06 November 2008

Humans Slide, Genes Abide

Humans are sliding along the arrow of time, borne atop a genetic flow unbroken since the origin of DNA life. The more we learn about DNA and genetics, the more powerful the genetic flow is seen to be. Even "junk DNA" is more powerful than we ever imagined.
This research also shows that these repeats are anything but "junk DNA," since they provide a great source of evolutionary variability and might hold the key to some of the important physical differences that distinguish humans from all other species. _SD
Yes, junk DNA may be largely responsible for the origin of new species--and the reason why humans are different from close relatives such as the chimp. Another important and often overlooked reason for significant differences between related species is "CNVs," copy number variants. The number of copies of a gene in a genome can determine its influence in the organisms development and function.
CNVs in humans and chimpanzees often occur in equivalent genomic locations: most lie in regions of the genomes, called segmental duplications, that are particularly 'fragile'. However, one in four of the 355 CNDs that the team found do not overlap with CNVs within either species - suggesting that they are variants that are 'fixed' in each species and might mark significant differences between human and chimpanzee genomes. _PO
One of the most important distinctions of humans from other animals, is the sophistication and power of human language, in creating human culture. The propagation of human culture around the globe and across time is dependent upon genetic influences on the human brain, evolved over time. Scientists are beginning to learn more about the genetics of human language.
Molecular techniques then revealed that these changes occurred around 200,000 years ago — at just the point at which modern humans were evolving. This has led to much speculation about whether FOXP2 is a “gene for speech” — particularly given that people with major mutations, like the KE family, have major language defects. _Times
A recent genetic discovery by British scientists helps to unravel the mystery of human language slightly. One more small piece of a very large puzzle.
Variants of the CNTNAP2 gene are associated with the disorder known as specific language impairment (SLI) -- the unexplained difficulty with language that can involve repetition of nonsense words, the researchers said.

The gene has also been implicated in autism and could represent a genetic link between the two disorders, the scientists said. _WP
Genetics research is also proving a powerful tool in the quest to vanquish cancer.
Using cells donated by a woman in her 50s who died of leukemia, the scientists sequenced all the DNA from her cancer cells and compared it to the DNA from her own normal, healthy skin cells. Then they zeroed in on 10 mutations that occurred only in the cancer cells, apparently spurring abnormal growth, preventing the cells from suppressing that growth and enabling them to fight off chemotherapy. _NYT
One more small piece. Most people are unaware that the remarkable amount of scientific and technological research being done in the US is only possible due to excess wealth generated by the US' market economy. As politicians look for new ways to strangle the ability of the US economy to create excess wealth, savvy individuals will take a more jaundiced look at government.

The remarkable advances in recent stem cell research would have not been possible if not for the incredible progress previously made in genetics biotech. Researchers in Japan recently grew human brain tissue in a laboratory, from embryonic stem cells. Prelude to Grobyc?
The tissues self-organised into four distinct zones very similar to the structure seen in human foetuses, and conducted neuro-activity such as transmitting electrical signals, the institute said.

...The team's previous studies showed stem cells differentiated into different cells but until now they had never organised into functioning tissues.

...The tissues could also serve as "a mini organ" for use in studying the cause of the Alzheimer's disease and developing vaccines, it said. _AFP
Whether utilised as regenerative therapy for replacement of damaged brain, as research tools for understanding the organisation of neuronal and brain tissues better, or as Grobyc-style bio-brains for mechanical machines, these results are just the tip of the iceberg.

Research without an underlying "organising principle" is too often wasted, with the data and potential knowledge overlooked for long periods of time. If research findings are folded into ongoing meta-research efforts, nothing will be lost. It may take decades to find the optimal use for any given research findings. But as long as bioinformatics and other advanced computational and information procession tools advance along with applied research, the larger potential of what science is doing now will be examined eventually, although it is presently beyond the comprehension of most policy makers, pundits, and specialised workers and thinkers.

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