing the facility to efficiently generate 100% carbon-free, reliable energy on a large scale.
5. The UK’s future role in the nuclear sector rests on Brexit negotiations
The JET magnetic fusion experiment in 1991. Image: EFDA JET
Despite the UKAEA’s essential work in supporting the success of JET and continued commitment to investing in the project, Brexit makes the continuation of JET and the UK’s role in ITER uncertain.
Director of ITER, Bernard Bigot, has said his concerns lie with the extension of JET. ‘If JET ends after 2018 in a way that is not coordinated with another global strategy for fusion development, clearly it will hurt ITER’s development,’ he said. ‘For me it is a concern.’
In a statement on the future of JET, the UK government said: ‘The UK’s commitment to continue funding the facility will apply should the EU approve extending the UK’s contract to host the facility until 2020.’
With hopes for JET’s funding to continue until at least 2023, and the UK government announcing its intentions to leave Euratom last year, the future of the UK’s ability to compete in the nuclear sector rests on the progress of Brexit negotiations in the coming months.
Blue dye, in this cross-section of a maize cob, highlights the rice gene that controls T6P in the kernels’ phloem. Image: Rothamsted Research
Through the introduction of a rice gene, scientists have produced a maize plant that harvests more kernels per plant – even in periods of drought.
The rice gene expressed depresses levels of a natural chemical, trehalose 6 -phosphate (T6P), in the phloem of the transgenic maize plant. T6P is responsible for the distribution of sucrose in the plant.
Lowering levels of T6P in the phloem, an essential track in the plant’s transportation system, allows more sucrose to be channelled to the developing kernels of the plant. As a result of increased levels of sucrose in this area of the maize plant, more kernels are produced.
Drought is an increasing problem in countries such as Uganda. Image: Hannah Longhole
‘These structures are particularly sensitive to drought – female kernels will abort,’ said Matthew Paul, team leader and plant biochemist at Rothamsted Research, UK. ‘Keeping sucrose flowing within the structures prevents this abortion.’
The transatlantic team, from Rothamsted and biotechnology company Syngenta in the US, built on field tests published three years ago that demonstrated increased productivity of the same genetically-modified maize.
‘This is a first-in-its-kind study that shows the technology operating effectively both in the field and in the laboratory,’ said Paul.
Maize growing on world’s oldest experiment, Broadbalk field at Rothamsted Research. Image: Rothamsted Research
Drought is becoming an increasing problem for developing countries, where the economic and social impacts are most evident.
Maize, also known as corn, and other cereals are relied on heavily across these nations due to their low cost and high nutritional value, with rice, maize, and wheat used for 60% of the global food energy intake.
The results of these trials are promising, and the team believe this work could be transferred to wheat and rice plants, as well as other cereals, said Paul.