Friday, December 14, 2007

Glow-in-the-Dark Kitties

The big news in science this week has been the South Korean scientists that have transgenically created cats that will glow under UV light. While the fact that these cats glow is pretty cool in and of itself the real point is that they managed to insert a gene that was then expressed throughout all the cells of the cat.

This type of thing has been done for a while with mice and the developers of that technique won a Nobel Prize for their efforts in pioneering those so-called "knockout mice." These are useful to scientists who wish to determine a specific gene's function or the effect that a mutation in that gene will have. One of my professors is using this to study what happens with a gene that is associated with colon cancer in humans.

The simplified explanation is that stem cells from a mouse embryo are taken and mutated to get rid of the desired gene and then inserted into another embryo. If things go according to plan this mutated stem cell will be taken up by the embryo and differentiate into many various cell types. Mice exhibiting characteristics that show this has happened (splotches of different coat color) are then bred. If the mutation is expressed in a germ cell that mutation will be expressed in half of the chromosomes of the offspring. Further inbreeding should eventually produce mice that only express the mutated gene.

The problem with mice is that they aren't always a good model for humans so it's beneficial to have a method for doing essentially the same thing with other animals. In this case the scientists transfer the nucleus of one cell into the egg of another cell and grow it from there. It's the same technique that has been used to clone sheep.

So, the purpose of the glowing is just to say, "hey, it worked!" In my lab I'm currently working on using the same type of marker to tell us when and where a certain protein is expressed in a cell that has been infected with various types of mutant herpes viruses. Now that they've shown that this works other scientists can use the method to introduce human models of diseases into cats. Pretty cool stuff.

Also interesting to me is the fact that in the last few weeks two major breakthroughs in research involving stem cells came from Asia. A lab in Japan (working with a lab in Wisconsin) found a way to create the equivalent of embryonic stem cells from regular skin cells. For a long time the United States has benefited from a steady stream of talented scientists coming here to study but labs in the rest of the world are quickly catching up and new rules making it more difficult for international students to get visas to come here and 7 years of the most anti-science administration in generations are taking their toll on US science. A healthy worldwide science community is beneficial to everyone but there's no reason for the US to begin to lag behind.

Perhaps the most troubling is that the United States ranked 29th(!) in science literacy among teens behind such traditional beacons of enlightenment as Latvia, Estonia, and Slovenia.
Emmett Duffy says:
But one has to ask: How can this be? The US is the richest nation on earth, home of most of the world’s greatest universities, first to put a man on the moon, the nation that invented the automobile, the airplane, the personal computer, the internet, the post-it note, you get the picture. Time was, this country was the mecca for aspiring scientists worldwide, and for the most part it still is. So why can’t 15-year-old Johnny figure out which end of the microscope to look through?

His answer...religious fundamentalism. He wonders, as I do, what consequences this will have on our country in the future. But, that's another post for another day.

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