by Mitchell Yeary '19
For a lot of people, genetically engineering humans are a possibility only in Gattica. Yet there are more and more technologies coming out that put us closer to that reality. One of the most recent technologies, CRISPR, emerged a few years ago as an improved way to deactivate certain genes in cells, or create “knock-out” lines (a line of cells with certain genes that don’t function). Here, I will briefly explain CRISPR and its different applications as a genomic engineering technology.
Starting with the basics, CRISPR-Cas9 as a potential genome editing system was put forth four or five years ago and was quickly leveraged so that we could start to target specific genes in the genome. There are two parts to this system. There first part is the CRISPR portion, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, essentially the type of DNA sequence that is recognized by the second part, a protein. When used as a genome editing technology, guide RNAs, which can bind to DNA, are built so that they match a section of whatever gene is being edited, and these are the CRISPR portion of the technology. The other necessary part of the guide RNA, is a loop on the end that forms beacon for Cas9, which is recruited to the site. Cas9, the second element in the system, ends up binding and then cutting the portion of the DNA that the guide RNA bound to in the beginning. By using guide RNA to selecting critical points in a gene, researchers can introduce mutations, and disable different genes.
by Abbey Perreault '16
Remember the movie Inception? Well, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived: inception is real…except this time, the protagonists are a little less hunky. Last year at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, a group of researchers successfully used a technique called optogenetics to plant false thoughts in the minds of rats. (And, believe it or not, it was all accomplished without any dream-infiltrating espionage courtesy of Leonardo DiCaprio!)
by Nari Lee '17
In the midst of finals, we are all
Charles Czeisler of Harvard Med’s Division of Sleep Medicine warns that our usage of electric lights at night is disrupting our natural sleep patterns and contributing to higher risks of serious health problems. The artificial light coming from above that cubicle in the Sci Li or from your laptop in front is actually as good as or even better than the caffeine you may have had this morning when it comes to keeping you awake. 
by Elena Suglia '15
Most people know that bats use echolocation to find prey and orient themselves in space, but did you know that bats use echolocation to communicate with each other? It turns out that there’s music in the air every night, except we can’t hear it! It’s a good thing too, because the intensity of the sound waves bats create would be deafening could we hear them. A bat’s screech, though inaudible to us, “rivals the intensity of a revved-up engine of an aircraft about to take off” .
Think whale or dolphin song: that’s what bats do, except at super ultrasonic frequencies which human ears are unable to decipher. This makes intuitive sense when you consider what high- and low-pitched sounds are made of: sound waves with different frequencies. Sound waves with high frequencies bend less as they travel and can therefore be used in a more precise manner to target an object. Bats use higher frequency waves because they operate in tight spaces and need to be more aware of their immediate surroundings so that they don’t run into obstacles or lose track of a quickly moving, small insect . Whales use lower frequency sound waves because they live in the open ocean, where they have much more space in which to maneuver.
by Sophia Park '13.5
Any visitor to Luke Jerram’s glass microbiology exhibition would be pleasantly surprised to see lethal pathogens sculpted in delicate glassworks that are unsettlingly fragile and transparent. His work is the first attempt to provide a detailed three-dimensional representation of microbiology in glass, and the Scientific American boasts, “You’ve never really seen a virus until you see this.” (1)
First developed in 2004, Jerram’s glass viruses have traveled to critical acclaim and commercial success in more than 10 cities including New York, London, Madrid, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo and Tel Aviv.
Jerram aimed to represent viruses in their natural colorless states. “Early on in my research I discovered that viruses have no color as they are smaller than the wavelength of light,” said Jerram. “Because I’m colorblind, I’m interested in how we see the world and in exploring the edges of perception.” (1)
by Sadhana Bala '17
In the United States, the biomedical significance of human embryonic stem cells (hESC) is recognized by Democrats and Republicans alike. Every passing month brings reports of the newest successful application of embryonic stem cells to a specific medical cause. hESC therapy has been used to further research on a wide variety of ailments – including spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, infertility and even hearing loss (1) – and it has generated largely promising results.
The controversy with hESC research does not center on the results but the methods – a moral dilemma that has been greatly debated in the media for years. Embryonic stem cells are derived from four- to five-day-old blastocysts, hollow balls of cells that represent the beginning stage of human embryo development. The extraction procedure often results in the destruction of a human embryo, usually one that has been voluntarily donated in a fertility clinic. But the huge potential of these cells has caused scientists, politicians, and the general public (2) to come to terms with this fact.
Over the last two to three years, embryonic stem cells have, more or less, crawled off the agenda of the general media. Government-sponsored research for embryonic stem cells is currently at a pinnacle, yet it remains hindered due to one small piece of decade-old legislation
by Gordon Wade '15
The answer to this seems obvious – no one owns life. It just is. Or in the case of livestock, plants, and pets, maybe one can own it. But can you claim ownership over an entire species or strain? Should individuals and companies be allowed to patent particular genes? What about genetically modified organisms? Or entirely synthetic organisms?
These questions are relevant in the current scientific landscape of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. The topic of intellectual property and genetics has only recently gained traction in United States courts and popular awareness.
by Haily Tran '16
"This spring I saved a friend from a terrible illness, maybe even death. No, I didn’t donate a kidney or a piece of my lung. I did it with my stool." [image via]
We’re all familiar with the fibrous substance our bodies excrete on a regular basis. You probably don’t think twice about flushing it down the toilet. But, here’s a thought: human fecal matter has been used in more than 3,000 medical procedures around the world to cure various gastrointestinal illnesses. (1)
Our digestive system is home to over 20,000 different species of good bacteria, most of which accompany our digested food waste out of the body (2). A sample of healthy human feces is the densest bacterial ecosystem in nature—trillions of strains versus the mere 30 found in the best probiotics (3). Fecal microbiota is a burgeoning field of research as more scientists look to Mother Nature for ingenious medical solutions rather than synthesizing them in a lab.
by Kathleen Sai-Halasz
This article was written by a student at the Wheeler School. Brown's chapter of The Triple Helix collaborates with the Wheeler School to engage high school students in science journalism.
It is a common misconception that all forms of communication between humans are through verbal or body language. That is, all communication of emotional states of people is through the sense of hearing or visual channels. However, through recent experiments conducted by researchers at Utrecht University, this theory was challenged as researchers showed that people could communicate though chemosignals as well (1). Chemosignals are chemical signals the human body gives off, often through sweat, through which people can interact. Jasper H. B. de Groot and colleagues chose to focus their experiment on the emotions of fear and disgust, and found that chemosignals given off of one person while experiencing one of these emotions can induce the same emotional state upon the inhaler (1). This supports the idea that forms of communication are not limited to eyes and ears, and that through the effects of chemosignals, people can communicate their emotions without needing to hear or see the other person.
Researchers at Utrecht University tested the hypothesis that it is possible to transfer an emotion from one person to another through the fumes the sender’s sweat gives off (1). Researchers chose to work with the emotions of fear, scientifically known as sensory acquisition, and disgust, also known as sensory rejection (1). In this experiment, only males were chosen as the senders because they produce more potent sweat signals, whereas only women were chosen to be used as receivers because they are shown to have a more acute sense of smell (1).