Most gossiped about genetic news of 2016
The new year is in full swing, resolutions have been almost all forgotten, and perhaps it is time to unwind to a social media biggest buzz of 2016 on topics of genome and DNA sequencing. And there is a lot to choose from, ranging from strange to curious to fascinating and always to the latest science. The list that follows is somewhat filtered based on the keywords used to search, and the share count numbers are based on the beginning of January. So relax, sit back, and enjoy the fascinating world of genetics that everyone was talking about last year.
At the top of the list, the undisputed champion that could not be matched at 2.1 M shares, is the “Biased strangers take a DNA test – the results show why we shouldn't judge others on their looks” article. The article does not even start with anything genetics, but that prejudice is a costly mistake that humanity keeps perpetuating. Eliminate prejudice, you eliminate tons of problems along the way. To challenge concept of prejudice, strangers were offered a genetic test to understand how complex and mixed their ancestry can be. To find the answer you have to watch the short video clip provided.
The video is a fantastic piece of documentary. While the focus here was only ancestry, the experiment is powerful demonstration of how each one of us could be reacting to genomic information. It can be a challenge, when beliefs based on our preconceived notions about ourselves are being shattered in an instant. That video had over 15 million views already on YouTube. The article asks “Would you dare to question who you really are?” That is what leaping into genomics is all about.
A more somber presentation of such results, with over 10 million views was a 23andMe’s version of such DNA testing, which also was one of the top sharers with 51.2 K. Ancestry kits are definitely winning this advertising race for DNA testing market.
Second in place is one of my favourite genetics-related news items that I came across last year, for its entertainment value. At 500.7 K was the “DNA Tests Prove Retired Postman Has Over 1,300 Illegimitate Children.” Supposedly we are talking about a private investigation that has uncovered this finding in the U.S. Purportedly, the most genetically successful 87-year old grandpa on Earth said “who was I to say no to a quickie?” I remember at the time this piece came out I wondered, if this were to be true, what would be his genetic contribution to the current American population? By now fourth generation descendants would be present for sure! And what does “illegimitate” even mean? I assume that’s when something illegitimate is imitated to be legitimate? Totally fits!
In third, at 63.3 K shares was the “DNA Test Says She's Not The Mother, Then Mom Finds Out She's Her Own Twin.” With a title like that, how can you not look into this? Imagine, if you were your own twin? Don’t know what that means? It is an old story of a mom who took a case to court against the father paternity claims, only to find out that the DNA test indicated she was not the mother of the children she gave birth to. So yeah, explain that one. The article links the original TV story from ABC News from many years ago. It turned out that it was a rare instance of peculiar developmental event, where two separate embryos fused together to form one individual. In such instance two different genomes are responsible for different biological systems in the same individual, and mother’s blood cells contained different DNA from the one in the impregnated eggs. Definitely interesting stuff! I wonder what would be the world record for different genomes observed in one individual.
At 50.2 K shares was the “DNA tests FIRST before issuance of birth certificates: Home Affairs announces new law”, and no doubt the article’s shocking contents contributed to its wide distribution. The article announced South African government proclamation that as of 2017 all babies are required to undergo DNA tests to confirm their legitimate paternity to be allowed to take on their fathers’ surnames. Apart from intense invasion of privacy by a government, another shocker mentioned was that supposedly the Minister of Home Affairs is mulling the proposal “that women whose babies fail paternity tests be jailed.” I would say, I hope he reads the article above first, except... it is all fake news! The article stirred enough controversy to necessitate a release of a media statement from South Africa's Department of Home affairs clarifying the issue!
At 44 K was one of those weird stories, titled “DNA test results: Paracas skulls are not human.” We are talking about those strange elongated and alien looking skulls from the Paracas region of Peru. I hope you have seen them because they are an interesting sight to behold. Supposedly at least 25% larger cranium size than an average human is not a cause of deliberate deformation as might have been observed in some cultures. So apparently mitochondrial DNA was sequenced, and mutations were observed that were never seen before. So it must be alien! Originally I wondered, why sequence mitochondrial genome? If I really wanted to dig deep, I would go for the nuclear genome instead. Oh, by the way, we sport two genomes: one in the nucleus of our cells, the main stuff responsible for who we are, and a teeny tiny one in our mitochondria, the organelles in charge of producing energy in our cells.
It turns out that the mitochondrial genome is great for tracing evolution: its DNA is better preserved, and as it is only passed on maternally, very few changes are observed throughout generations. This makes mitochondrial DNA great for evolutionary comparisons. It was concluded that based on the tiny mitochondrial genome assessment, we are dealing with a new species here, distant from Homo sapiens, Neanderthals or Denisovans (yes, let’s not forget about them!) But there was no mention of who did these tests, or who the spokesperson was, nothing. Believe it or not, this article got some note alright! But if I saw actual scientific publication on this, then I actually would be excited!
At 42.4 K shares was the short article entitled “DNA Tests Prove Aboriginal Australians Are the World's Oldest Culture.” I was wondering about this claim as, so far, the evidence points to Africa as the cradle of human evolution, so that is where I would expect to find the oldest culture. Apart from throwing a number at you that immigration to Australia occurred around 58 000 years ago, nothing is provided to justify the title’s claim. The article even says “Australia has one of the longest histories of continuous human occupation outside Africa” so is it the oldest then or not? I was left confused. But it does highlight the different type of information that can be parsed from looking into human genomes, including ancestral information.
At 34.9 K shares was the “19 Pieces Of Non-Human DNA Found In Human Genome.” You got to admit the title is catchy, as it immediately makes you gasp, thinking, so are we some form of biological chimeras? Part human and part what else? If you were hoping to find out what bizarre creatures might be contributing to your genetic make up, or try to find evidence to claim why your husband or wife does not always understand you, then you might be disappointed. Although the catchiness factor rolls straight from the title to the first sentence of the article “Eight percent of your DNA is alien.” But not outer space creatures alien, we are talking viruses, or more specifically “human endogenous retroviruses.” The article is based on work that I also will cover in one my posts, and the number 19 refers to the fact that 19 new types of retroviruses could be identified among the studied subjects. So that is a bit of a letdown. I was hoping for a greater critter invasion. If you start comparing human genomes to other species, because of conservation through evolution, we are an entire zoo of animals. So that is enough to appease any demands. What was really cool is that apparently one of those retroviruses was observed to be still intact, meaning it could still be active!
At 25.2 K comes the NY Times “Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome” article. This article also boasts the most LinkedIn shares at 904 and Twitter shares at 2.8 K. Just goes to show you that in social media, Facebook is the major force that matters. At the time, announcement of this meeting caused quite a stir in the media, and controversy as apparently the intention was misunderstood. The meeting was not supposed to appear secretive. The scientists met privately to iron out the details, and ensure that subsequent story is delivered accurately on account of its importance.
My favourite quote of the article was “Would it be O.K. […] to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome?” Pretty good question to ask. Apparently there is a push for sequencing Leonardo da Vinci’s genome. Most importantly, the article opens good ethical debates to consider when pondering the concept of artificially synthesizing genomes.
At 20.5 K shares was the “Monsanto is Trying to Patent the Marijuana Genome! THESE People are Trying to Stop Them” article. The whole story is in the title, although you obviously have to read the article to find out who are “THESE People.” I wonder if this overused ploy was the reason why the article got so many shares, or were the shares high (no pun intended) because the topic is controversial. Monsanto is painted as a bad guy, altering and patenting the ganja genome, and the David to oppose these Goliath efforts is Phylos Bioscience, a start-up company that is making the genetic information in marijuana a public knowledge.
This was big news that was closely echoed by another post, shared 15.7 K times, and which at least mentions that a Monsanto spokesperson proclaimed that all of these claims were nothing but Internet rumors. In the background I faintly hear “…pass that genome on the left hand side.”
At 13.5 K shares was the “Synthetic microbe lives with fewer than 500 genes” article. Pretty impressive for actual science journal published article. This was one of many articles published recounting the announcement of first synthetic bacteria with an engineered minimalistic genome of only 473 genes by the J. Craig Venter Institute (I can’t wait to see more of this institute’s action). Even the name given to this new species of bacteria—Syn 3.0—evokes the sense of a robotic creation. One of the goals of the project was to see what is the most basic starting point for a cell to be able to live and reproduce. Obviously this is a starting point toward the production of synthetic organisms. Personally I find it very interesting for the concept of production miniature biological drug factories. How far can this go? Will we ever have organic smart phones? Another cool mentioned fact: the largest genome size belongs to a rare Japanese ﬂower with a pretty name, Paris japonica, which has a genome 50 times bigger than the human genome.
At 12.4 K shares was the “Full Zika Genome Discovered In Fetus With Microcephaly” article. The title almost summarizes entire article. Talk about succinct delivery. Maybe I could add that the virus was also isolated from brain tissue only, and no other tissue was shown to harbour it. And then the recap of the Zika history follows. What was cool was to find out that Nature, one of the world’s most preeminent scientific journals, provided free access to all Zika-related science published by them. If only all science journals provided open access to everyone, always, and forever! I fantasize that a gluttony of precious geeks would descend on such knowledge and make the world a better place. I know it would make my research easier too!
At 11.6K was the “The oldest human genome ever has been sequenced, and it could rewrite our history” article. The article is about sequencing the oldest human DNA sample so far, fragments of which were isolated from a 430,000 year-old fossil. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment (although older samples have been already sequenced, like this example of a 700 000 year-old horse). Data helps finding more accurately the split day between humans and Neanderthals species which is now earlier than previously thought. OK. I was hoping for some funky new missing link to be discovered.
At 11.2 K was the “Temple scientists eliminate HIV-1 from genome of human T-cells” article. What is cool about this piece is that it was released from a university; it is neat that our educational institutions can still spread knowledge through public to such degree. What was demonstrated is that HIV was successfully excised from T-cells of patients infected with HIV using modern genome editing techniques, and apparently without producing any undesirable promiscuous DNA editing in any other parts of the genome, an often cited problem when it comes to genome editing. This is getting pretty close to a clinical quality demonstration of what the technology will be able to deliver, and this could be one such future application: give HIV the boot!
Bonus: although not breaking the 10 K mark (7.7 K), this was one of the stories of last year that I was most excited about: “You can now sequence your entire genome for under $1,000.” The article cited Veritas as the first company to break the holy-grail price tag. And the $1000 includes the interpretation of the genome! And guess what, Illumina, the world’s primary producer of sequencing machines is predicting that the price tag will drop to $100 in the near future! But we shall see about that. It took a long time to get a genome sequencing price tag to $1000, and in the end, it is not just the price of sequencing, it is the quality of sequence interpretation that counts. That’s where Merogenomics comes in, to bring clients to highest quality genome sequencing technologies. And that usually costs much more than a $1000 so consider such price tag a bargain!
Social media is a fun way to explore popular interests in genomic subjects, and this list shows you the wide variety of what people enjoyed learning about in 2016. These articles often point to very interesting scientific literature, and sometimes to unique interpretations. As they are usually entertaining to read, they get passed around by people. If you liked this one, pass it along too! There is a lot here to sink your teeth into if you wanted to learn about what the world is talking about in the context of genomic sciences. And if you are interested in sequencing your genome, you don’t have to go any further. We can tell you where and how to get the best results.
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