You and Your Microbiome – Part 3

  • Top 10 Cited Microbiome Publications are Summarized
  • Welcome to the New World-View of “Holobionts”
  • TriLink Products Cited in Numerous Microbiome Publications

It’s been almost two-and-a-half years since posting Part 2 in this series on microbiomes, which I first began in 2013, and the publication rate keeps accelerating, with about 7,000 articles indexed in PubMed in 2016—way more than the mere 35 in 1996. This vast amount of new microbiome information being published annually led me to use the following search strategy to guide my selection of what’s trending in importance for microbiomes.

Basically, I used Google Scholar to search for publications since 2015 that had the term “microbiome” in the title and, among those items found, used the number of citations as a quantitative indicator of interest, importance, and/or impact. But before summarizing my findings for these Top 10 Most Cited Microbiome articles, here’s what you can read in my previous two postings on microbiomes in case you missed them or want to refresh your memory:

Proportion of cells in the human body. You are comprised of much more than what you think you are! Taken from

Meet Your Microbiome: The Other Part of You

  • What’s in your microbiome? Why does it matter?
  • Next-generation sequencing is revealing that you and your bacterial microbiome have a biological relationship.

You and Your Microbiome – Part 2

  • Global obesity epidemic is linked to gut microbiome.
  • Investments in microbiome-based therapies are increasing.

Top 10 Cited Microbiome Publications 

The following articles, which were all published in 2015, are listed in decreasing order of the number of citations in Google Scholar. Titles are linked to original documents for interested readers to consult, and synopses represent my attempt to capture essential findings.

1. Precision microbiome reconstitution restores bile acid mediated resistance to Clostridium difficile (369 citations)

C. difficile (From

Many antibiotics destroy intestinal microbial communities and increase susceptibility to intestinal pathogens such as Clostridium difficile, which is a major cause of antibiotic-induced diarrhea in hospitalized patients. It was found that Clostridium scindens, a bile acid 7-dehydroxylating intestinal bacterium, is associated with resistance to C. difficile infection and, upon administration as a probiotic, enhances resistance to C. difficile infection.

2. Dynamics and stabilization of the human gut microbiome during the first year of life (298 citations)

Applying metagenomic sequencing analysis on fecal samples from a large cohort of Swedish infants and their mothers, the gut microbiome during the first year of life was characterized to assess the impact of mode of delivery and feeding. In contrast to vaginally delivered infants, the gut microbiota of infants delivered by C-section showed significantly less resemblance to their mothers. Nutrition had a major impact on early microbiota composition and function, with cessation of breast-feeding, rather than introduction of solid food, being required for maturation into an adult-like microbiota.

Graphical abstract by Bäckhed et al. Cell Host & Microbe (2015)

3. Structure and function of the global ocean microbiome (238 citations)

Taken from Sunagawa et al. Science (2015)

Metagenomic sequencing data from 243 ocean samples from 68 locations across the globe was used to generate an ocean microbial reference gene catalog with >40 million novel sequences from viruses, prokaryotes, and picoeukaryotes. This ocean microbial core community has 73% of its abundance shared with the human gut microbiome despite the physicochemical differences between these two ecosystems.

4. Serotonin, tryptophan metabolism and the brain-gut-microbiome axis (200 citations)

Taken from

The brain-gut axis is a bidirectional communication system between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin functions as a key neurotransmitter at both terminals of this network. Accumulating evidence points to a critical role for the gut microbiome in regulating normal functioning of this axis. The developing serotonergic system may be vulnerable to differential microbial colonization patterns prior to the emergence of a stable adult-like gut microbiota. At the other extreme of life, the decreased diversity and stability of the gut microbiota may dictate serotonin-related health problems in the elderly. Therapeutic targeting of the gut microbiota might be a viable treatment strategy for serotonin-related brain-gut axis disorders.

5. The dynamics of the human infant gut microbiome in development and in progression toward type 1 diabetes (184 citations)

Taken from

Colonization of the fetal and infant gut microbiome results in dynamic changes in diversity, which can impact disease susceptibility. To examine the relationship between human gut microbiome dynamics throughout infancy and type 1 diabetes (T1D), a cohort of 33 infants genetically predisposed to type 1 diabetes (T1D) was examined to model trajectories of microbial abundances through infancy. A marked drop in diversity was observed in T1D progressors in the time window between seroconversion and T1D diagnosis, accompanied by spikes in inflammation-favoring organisms, gene functions, and serum and stool metabolites. These trends in the human infant gut microbiome thus distinguish T1D progressors from nonprogressors.

6. The microbiome of uncontacted Amerindians (150 citations)

Taken from

Sequencing of fecal, oral, and skin bacterial samples was used to characterize microbiomes and antibiotic resistance genes (resistome) of members of an isolated Yanomami Amerindian village in the Amazon with no documented previous contact with Western people. These Yanomami harbor a microbiome with the highest diversity of bacteria and genetic functions ever reported in a human group. Despite their isolation, presumably for >11,000 years since their ancestors arrived in South America, and no known exposure to antibiotics, they harbor bacteria that carry functional antibiotic resistance (AR) genes, including those that confer resistance to synthetic antibiotics. These results suggest that westernization significantly affects human microbiome diversity and that functional AR genes appear to be a feature of the human microbiome even in the absence of exposure to commercial antibiotics.

7. Akkermansia muciniphila and improved metabolic health during a dietary intervention in obesity: relationship with gut microbiome richness and ecology (136 citations)

Taken from

Individuals with obesity and type 2 diabetes differ from lean and healthy individuals in their abundance of certain gut microbial species and microbial gene richness. This study in humans found that, at baseline, A. muciniphila was inversely related to fasting glucose, waist-to-hip ratio and subcutaneous adipocyte diameter. Subjects with higher gene richness and A. muciniphila abundance exhibited the healthiest metabolic status. Individuals with higher baseline A. muciniphila displayed greater improvement in insulin sensitivity markers and other clinical parameters. A. muciniphila is therefore associated with a healthier metabolic status and better clinical outcomes for overweight/obese adults.

8. Host biology in light of the microbiome: ten principles of holobionts and hologenomes (132 citations)

Today, animals and plants are no longer viewed as autonomous entities, but rather as “holobionts“, composed of the host plus all of its symbiotic microbes. The term “holobiont” refers to symbiotic associations throughout a significant portion of an organism’s lifetime, with the prefix holo- derived from the Greek word holos, meaning whole or entire. Holobiont is now generally used to mean every macrobe and its numerous microbial associates, and the term importantly fills the gap in what to call such assemblages. Symbiotic microbes are fundamental to nearly every aspect of host form, function, and fitness, including traits that once seemed intangible to microbiology: behavior, sociality, and the origin of species. Microbiology thus has a central role of in the life sciences, as opposed to a “bit part.”

Taken from

9. The infant nasopharyngeal microbiome impacts severity of lower respiratory infection and risk of asthma development (131 citations)

The nasopharynx (NP) is a reservoir for microbes associated with acute
respiratory infections (ARIs). Lung inflammation resulting from ARIs during infancy is linked
to asthma development. The NP microbiome examination during the first year of life in a cohort of 234 children led to characterization of viral and bacterial communities, and documenting all incidents of ARIs. Most infants were initially colonized with Staphylococcus or Corynebacterium before stable colonization with Alloiococcus or Moraxella. Transient incursions of Streptococcus, Moraxella, or Haemophilus marked virus-associated ARIs. Early asymptomatic colonization with Streptococcus was a strong asthma predictor, and antibiotic usage disrupted asymptomatic colonization patterns.

10. Insights into the role of the microbiome in obesity and type 2 diabetes (128 citations)

Obesity and type 2 diabetes (T2D) are associated with changes in the composition of the intestinal microbiota, and the obese microbiome seems to be more efficient in harvesting energy from the diet. Lean male donor fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) in males with metabolic syndrome resulted in a significant improvement in insulin sensitivity and increased intestinal microbial diversity, including a distinct increase in butyrate-producing bacterial strains. Such differences in gut microbiota composition might function as early diagnostic markers for the development of T2D. The rapid development of FMTs provides hope for novel therapies in the future.

TriLink Products Cited in Microbiome Publications

It always amazes me to learn about the many ways TriLink products are used in basic and applied science. When I searched Google Scholar for publications containing “TriLink [and] microbiome” I found 21 items, among which the following were selected to illustrate diversity of these product types and uses:

Takeaway Messages

In summary, several takeaways should now be apparent to you. The first takeaway is that there is continuing explosive growth of microbiome publications in all manner of life-related research, as evidenced by both the introductory PubMed graph and wide spectrum of subjects covered by the Top 10 Cited Publications mentioned above.

The second takeaway is best summarized in publication #8 above, “[t]oday, animals and plants are no longer viewed as autonomous entities, but rather as ‘holobionts’, composed of the host plus all of its symbiotic microbes.” Each of us is indeed inextricably comprised of our human cells and symbiotic microbiota in or on us—like it or not, and for better or worse.

The final takeaway is that TriLink products play a contributing role in elucidating and applying this new world-view of halobionts.

As usual, your comments are welcomed.

Impossible Foods and Other Achievements of Pat O. Brown

  • Brown’s Microarray Publications Started a Revolution in DNA/RNA Analysis
  • Open Access Publishing Was an Unintended Consequence of His Microarray Research
  • Brown’s Passion for Bettering Earth Led to Invention of the Plant-Based Impossible Burger

Impossible Foods is a company founded by Patrick “Pat” O. Brown that wants to transform the global food system by inventing foods we love, without compromise. It’s first commercial product uses 0% meat and 100% plants to recreate everything—i.e. sights, sounds, aromas, textures and flavors—of a big, juicy burger, aptly named the Impossible Burger. “Impossible” because this was not thought to be doable, as many “veggie” burgers have fallen short on appearance, texture and—importantly—taste.

But before I tell you more about the circumstances and science of this game changer of a burger by Brown and company, let me start with his background as related to nucleic acid research, specifically microarrays.

Pat O. Brown and Microarrays

Pat O. Brown. Taken from

Brown received his BS, MD, and PhD degrees all from the University of Chicago, where he worked and published with Nicholas R, Cozzarelli on topoisomerases, which are enzymes that participate in the overwinding or underwinding of DNA. Brown did his postdoctoral research with uber-famous Nobel Laureates J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus at the University of California, San Francisco.

Brown went on to become a professor at Stanford University and in 1995 was the first to report (along with his colleagues) the use of microarrays for high-throughput analysis of nucleic acid. This seminal article published in venerable Science magazine and titled Quantitative monitoring of gene expression patterns with a complementary DNA microarray has now been cited more than 11,000 times in Google Scholar.

This publication described general methods for attaching cDNA probes for genes of interest onto glass microscope slides using a high-speed arraying machine (aka robotic printing). These were then hybridized to fluorescently labeled cDNA derived from mRNA by reverse transcription with dNTPs including labeled dCTP akin to dye labeled dNTPs offered by TriLink for such applications. Slides were then fluorescently scanned to obtain “spots” having pseudo-color intensities for quantitation relative to a “spike in” reference gene, as shown below.

Taken from Brown & coworkers Science (1995).

This paper triggered the genesis of what would become a highly competitive microarray industry, which I think of as going from “seeing spots to seeing dollars.” Interested readers can find much information about this in a review by pioneering experts during that time. A brief synopsis of this commercialization involving Brown is as follows.

From Microarrays to Open Access

Taken from

During his time at Stanford, Brown and his coworkers were using microarrays to generate huge amounts of data on gene expression profiling that required detailed analysis of even larger amounts of information previously published in many different journals. Although many of these journals were available online via a subscription, others were not, and almost all strictly forbade downloading and automated analysis. This thwarted Brown and others from compiling databases for anyone to use as needed. In other words, it prevented Open Access—allowing everyone, everywhere to have unrestricted, free access to this information.

Brown mulled over various ways for researchers to share their data, and in a coffee shop discussion with Harold Varmus, who was then Director of the NIH, they agreed on the possibility of a NIH-hosted computer server where scientists could post their work, and where it would be organized in a systematic way. Shortly thereafter in 1999, Varmus posted on the Director’s website a draft proposal for something that was dubbed e-Biomed.

In 2001, Brown helped lead the Public Library of Science (PLOS) initiative to make published scientific research open access and freely available to researchers in the scientific community. PLOS quickly grew in popularity, as have other Open Access journals, and PLOS now publishes roughly 20,000 papers per year. TriLink researchers—including yours truly—are pleased to be PLOS authors in a November 2016 report titled Small RNA Library Preparation Method for Next-Generation Sequencing Using Chemical Modifications to Prevent Adapter Dimer Formation, which has been viewed more than 2,700 times as of June 2017.

Impossible Foods

Taken from

Apparently pioneering Open Access wasn’t enough for Brown and in 2009 he decided to devote his sabbatical to a daunting—if not impossible—challenge: eliminating conventional meat production from animals, which he estimated to be the world’s largest environmental problem, according to a reported interview. Reducing meat consumption, Brown reasoned, would free up vast amounts of land and water, as well as mitigate climate change due to methane emitted by animals (specifically, 8% of the world’s water and 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to one report). In addition, there would be elimination of enormous quantities of chemical fertilizers that are harmful to water systems.

Taken from impossiblefoods

‘All you have to do is make a product that the current consumers of meat and dairy prefer to what they’re getting now,’ Brown said and succeeded in raising $3 million in venture capital seed money. His startup company—aptly named Impossible Foods—then raised $108 million, in a whopper of a deal (pun intended) for development of its initial product—a plant-based burger, also aptly named the Impossible Burger.

The Impossible Burger is made from all-natural ingredients such as wheat, coconut oil and potatoes. What makes this burger unlike all other veggie burgers is an ingredient called heme. Heme is commonly associated with hemoglobin—the red pigment in blood—but is also found in other hemoproteins, including those in plants, albeit in low abundance compared to red meat. Therein lies the part of this story I decided to research: how does Impossible Foods obtain large amounts of plant heme having the desired properties for their burger?

Leghemoglobin taken from

In an Impossible Foods patent by Brown et al., I found soy leghemoglobin identified as one such exemplary heme, which is pictured right. Plant cells within the nodule produce leghemoglobin to serve as an oxygen carrier to the bacteria within the nodule, similar to hemoglobin in blood. This enables the bacteria to obtain enough oxygen for respiration but ensures that the oxygen is in a bound form so that it cannot harm nitrogen fixing enzymes inside the bacteria. Cutting open a nodule reveals the red color typical of leghemoglobin when it binds oxygen, as seen below.

Impossible Foods biomanufacturing facility. Taken from

According to the patent, biosynthetic leghemoglobin was expressed and purified using recombinant DNA technology for protein production, and then shown by SDS-PAGE gel and mass spectrometry to be identical to soybean leghemoglobin isoforms purified from soybean root nodules. Given the advanced state-of-the-art of industrial-scale recombinant production, I assume the Impossible Foods processes pictured right can be scaled-up to reduce cost.

If you think that Brown’s burger probably falls short of what you’d want for a meat substitute, think again. After watching an unbiased—I assume—and rather entertaining video of numerous taste testers (including meat eaters and a life-long vegan) give it positive reviews, I set out to sample an Impossible Burger. It was served as two sliders topped with sun-dried tomatoes, cavolo nero, vegan sun-dried tomato mayonnaise on a poppy seed bun served with chickpea panelle. I found the taste and texture nicely meat-like, but the $16 cost a bit tough to swallow—pun intended.

Meat-Substitutes are Ethically Compelling and Becoming Big Business

Readers interested in the ethically compelling case for developing meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger may be interested in a newspaper story about a for-credit curriculum now offered by the University of California, Berkeley. In that article, I was particularly impressed by the extent of other investments in commercialization of meat-substitutes:

  • In direct competition with Impossible Foods, which has raised a total of $183 million, Beyond Meat (which counts both multibillionaire Bill Gates and meats giant Tyson Foods as investors), sells The Beyond Burger™ as well as other meatless products.
  • In 2014, Pinnacle Foods (Vlasic® pickles, Birds Eye® vegetables) bought meatless food producer Gardein for $154 million.
  • Last year, Monde Nissin (instant noodles, etc.) of the Philippines purchased US-based Quorn for $831 million. Quorn’s fungus-derived mycoprotein can be processed to look and taste like chicken nuggets, sausage or patties.
  • Some startups such as Mosa Meat in Holland and Perfect Day in Berkeley are pushing the genetic engineering toward completely biosynthetic “meat” and “milk,” respectively, as recently reported in The Economist.

In conclusion, I think you’ll agree with me that the aforementioned accomplishments of Pat O. Brown give him good reasons to be smiling so broadly in his picture above. I certainly would be.

As usual, your comments are welcomed.


After writing this blog, I read about Memphis Meats in San Leandro, California, which—like Mosa Meat and Perfect Day—has been developing cell culture-based technology to produce “meat.” Focusing on chicken, the company is quoted as saying that ‘the taste and texture is similar to that of the real thing, just a bit spongier.’ While this seems promising, it currently costs around $9,000 to produce a pound of Memphis Meats’ poultry, compared to a bit over $3 for a pound of chicken breast. However, the company hopes to reduce costs drastically and to launch a commercial product in 2021. I hope it does, but I think it won’t.







Studying Telomeres in Space

  • Telomeres are DNA Biomarkers for Your Biological “Age”
  • Telomere Shortening Due to Stress was Expected During Spaceflight, but Exactly the Opposite has Been Found
  • Raising New Questions to Answer

After you read this blog about studying telomeres in space, I think you will agree with my opinion that scientific advances can sometimes occur amazingly fast. Telomeres (which are peculiar DNA structures that I’ll explain below) went from esoteric Nobel Prize subject matter in 2009 to the focus of spaceflight science in just six short years. Now, telomeres are being investigated by PCR on the International Space Station (ISS)! With a wink and a nod to Star Trek, this is indeed “warp speed” progress!

Taken from

What are telomeres?

A telomere is a region of repetitive nucleotide sequences at each end of a chromosome, which protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration or from fusion with neighboring chromosomes. For vertebrates like us, the repetitive sequence of nucleotides in telomeres is TTAGGG, with the reverse complementary DNA strand being AATCCC, as depicted below. This sequence of TTAGGG is repeated ~2,500 times in humans.

During chromosome replication, the enzymes that duplicate DNA cannot continue their duplication all the way to the end of a chromosome, causing the end of the chromosome to be shortened in each replication. The telomeres are thus disposable “buffers” at the ends of chromosomes which are truncated during cell division, as depicted below.

Taken from

Telomers, however, are replenished by an enzyme named telomerase. This peculiar enzyme has an embedded RNA template and incorporates DNA nucleotides, as depicted below, and is therefore a special kind of reverse transcriptase. In people, it has been found that telomeres shorten with age in all replicating somatic cells that have been examined. In fact, average telomere length declines from about 11 kilobases at birth to less than 4 kilobases in old age, with the average rate of decline being greater in men than in women. Thus, telomere length can serve as a biomarker of a cell’s biological (versus chronological) “age” or potential for further cell division.

Taken from

‘Houston, we have a problem’

This now famous phrase, which was used in the past tense by the crew of the Apollo 13 moon flight to report a major technical problem back to their Houston base, echoed in mind when I learned that space flight might lead to telomere shortening. Yikes! This molecular-level change could indeed be a serious problem, and was first suggested by findings from laboratory microgravity simulations reported in 2008 by Chinese researchers. Since it was known that space flight leads to bone loss, they cultured bone stem cells (BSCs) under simulated microgravity in a rotary cell culture system.

This led to significantly decreased activity of telomerase. It was postulated that reduced bone formation in space flight may partly be due to the altered potential differentiation of BSCs associated with telomerase activity, which plays a key role in regulating the lifespan of cell proliferation and differentiation. Additionally, telomerase activation or telomerase replacement may act as a potential countermeasure for microgravity-induced bone loss.

Taken from

If you’re thinking that these “potential countermeasures” are fanciful, you’d better think again. I recently came across a patent that was published last year on methods and compositions for increasing telomerase activity in cells, including pharmaceutical formulations. Moreover, there are now various commercially available supplements claiming to promote telomerase activity, such as that picture below. I hasten to add that I do not advocate use of any such supplement, and that interested readers should consult their primary care physician or certified nutritionist.

Twins and telomeres

Although identical twins are almost the same genetically, differences in environment, diet and other outside factors can affect their health in different ways. Consequently, identical twins have been enrolled in various studies that require deciphering effects due to “nature vs. nurture” (i.e. intrinsic genetics vs. external factors). Part of the Twins Study supported by NASA was aimed at examining the effects of space travel on one of a pair of twins: astronaut Scott Kelly, who stayed on the ISS for one year, while his twin brother, Mark, remained on Earth. In brief, Prof. Susan Bailey at Colorado State University is exploring differences between the twins’ telomeres to determine if telomeres respond differently to spaceflight and then how such changes relate to the various medical endpoints studied by other Twins Study investigators.

Scott Kelly (left) and his identical twin brother Mark in 2015 prior to Scott’s one-year mission to the ISS. Taken from

Preliminary research results for this part of the NASA Twins Study (reported at NASA’s annual Investigators’ Workshop earlier this year) were a quite surprising because they were opposite of what was expected, thus raising more questions than providing answers. It had been theorized that exposure to microgravity and stress during prolonged spaceflight would shorten telomeres, but instead Bailey’s team found telomeres in Scott’s white blood cells increased in length while in space! This finding was rationalized as being due to increased exercise and reduced caloric intake during the space mission. Upon his return to Earth, however, these telomeres began to shorten again.

This is yet another example of a biomedical phenomenon being far more complex that first theorized, and one that becomes less understood as more and more data are obtained. We’ll all have to patiently stay tuned for how this telomeres-in-space story evolves. The good news, as I’ll explore in the next and final section of this blog, is that there are exciting plans to use PCR to measure telomere length extraterrestrially! This is very “far out” science—pun intended.

Studying telomeres in space by PCR

Taken from

The aforementioned Twins Study involved taking blood samples from an astronaut during spaceflight for lab analysis upon return to Earth. To obtain much more data, and to do so in real time while in space, NASA launched the Genes in Space-2 mission in April 2017. The goal is to determine whether astronauts aboard the ISS can analyze telomeres by PCR reactions in a small thermal cycling device (miniPCR system) and thus measure and monitor telomere changes during spaceflight.

In addition to testing the miniPCR system, the Genes in Space-2 mission has a secondary goal to test the feasibility of techniques used to measure telomere length. Currently, Single Telomere Length Analysis (STELA) is the only suitable technique for use on the ISS due to technical requirements. The Genes in Space-2 mission will also be testing the feasibility of a loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) colorimetric assay for detection of amplification aboard the ISS. Please stay tuned for updates on the outcome of these very important feasibility experiments.

Scheme for STELA procedure. Taken from Xing et al. (2009)

Julian Rubenfein. Taken from

As a side note, the Genes in Space competition for 2017 selected this experiment on telomere amplification in microgravity from 375 submissions by nearly 850 students in grades 7 to 12 from across the US. This telomere experiment was proposed by 17-year old Julian Rubinfien from Stuyvesant High School in New York City, who is pictured below. I encourage you to read this interesting, although lengthy interview about his background and the experimental rationale. What’s even more interesting is this short video of Julian at the launch and his comments—very impressive!

I strongly encourage you to read more about all the award-winning experiments in this exciting round of competition among young, highly motivated, advanced students, who I’m sure will be successful in whatever they do in the future.

Your thoughts or comments here are welcomed.


Profs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greiner—who received a Nobel Prize in 2009 for seminal work on telomeres—co-founded Telome Health Inc. (THI) in 2010 to leverage the predictive power of telomere-length assays to help assess health status, disease and mortality risk, and response to specific therapies. THI subsequently announced TeloTest™ as a diagnostic test that measures average telomere length by qPCR. TeloTest™ was the first saliva-based telomere test available on the market, and is currently offered by a company named TeloYears.

The clinical utility of testing telomere length in a saliva-based test was recently reported from an independent, large clinical study sponsored jointly by Kaiser Permanente, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and National Institutes of Health. In the study, the average telomere length of 100,000 Kaiser patients was measured and analyzed relative to other health domains and clinical outcomes.

My recently obtained TeloTest™ results from TeloYears indicated that my biological age is 4 years older than my chronological age. Naturally, I was hoping to learn that my telomere-based age would be less than my actual age. Alas, the results are what they are, so I’ll be following diet, exercise, sleep, and stress-management recommendations you can read about at TeloYears Learning Center.



CRISPR-C2c2 Update: Powerful New Diagnostic Method Using CRISPR

  • CRISPR Craze Continues Led in Part by Wunderkind Feng Zhang
  • Nonspecific CRISPR-C2c2 “Collateral” Cutting Channeled into Diagnostics
  • Turning Biochemical “Lemons to Lemonade”

This blog post is about a new and powerful diagnostic approach based on CRISPR, which I’ll get to below. But first I’d like to point out several reasons why this is an especially interesting development:

  • Taken from

    Any new method using CRISPR is more “sizzle” for this “super-hot” technology

  • Feng Zhang, the 32-year-old author of this publication, is regarded as a wunderkind
  • My past blog post on CRISPR-C2c2 “collateral” cutting noted possibilities for turning “lemons into lemonade”
  • Such “lemonade” has emerged as a diagnostic cleverly acronymized as SHERLOCK

So, without further ado, here’s a brief recap of CRISPR-C2c2 as an intro to SHERLOCK (think Holmes), followed by why this acronym is apropos for a diagnostic method that magnifies detection, in this case Zika virus, about which I’ve previously commented. 

What’s CRISPR-C2c2?

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) and CRISPR-associated (CRISPR-Cas) adaptive immune systems in microbes contain endonucleases that can be leveraged for CRISPR-based gene editing using targeted CRISPR RNAs (crRNAs), as I’ve outlined in a previous blog post. While such Cas enzymes target DNA, others target RNA and function as RNA-guided RNases, which was reported by Feng Zhang and collaborators in Science last year in an article titled C2c2 is a single-component programmable RNA-guided RNA-targeting CRISPR effector.

My blog post about that C2c2 publication provides more information, but the main point related to the present blog post about diagnostics is that after recognition of its RNA target, activated C2c2 engages in nonspecific (aka “collateral”) cleavage of nearby non-targeted RNAs. This post-cleavage non-specificity can be transformed, if you will, from something “bad” to something “good” in terms of mechanisms, which I described as being akin to converting ‘lemons into lemonade’. You’ll now see how SHERLOCK is such ‘lemonade’ concocted by Zhang and coworkers.


Taken from US 20140199245 A1

Before answering this question, and not to confuse you, I need to first mention that the nuclease originally called C2c2 was renamed Cas13a to be more systematic, and will be referred to herein as such. Having said that, Cas13a can be reprogrammed with crRNAs to provide a platform for specific RNA sensing. Molecular recognition of an intended RNA target by crRNA in vitro serves as a sequence-specific “trigger” to activate Cas13a’s nonspecific, “collateral” cleavage of labeled RNA reporters. Cleavage of these fluorescently labeled, internally quenched RNAs leads to unquenching and fluorescent light emission for detection, as depicted below for a generic RNase.

Now that you have a sense of how CRISPR-Cas13a can generate a signal, you’re probably asking ‘What is SHERLOCK?’ It’s an acronym coined by a large team lead by CRISPR genome-editing pioneer Feng Zhang and bioengineer James Collins, both from the Broad Institute. SHERLOCK stands for High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing, which is a recently published new method for sequence-specific detection of DNA or RNA in any sample of interest. This general utility represents a major advance in CRISPR-based diagnostics.

Feng Zhang. Taken from // James Collins. Taken from

As depicted below, sample prep workflows allow for input of either double-stranded DNA (dsDNA) or RNA, which are first amplified by recombinase polymerase amplification (RPA) directly or as cDNA, after reverse transcription (RT-RPA), respectively. In either case, further amplification utilizes T7 transcription into RNA (blue = target RNA; yellow = non-target RNA). Following cleavage of target RNA by Cas13a-crRNA, a commercially available “cleavage reporter” (i.e. internally quenched) RNA undergoes “collateral” cleavage to generate a reporter signal (i.e. fluorescence; pictured below) for real-time detection of the target.

Taken from Feng Zhang, Collins & coworkers Science (2017)

An advantage of RPA is that it is performed isothermally, which allows simplification of the detection device by eliminating the need for a thermal cycler, thus lending to incorporation into small, portable point-of-care (POC) systems (about which I previously commented several times). The abovementioned RPA/T7 sample prep methodology was shown to have attomolar (aM, 10−18 mol/L) sensitivity in model systems, and was next investigated for sensitivity and specificity of virus detection, as well as simplification of reagent format.

Zhang, Collins & coworkers constructed lentiviruses harboring genome fragments of either Zika virus (ZIKV) or the related flavivirus Dengue (DENV), and showed that SHERLOCK detected viral particles down to 2 aM could discriminate between ZIKV and DENV. To explore the potential for POC use of SHERLOCK with paper-spotting and lyophilization (aka freeze-drying), they first demonstrated that Cas13a-crRNA complexes lyophilized and subsequently rehydrated could detect 20 femtomolar (fM, 10−15 mol/L) non-amplified RNA, and that target detection was also possible on glass fiber paper.

The other components of SHERLOCK, namely the RPA reagents and T7 polymerase, were already known to be amenable to freeze-drying and storage at ambient temperatures. In combination, freeze-drying and paper-spotting the Cas13a detection reaction resulted in comparable levels of sensitive detection of RNA as aqueous reactions. Although paper-spotting and lyophilization slightly reduced the absolute signal of the readout, SHERLOCK could readily detect mock ZIKV virus at concentrations as low as 20 aM. Most importantly, SHERLOCK detected ZIKV in clinical isolates (ZIKV RNA extracted from patient serum or urine samples and reverse transcribed into cDNA) could be detected at concentrations down to 1.25 × 103 copies/mL (2.1 aM), as verified by qPCR.

Concluding Comments

If you reflect upon the schematic for SHERLOCK, you’ll note that the input can be either DNA or RNA, which get amplified to produce many copies of RNA that serve as substrates for cleavage by Cas13a-crRNA, thus inducing collateral cleavage of reporter RNA to produce a detectable signal. Lest you think SHERLOCK is too costly to be practical, its developers provide a detailed cost accounting that estimates $0.61 per test, which you’re welcome to compare with your cost of conventional qPCR. I’m quite sure that will lead you to concur with me that $0.61 per test is relatively inexpensive.

If you’re questioning whether SHERLOCK is generally applicable, I urge you to read Zhang, Collins & coworkers in its entirety to learn more about SHERLOCK’s proven ability to detect and distinguish (1) various bacterial pathogens, (2) single-base cancer mutations in cell-free DNA, and (3) health-related single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) benchmarked against 23andMe genotyping data as the gold standard of these SNPs.

In an article in Science about SHERLOCK, Harvard University’s George Church (who I’ve proclaimed is The Most Interesting Scientist in the World and is the co-founded of a CRISPR therapeutics company), sums up his reaction in one word: ‘Wow.’ I agree!

The article concludes with Collins saying the Broad is now ‘aggressively exploring’ how to commercialize SHERLOCK and may launch a startup company. But before a diagnostic comes to market, it must pass muster at regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I’m betting is does.

I welcome your sharing any thoughts or comments about this new CRISPR-based diagnostic method.

Curiously Circular RNA (circRNA) Gets Curiouser

  • circRNA Molecules Have, Oddly, No Beginning or End
  • circRNA Are Now Recognized as Regulators of Gene Expression 
  • A Flurry of New Findings Indicate circRNA Are Also Templates for Synthesis of Proteins Having As Yet Unknown Functions

Electron micrograph of ~3,000-nt circRNA. Taken from Matsumoto et al. PNAS (1990).

About a year ago, my blog titled Curiously Circular RNA pointed out that circular RNA (circRNA) in animals are odd molecules in that, unlike the vast majority of other RNA in animals, circRNA have no structural beginning (5’) or end (3’). This very curious feature has, not surprisingly, stimulated considerable scientific interest in knowing more about these molecules, which were serendipitously discovered some 30 years ago.

Application of next-generation sequencing has revealed that circRNA are actually relatively abundant and evolutionarily conserved, which implicates biological importance rather than inconsequential mistakes during RNA splicing mechanisms. Some circRNA have been shown to have function—circRNA can hybridize to complementary microRNA (miRNA), and thus serve as a kind of ‘sponge’ that influences miRNA-based gene expression. Evidence for circRNA involvement in gene expression continues to grow, as there are now >700 items on “circRNA [and] sponges” in Google Scholar.

Very recently published lines of research (that I’ll outline in what follows) implicate circRNA as coding templates for proteins, which heretofore has been exclusively associated with messenger RNA (mRNA). Current dogma holds that translation of mRNA into protein requires recognition of the 7-methylguanylated (m7G) 5’-cap structure to start ribosome binding, while the 3’-poly(A) tail protects the mRNA molecule from enzymatic degradation and aids in stopping translation, as depicted below.

Taken from Shoemaker & Green Nature Structural & Molecular Biology (2012).

Start and stop structural elements characteristic of mRNA are obviously not present in circRNA, which are literally just circles of RNA. Consequently, finding proteins encoded by circRNA has stirred up controversy about whether such proteins are a new and fundamentally important aspect of genetics or just inconsequential biochemical mistakes.

Translation of circRNA in Fly Head Neurons

Fruit fly. Taken from

Researchers at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel in collaboration with a team at Max-Delbruck-Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, Germany recently reported in Molecular Cell the first compelling evidence that a subset of circRNA is translated in vivo. The study by Kadener & coworkers was carried out using the common fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), which is known to have a number of features that lend to investigations of circRNA: (1) >2,500 fruit fly circular RNAs have been rigorously annotated, (2) these are mostly derive from back-splicing (pictured below) of protein-coding genes, (3) hundreds of which are conserved across multiple Drosophila species, and (4) exhibit commonalities to mammalian circRNA.

Direct back-splicing: a branch point in the 5’ intron attacks the splice donor of the 3’ intron. The 3’ splice donor then completes the back-splice by attacking the 5’ splice acceptor forming a circRNA. Taken from Jeck & Sharpless Nature Biotechnol (2014).

This study by Kadener & coworkers involves a plethora of technically complex experimental procedures and associated jargon, from which I’ve extracted what I believe to be some key points to share. After annotating the Drosophila circRNA open reading frames (cORFs), which, by definition,h have the potential for translation, they searched for evidence of their translation utilizing previously published ribosome footprinting (RFP). This led to identification of 37 circRNAs with at least one specific RFP read, referred to as ribo-circRNAs.

Taken from Jeck & Sharpless Nature Biotechnology (2014)

Several representative ribo-circRNAs were then constructed to each have (pictured below) a metallothionine (MT) promoter and V5 tag to facilitate translation and anti-V5 antibody-based detection of the expected protein after transfection into cells.

To determine whether circRNAs are translated in a more relevant tissue, they set up the RFP methodology in fly heads. A genetic locus named mbl that is known to produce a circRNA (circMbl3) at high abundance was selected for targeted mass spectrometry from a fly head immunoprecipitated MBL. They utilized synthetic peptides to determine characteristic spectra for which to search in the fly head immunoprecipitate and found a consistent and very high confidence hit for a peptide that can only be produced by circMbl3.

Kadener & coworkers extended these fly head findings to mammalian mouse and rat systems, but the most interesting part of this study—in my opinion—dealt with what signals ribosome binding and translation in the absence of the 5’ cap structure present in mRNA. They demonstrated circRNA translation under conditions intended to block normal 5’ cap-dependent translation of mRNA, and concluded that “[untranslated regions] of ribo-circRNAs (cUTRs) allow cap-independent translation [and that] further research is necessary to uncover how these sequences promote translation.”

Remarkably, as you’ll now read, another group of investigators have apparently found how such promotion of circRNA translation can occur.

Translation of circRNA is Driven by N6-Methyladenosine (m6A)

The most abundant modification of RNA in eukaryotes is m6A, which has been recently shown by Li et al. to recruit binding proteins that collectively facilitate the translation of specifically targeted mRNAs—i.e. those “marked” with m6A—through interactions with 40S and 60S ribosome subunit “machinery” that actually carry out translation. Contemporaneously, Yang et al. found that m6A likewise promotes efficient initiation of protein translation from circRNAs in human cells. They discovered that consensus m6A motifs are enriched in circRNAs, and a single m6A site is sufficient to drive translation initiation.

As depicted below, this m6A-driven translation requires initiation factor F4G2 and m6A “reader” YTHDF3. Experiments showed that this translation is enhanced by methyltransferase METTL3/14 and inhibited by demethylase FTO, which enzymatically “add” and “subtract” methyl (Me) groups on specific adenosines (A) in circRNAs, respectively.  It has also been shown to be upregulated upon heat shock, which is a commonly employed method to induce “stress” in cells.

Taken from Yang et al.

Further analyses through polysome profiling, computational prediction and mass spectrometry revealed that m6A-driven translation of circRNAs is widespread, with hundreds of endogenous circRNAs having translation potential. Yang et al. concluded by stating that their “study expands the coding landscape of [the] human transcriptome, and suggests a role of circRNA-derived proteins in cellular responses to environmental stress.”

Zinc Finger Protein in Muscle Cell Development

Finally, and essentially contemporaneously with above mentioned two publications, a third independent investigation reported by Legnini et al. demonstrated selective circRNA downregulation using short-interfering RNAs (siRNAs). These reagents for RNA interference (RNAi) were used in an image-based functional genetic screen of 25 circRNA species, conserved between mouse and human, expression of which are differentially expressed during myogenesis (i.e. formation of muscular tissue) in Duchenne muscular dystrophy myoblasts.

This siRNA/RNAi-based functional analysis provided one interesting case related to zinc finger protein 609 (circ-ZNF609)—a reported miRNA sponge—the phenotype of which could be specifically attributed to the circular form and not to the linear mRNA counterpart. Consistent with the circ-ZNF609 sequence having an ORF, they found that a fraction of circ-ZNF609 RNA is loaded onto polysomes and that, upon puromycin treatment, it shifted to lighter fractions, similar to mRNAs. The coding ability of this circRNA was proved through use of artificial constructs expressing circular tagged transcripts, and by CRISPR/Cas9—the trendy gene editing method about which I’ve already commented multiple times.

Despite all this evidence, Legnini et al. stated that they “have no hints on the molecular activity of the proteins derived from circ-ZNF609 and as to whether they contribute to modulate or control the activity of the counterpart deriving from the linear mRNA.”

In thinking about closing comments about this update in circRNA, I decided to emphasize that investigations in the field of RNA continue to reveal complexities that will require many more years of global attention to unravel and understand. In just the past decade or so we’ve learned about gene regulation by miRNA/siRNA, reclassification of “junk DNA” as encoding a myriad of long noncoding RNA (lncRNA), mRNA regulation by base-modifications, and curious circRNAs that are more than sponges, and likely encode hundreds (if not thousands) of proteins whose functions have yet to be elucidated. Amazing!

What are your thoughts about all of this?

Your comments are welcomed.


After writing this blog, Panda et al. at the National Institute on Aging-Intramural Research Program, National Institutes of Health published a paper titled High-purity circular RNA isolation method (RPAD) reveals vast collection of intronic circRNAs. Here’s a snippet of the abstract which adds to the increasingly curious occurrence of circRNAs that begs, if you will, further research aimed at discovering functions of circRNA-derived proteins.

“Here, we describe a novel method for the isolation of highly pure circRNA populations involving RNase R treatment followed by Polyadenylation and poly(A)+ RNA Depletion (RPAD), which removes linear RNA to near completion. High-throughput sequencing of RNA prepared using RPAD from human cervical carcinoma HeLa cells and mouse C2C12 myoblasts led to two surprising discoveries: (i) many exonic circRNA (EcircRNA) isoforms share an identical backsplice sequence but have different body sizes and sequences, and (ii) thousands of novel intronic circular RNAs (IcircRNAs) are expressed in cells. In sum, isolating high-purity circRNAs using the RPAD method can enable quantitative and qualitative analyses of circRNA types and sequence composition, paving the way for the elucidation of circRNA functions.”

National ALS Advocacy Day

  • Tuesday May 16, 2017 is National ALS Advocacy Day
  • Mark Your Calendar and Get Involved!
  • Read on to Find Out Why Involvement Matters

Lou Gehrig (1903-1941). Taken from

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is more commonly referred to in North America as “Lou Gehrig disease.” Henry Louis “Lou” Gehrig was a record-setting baseball All-Star for the New York Yankees from 1923 through 1939, when he voluntarily took himself out of the lineup to stunned fans after his play was hampered by ALS. Sadly, Mr. Gehrig died only two years later, which indicates the rapidity of ALS disease progression.

ALS was first found in 1869 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, but it wasn’t until Lou Gehrig’s affliction that national and international attention was brought to the disease. ALS is now known to be a group of neurological diseases that mainly involve the degeneration of nerve cells (neurons) responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement, like chewing, walking, breathing and talking. Motor neurons are nerve cells that extend from the brain to the spinal cord and to muscles throughout the body.

Taken from

The disease is relentlessly progressive, meaning the symptoms get continuously worse over time. Both the upper motor neurons in the brain and the lower motor neurons in the spine degenerate or die, and stop sending messages to the muscles. Unable to function, the muscles gradually weaken, start to twitch, and waste away (atrophy). Eventually, the brain loses its ability to initiate and control voluntary movements.

Currently, there is no cure for ALS and no effective treatment to halt, or reverse, the progression of the disease. Most people with ALS die from respiratory failure, usually within 3 to 5 years from when the symptoms first appear. However, about 10 percent of people with ALS survive for 10 or more years.

It is generally estimated there are over 30,000 people living with ALS in the United States at any given time, and that the number worldwide is around 450,000. Someone is diagnosed with ALS every 90 minutes. The life-time incident rate for an average person is often estimated at between 1-in-400 to 1-in-600 people—an incidence rate comparable to that for multiple sclerosis.

Who Gets ALS and Why?

Following are some reliable facts that I selected from an authoritative NIH website for ALS:

  • ALS affects people of all races and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Caucasians and non-Hispanics are most likely to develop the disease.
  • Although the disease can strike at any age, symptoms most commonly develop between the ages of 55 and 75.
  • Men are slightly more likely than women to develop ALS. However, the difference between men and women disappears with aging.
  • Military veterans are about 1.5 to 2 times more likely to develop ALS, and is recognized as a service-connected disease by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • 90% of ALS cases are considered sporadic, i.e. the disease seems to occur at random.
  • 10% of ALS cases are familial, i.e. an individual inherits the disease from his or her parents.
  • Mutations in more than a dozen genes have been found to cause familial ALS

How is ALS treated?

Riluzole. Taken from

No cure has yet been found for ALS. However, there are treatments available that can help control symptoms, prevent unnecessary complications, and make living with the disease easier. In 1995, the FDA approved riluzole (Rilutek), the only disease-modifying drug to date for ALS. Riluzole has multiple neural mechanisms of action, and is believed to reduce damage to motor neurons by decreasing levels of glutamate, which transports messages between nerve cells and motor neurons. Unfortunately, clinical trials in people with ALS showed that riluzole prolongs survival by only a few months.

BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics & NurOwn®

In researching clinical trials for hopefully much more effective therapies for ALS, I came across a company in Israel named BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics Inc. (BCTI) that offers a form of stem cell therapy for ALS that appears to be quite promising. Following is a short synopsis of what I found.

Space-filling model of BDNF. Taken from

BCLI has developed a patented stem cell-based technology that delivers a growth factor that can help neurons live longer at or near the site of injury or damage. More specifically, a mesenchymal stem cell isolated from an ALS patient is grown in a cell culture under certain conditions to produce a differentiated phenotype that secretes brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) at a level at least five-times greater than normal. The term “factor” is generic in biomedical parlance, and in the case of BDNF refers to a protein pictured to the right.

After these “super secreting” cells are obtained ex vivo, they are reintroduced (aka implanted) into the same ALS patient (i.e. an autologous transplant; see schematic diagram) wherein BDNF acts on neurons of the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system, helping to support the survival of existing neurons, and encourage the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses.

Taken from Byrne JA. Overcoming clinical hurdles for autologous pluripotent stem cell-based therapies. OA Stem Cells 2013 Sep 01;1(1):3.

Details for this cell-harvesting, ex vivo differentiation, selection, and implantation can be read in this 2014 article by BCTI in Clinical Translation Medicine. BCTI has registered these differentiated BDNF-secreting cells as NurOwn®, which I assume is intended to sound bit like “your own”—to reflect the autologous nature of the transplant—and be a linguistic blend of neuron and own. In any case, the important point is that safety and efficacy have been reported in a recently published Phase 1/2 and 2a open-label, proof-of-concept studies of patients with ALS at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, Israel.

In the Phase 1/2 part of the trial, 6 patients with early-stage ALS were injected intramuscularly (IM) and 6 patients with more advanced disease were transplanted intrathecally (IT), i.e. via the spinal cord. In the Phase 2a dose-escalating study, 14 patients with early-stage ALS received a combined IM and IT transplantation of autologous BDNF-secreting cells. Interested readers can consult this publication for details, but the bottom line, if you will, was that the possible clinical benefits would be hopefully confirmed in an upcoming clinical trial.

My further research on this led to a February 2017 press release by BCTI announcing that City of Hope’s Center for Biomedicine and Genetics (CBG) in Duarte, California will produce clinical supplies of NurOwn® adult stem cells for the BCTI’s planned randomized, double-blind, multi-dose Phase 3 clinical study in patients with ALS. It added that CBG is expected to support all U.S. medical centers that will be participating in the Phase 3 trial.

A second February 2017 press release by BCTI announced an agreement with Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) in Toronto, Canada to support the market authorization request for NurOwn® and explore the opportunity to access Health Canada’s early access pathway for treatment of patients with ALS as early as 2018.

Other ALS Clinical Studies

My “go to” authoritative source of reliable information about clinical trials is NIH’s website that has an updated database that can be searched and filtered in many ways. When I searched for ALS clinical trials that were recruiting patients, I was heartened to find over 180 studies that can be perused via this link. For each study, there is information about purpose, study design and measures, eligibility, contacts and locations.

Incidentally, as regular readers of my blog will know, modified mRNA (mod mRNA) therapeutics is a relatively new and very promising modality for treating diseases that respond to providing or supplementing proteins. Given that DNA vectors encoding BDNF mRNA are readily available, I’m hoping that a mod mRNA for BDNF will soon be investigated as yet another avenue of treatment for ALS.

Advocate for ALS!

Taken from

The ALS Association (ALSA) has the stated mission “to discover treatments and a cure for ALS, and to serve, advocate for, and empower people affected by ALS to live their lives to the fullest.” ALSA’s website offers various ways for any individual to become an advocate for ALS, such as becoming informed and donating much needed money or time, participating in the Walk to Defeat ALS® that draws people of all ages and athletic abilities together (see picture) to honor the courageous souls who are affected by ALS, to remember those who have passed, and to show support for the cause.

One of my long-time friends has recently been diagnosed with ALS, which in part led me to research this blog to help inform him, and led me to find a Walk to Defeat ALS® in which to participate. I encourage you to do advocate for ALS in whatever way you wish and are able.

As usual, your comments are welcomed.

DNA Day 2017

  • There are Now Millions of DNA-Related Publications
  • Some of the Top 5 Cited Papers on DNA Will Surprise You
  • You Probably Won’t Guess Top 5 Most Frequently Cited

Deciding what to post here in recognition of DNA Day 2017 was just as challenging as it has been in past years, primarily because there’s so many different perspectives from which to choose. After much mulling, and several abandoned approaches, I settled on featuring DNA publications that have received the most citations, as an objective metric—not just my subjective opinions about topics I think are significant or otherwise interesting.

Before getting to the numbers of DNA-related papers and some of the most cited papers, here’s a quick recap of what was posted here in the past, starting with the inaugural blog four years ago:

2013—60th Anniversary of the Discovery of DNA’s Double Helix Structure

2014—My Top 3 “Likes” for DNA Day

2015—Celebrating Click Chemistry in Honor of DNA Day

2016—DNA Dreams Do Come True!

Explosive Growth of DNA Publications

Regular readers of my blogs will know that I frequently use the NIH PubMed database of scientific articles to find publications by searching keywords, phrases, or authors. A convenient feature of these searches is providing “results per year” that can be exported into Excel for various purposes. Some preliminary searches indicated that DNA-related articles can be indexed by either DNA or PCR, or cloning, or other terms among which sequencing was notable. The majority, however, were indexed as either DNA or PCR, which together gave nearly 1.7 million items—an astounding number. This number is even much greater since PubMed excludes some important chemistry journals, as well as patents.

Diving deeper into these numbers, I thought it helpful to look at the publication volumes and rates for DNA, sequencing DNA, and PCR through 2015 starting from 1953, 1977, and 1986, respectively. These respective dates correspond to seminar publications by Watson & Crick, Maxam & Gilbert, and Mullis & coworkers. The results shown in the following graph attest to my often stated “power of PCR” as premier method in nucleic acid research, which we’ll see again below in another numerical context.

Top 5 Cited Papers

During my perusal of the above literature in PubMed generally related to DNA, I thought it would be interesting to find, and share here, which specific papers have the distinction of being most frequently cited. Citations are not available in PubMed, but are compiled in Google Scholar, which led me to these Top 5 that are listed from first to fifth.

Frederick Sanger (1918-2013) Taken from

  1. DNA sequencing with chain-terminating inhibitors

Frederick Sanger, the eponymous father of the “Sanger sequencing” method published in 1977, received the 1980 Nobel Prize in chemistry for this contribution. He also received the 1958 Nobel Prize in chemistry for sequencing insulin, and is the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in chemistry. Uber-famous DNA expert Craig Venter is quoted as saying that ‘Fred Sanger was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century,’ [who] ‘twice changed the direction of the scientific world.’

  1. Analysis of relative gene expression data using real-time quantitative PCR and the 2− ΔΔCT method

Kenneth J. Livak, PhD
Taken from

The most commonly used method to analyze data from real-time, quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR) experiments is relative quantification, which relates the PCR signal of the transcript of interest to that of a control sample such as an

untreated control. The derivation, assumptions, and applications of this method were published in 2001 by Livak & Schmittgen. I overlapped with Ken Livak at Applied Biosystems, which pioneered commercilaization of RT-qPCR reagents and instrumentation at the time. He is currently Senior Scientific Fellow at Fluidigm Corp.

Sir Edwin M. Southern Taken from

3. Detection of specific sequences among DNA fragments separated by gel electrophoresis

Sir Edwin Mellor Southern, FRS, the eponymous father of “Southern blotting” DNA fragments from agarose gels to cellulose nitrate filters published in 1975, is a Lasker Award-winning molecular biologist, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Trinity College. He is also Founder and Chief Scientific Advisor of Oxford Gene Technology.

  1. Prof. Bert Vogelstein, MD
    Taken from

    A technique for radiolabeling DNA restriction endonuclease fragments to high specific activity

This paper by Feinberg & Vogelstein published in 1983 describes how to conveniently radiolabel DNA restriction endonuclease fragments to high specific activity using the large fragment of DNA polymerase I and random oligonucleotides as primers. These “oligolabeled” DNA fragments serve as efficient probes in filter hybridization experiments. His group pioneered the idea that somatic mutations represent uniquely specific biomarkers for cancer patients, leading to the first FDA-approved DNA mutation-based screening tests, and now “liquid biopsies” that evaluate blood samples to obtain information about underlying tumors and their responses to therapy (an area that I’ve touted in previous blogs). A technique for conveniently radiolabeling DNA restriction endonuclease fragments to high specific activity is described. DNA fragments are purified from agarose gels directly by ethanol precipitation and are then denatured and labeled with the large fragment of DNA polymerase I, using random oligonucleotides as primers. Over 70% of the precursor triphosphate is routinely incorporated into complementary DNA, and specific activities of over 109 dpm/μg of DNA can be obtained using relatively small amounts of precursor. These “oligolabeled” DNA fragments serve as efficient probes in filter hybridization experiments.

  1. Kary B. Mullis, PHD
    Taken from

    Primer-directed enzymatic amplification of DNA with a thermostable DNA polymerase

In 1988, Kary B. Mullis and coworkers (then at Cetus Corp.) published in venerable Science a method using oligonucleotide primers and thermostable DNA polymerase from Thermus aquaticus to amplify genomic DNA segments up to 2000 base pairs to detect a target DNA molecule present only once in a sample of 105 cells. Since that time, polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-related technology has evolved to now routinely enable a variety of single-cell analyses of DNA or RNA. Dr. Mullis received the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his 1983 invention of PCR, which his website says ‘is hailed as one of the monumental scientific techniques of the twentieth century.’

Top 5 Papers by Citation Frequency

While writing the above section, it occurred to me that ranking these five publications by total number of citations-to-date in Google Scholar doesn’t account for differences in the number of years between the year of publication and now. I did the math to calculate the average citation frequency per year, and here’s the totally surprising—to me—result: relative gene expression methodology published by Livak & Schmittgen is by far the most frequently cited of the Top 5, according to this way of ranking:

  1. 2001, relative gene expression, Cited by 69560 = 4,637 avg. citations per year
  2. 1977, Sanger sequencing, Cited by 32662 = 1,701
  3. 1975, Southern blotting, Cited by 21201 = 796
  4. 1988, PCR, Cited by 18785 = 671
  5. 1983, oligolabeled DNA, Cited by 21200 = 642

I should point out that, as transformative methods such as these gradually become widely recognized as “standard procedures,” researchers tend to feel it unnecessary to include a reference to the orignal publication. Consequenly, citation frequency decreases with time even though cummulative usage increases. In other words, 25 years from now average citations per year for relative gene expression will have likely decreased, and be surpassed by a new “method of the decade,” so to speak.

Prediction for the Future

This line of reasoning leads me to close with some speculation about what DNA-related technique might emerge as the next “method of the decade” that tops the above ranking by citation frequency.

My guess is that it will be Multiplex genome engineering using CRISPR/Cas systems by Zhang & coworkers that has been cited by 4145 at the time I’m writing this piece, only four years from its publication in venerable Science in 2013. Some of my blogs have already commented on various aspects of CRISPR/Cas9, which is among genome editing tools offered by TriLink.

As usual, your comments are welcomed.

Autism Awareness Month – April 2017

  • Sequencing for Diagnosis of Autism Holds Promise
  • Several Genetic-Risk Testing Procedures are Available
  • More Than 40 Autism Publications Using TriLink Products

The first National Autism Awareness Month was declared by the Autism Society in April 1970 with the aim of educating the public about autism. Autism is a complex mental condition and developmental disability, characterized by difficulties in the way a person communicates and interacts with other people. Autism can be present from birth or form during early childhood, typically within the first three years. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability with no single known cause.

The puzzle pattern of this ribbon reflects the complexity of autism, while the colors and shapes represent the diversity of people and families living with this spectrum of disorders. Taken from

People with autism are classed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the terms autism and ASD are often used interchangeably. The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability in functioning that can occur in people with ASD, which includes Asperger syndrome. Some children and adults with ASD are fully able to perform all activities of daily living while others require substantial support to perform basic activities. ASD occurs in every racial and ethnic group, and across all socioeconomic levels. However, boys are significantly more likely to develop ASD than girls. The latest analysis from the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 children has ASD.

Taken from

According to the CDC, diagnosing ASD can be difficult, since there is no medical test, like a blood test, to diagnose the disorders. Doctors look at the child’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis.” More details from the CDC are provided at this link.

Notwithstanding this current difficulty for diagnosis of ASD, research has led to continuing progress toward possible blood tests for ASD, which is the focus of this blog and supplements an earlier posting here on treating autism with a broccoli nutraceutical.

ASD and Exome Sequencing

My Google Scholar search for “autism and sequencing” led to a mindboggling list of more than 47,000 items! When ordered by relevance rather than date of publication, two publications were each cited ~1,000-times following “back-to-back” appearance in venerable Nature magazine in 2012. This computes to a combined average of ~400 citations per year, or a fraction more than one citation per day on average, which to me signals significant attention by the ASD research community and thus worth commenting on herein.

Sanders et al., in the first of these two widely cited studies, carried out exome sequencing in 238 families wherein each pair of parents was unaffected by ASD but had a child who was affected (aka proband), and in 200 of these families there was an unaffected sibling. This study design feature is important in view of the widely held idea that complex personality traits are derived by a combination of “nature and nurture,” i.e. genetics inherited from parents and that which is learned or otherwise acquired by familial and all external events.

Before synopsizing what was found, I should note that germline single-base mutations spontaneously arise during mitosis in every generation, and are termed de novo single nucleotide variants (SNVs). Identifying SNVs remained refractory to analysis at the whole genome or exon level until the advent of next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies.

Sanders et al. found that the total number of non-synonymous (i.e. changes in the amino acid sequence of proteins) de novo SNVs—particularly highly disruptive nonsense and splice-site de novo mutations—are associated with ASD. They concluded that their results “substantially clarify the genomic architecture of ASD, demonstrate significant association of three genes—SCN2A, KATNAL2 and CHD8—and predict that approximately 25–50 additional ASD-risk genes will be identified as sequencing [more] families is completed.”

Neale et al., in the second widely cited study, likewise conducted exome sequencing but on only 175 ASD probands and their parents. Nevertheless, they found that the proteins encoded by genes that harbored de novo non-synonymous or nonsense mutations showed a higher degree of connectivity among themselves and with previous ASD genes as indexed by protein-protein interaction screens. They concluded that their results “support polygenic models in which spontaneous coding mutations in any of a large number of genes increases risk by 5- to 20-fold,” but did acknowledge the strong evidence reported by Sanders et al. for individual genes as risk factors.

ASD Genetic-Risk Testing

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2013 issued a statement on ethical and policy issues for genetic screening of children for ASD that was prompted in part due to then recent progress by IntegraGen—a small French genomics company—on development of a gene test that uses a cheek swab to screen infants and toddlers for 65 genetic markers associated with autism. Highlights of the AAP’s statement include:

  • Genetic screening can be particularly useful for diagnosing older babies and children with developmental disorders such as autism.
  • Genetic screening should be made available for all newborns. However, parents should have the right to refuse screening after being informed of the benefits and risks.
  • The decision to offer testing or screening should be based primarily on the best interest of the child.

Taken from

By way of an update, I’m pleased to add that in a 2015 press release by IntegraGen it was announced that its ARISk® Test became the first test marketed in the U. S. to assess the risk of autism spectrum disorder in children. Among the following IntegraGen statements about the ARISk® Test, I think it’s most important to note the caveats I’ve bolded for emphasis:

  • The test does not confirm or rule out a diagnosis of ASD for the child tested.
  • The test is intended to be used together with a clinical evaluation and other developmental screening tools.
  • Intended for children with early signs of developmental delay or ASD and in children who have older siblings previously diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
  • A genetic score, based on the total number of genetic markers associated with autism identified, is used to estimate the child’s risk of developing ASD.
  • Intended for use for children 48 months and younger. The ARISk® Test is not available for prenatal testing.

Taken from

More recently, Courtagen—cofounded by my former Life Technologies colleague Kevin McKernan (coinventor of SOLiD® NGS)—has commercialized its sequencing analyses for ASD and other neurodevelopmental conditions. According to a Courtagen posting, “[i]n the absence of a known single-gene disorder, ASD likely involves a complex combination of both genetic and environmental factors that influence early brain development. Multi-gene panels, such as Courtagen’s devSEEK® panels, provide clinicians with information on a number of genes commonly associated with ASD and autistic features. Clinicians can then use information from multi-gene panels to tailor treatments that meet the patient’s unique genotype and symptoms.”

Some interesting—to me—logistical and operational information about devSEEK® (237 genes) is as follows:

  • Turn-around time for results is 4-6 weeks.
  • DNA for sequencing is extracted from a single saliva sample. No blood draw or muscle biopsy required; however, blood and muscle tissue are accepted.
  • Courtagen works with patients, physicians, and insurance carriers to pre-approve each test. Courtagen will bill the insurance company and is willing to handle an appeal process as needed.
  • A secure physician online portal is available for ordering genetic tests and accessing patient reports when completed. Genetic counselors are available to address questions regarding Courtagen test results.

ASD Research and TriLink

While mulling over how to conclude this Autism Awareness Month blog featuring genetic testing for ASD, I wondered about TriLink’s role in advancing autism research by virtue of its various nucleic acid-related products being used for autism investigations. I was pleased and proud to find more than 40 items by searching Google Scholar for articles with the words “autism and TriLink.”

Perusal of these items revealed that the most cited (450-times) report was a 2012 publication in highly regarded Cell titled MeCP2 Binds to 5hmC Enriched within Active Genes and Accessible Chromatin in the Nervous System, which used TriLink 5-methyl-2′-deoxycytidine-5′-triphosphate (5m-dCTP). Given the apparent significance of this publication, I won’t try to give a short, simplified synopsis but rather quote the following part of the authors’ summary:

“We report that 5hmC [5-hydroxymethylcytosine] is enriched in active genes and that, surprisingly, strong depletion of 5mC [5-methylcytosine] is observed over these regions. The contribution of these epigenetic marks to gene expression depends critically on cell type. We identify methyl-CpG-binding protein 2 (MeCP2) as the major 5hmC-binding protein in the brain and demonstrate that MeCP2 binds 5hmC- and 5mC-containing DNA with similar high affinities. The Rett-syndrome-causing mutation R133C preferentially inhibits 5hmC binding. These findings support a model in which 5hmC and MeCP2 constitute a cell-specific epigenetic mechanism for regulation of chromatin structure and gene expression.”

I also noted a 2016 Cutting-Edge Review in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology titled A CRISPR Path to Engineering New Genetic Mouse Models. These investigators utilized TriLink Cas9 mRNA for gene editing analogous to that reported by others for CRISPR/Cas9-mediated knockout of the autism gene CHD8 (see above). This led to transcriptomic profiling showing that CHD8 regulates multiple genes implicated in ASD pathogenesis and genes associated with brain volume.

In conclusion, I must say that I learned much new information about autism while researching this blog, which I hope you found informative as well as interesting. If so, I have achieved my goal of either increasing or reaffirming your awareness of autism, and the availability of genetic risk-assessment tests.

As usual, your comments here are welcomed.


Recently, a team of academic researchers in Arizona made headlines with their publication in Microbiome reporting ties between autism symptoms and the composition and diversity of a person’s gut microbes, aka “gut microbiome,” about which I’ve commented on in several previous blogs.

The participants, who were 18 children with ASD (ages 7–16 years), underwent a 10-week treatment program involving antibiotics, a bowel cleanse, and daily fecal microbial transplants over 8 weeks. Remarkably, the new therapy seemed to provide some long-term benefits, including an 80% improvement of gastrointestinal symptoms associated with ASDs and roughly a 20% – 25% improvement in autism behaviors, including improved social skills and better sleep habits.

Click here for a simplified, educational video on this work by the principal investigator, Prof. James B. Adams at Arizona State University.

I should emphasize that this is a very small study, and much more research will be needed to verify and firmly establish possible benefits and risks. Interested readers should contact Prof. Adams regarding any questions they might have.

Finding Frankfurter Fraud Featuring Famously Familiar PCR

  • While Thousands of PCR-based Tests for Food Authentication Exist, Commercial Adoption is Lax
  • PCR Tests for Halal Frankfurter Products Reported by Malaysian Team
  • PCR-enabled Next Generation Sequencing of USA Frankfurters Exposes Extensive Mislabeling and Adulteration

Regular readers of this blog will know that (a) I favor alliterations, (b) frequently feature PCR-based topics, and (c) I am fond of food facts involving nucleic acids, all of which are found in the title of this posting. While writing style and food are both a matter of taste, so to speak, it’s almost impossible to comment on nucleic acids without involving PCR, in one way or another, as PCR is—in my opinion—the most widely used and important method in molecular biology.

Having said this, and knowing that this summer alone Americans will likely consume an estimated 7 billion (!) hot dogs, (a.k.a. frankfurters or wieners), I thought it apropos to now feature finding frankfurter fraud by PCR. But before getting to that, I thought it’s worth commenting first on a frankfurter vs. wiener vs. hot dog and other “meaty” definitions to get us “linked” up—please pardon the puns, another of my penchants.

Frankfurter, Wiener, Hot Dog Lexicon

Frankfurter sausages and sauerkraut. Taken from

While it’s a fact that a resident of Frankfurt, Germany is properly called a Frankfurter, one of Frankfurt’s pork sausage specialties is also called a frankfurter—but spelled with lower case f—and is short for Frankfurter Würstchen, which go back to the 13th century. By the same token, wiener refers to a pork and beef sausage specialty introduced in the 18th century in Vienna, Austria—a city called Wien in German, and hence the word wiener.

Frankfurters and wieners look very similar, with the main culinary distinction being absence of serving with the bun, which by contrast is characteristic of a hot dog. Readers interested in the origin of the hot dog’s name and bun usage will learn at this link—pun intended—that there are various and widely different claims for this name and usage.

Hot dogs in buns. Taken from

Dog Factory, a short film by uber-famous Thomas Edison in 1904 poked fun at what went into hot dogs. Taken from

In one such claim, the term dog is said to have been linked—there I go again—to sausages made from dog meat, as popularized in an old spoof by Thomas Edison (!) pictured below. This issue of what meat(s) hot dogs and similar sausages contain now segues into finding frankfurter fraud using PCR.

Finding Food Fraud by PCR

Before getting to the meat of this matter (oops!) involving frankfurters, I thought it would be informative to provide some larger perspective on finding food fraud, generally, utilizing the power of PCR for specific detection of nucleic acids that are characteristic of a given species of any food whether it be meat, fish, vegetable, etc. My search of Google Scholar for articles with all of the terms “food, fraud, and PCR” gave ~3,900 items. Here are some selected samplings, the first of which was taken from several I found that used TriLink products—hooray!

  • US Food & Drug Administration researchers employed species-specific primers from TriLink for multiplex real-time PCR analysis of salmon and trout species in a range of 80 commercial products in North America. 4 instances (5%) of fraud were found.
  • By contrast, a whopping 40% of commercial pet food products tested by PCR for the presence of eight meat species (bovine, caprine, ovine, chicken, goose, turkey, porcine, and equine) were found to be potentially mislabeled, according to a study by academic researchers.
  • Saffron produced from dried stigma of Crocus sativus is considered to be the most expensive food spice in the world, as ~200,000 (!) flowers must be carefully hand-picked (!) to produce only 1 kg of spice. Combating saffron fraud with PCR has already led to ~150 publications (!).
  • PCR-based food authentication to screen for possible allergens or GMOs is important for prevention of potentially life-threatening food contamination or alleviating consumer perceptions—or perhaps misperceptions, as I’ve commented on previously.

Finding Frankfurter Fraud by PCR

As for finding frankfurter fraud by PCR, the aforementioned ~3,900 items from my Google Search of food, fraud, and PCR was sub-searched for frankfurter, which led to only 3 reports titled as follows:

The third item, which is by a team of Malaysian researchers and is the most recent, offers some interesting introductory perspectives on strict religious, cultural, or geographical restrictions over the consumption of certain meats in the context of commercial frankfurters.

For example, pork is totally unacceptable to Malaysia’s large Muslim population, as well as Jewish and certain Christian denominations. On the other hand, Egyptians prefer buffalo because of their cultural preferences, while some Indians and Europeans avoid beef because of religious requirements and the fear of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka “Mad Cow Disease”—click here for an FDA update), respectively.

In this Malaysian study, 100% beef, buffalo, or pork frankfurters were prepared as models, and then fully heat-processed in the laboratory to simulate conventional manufacturing procedures. Additional beef, buffalo, or pork frankfurter models were deliberately contaminated by “spiking” in 1%, 0.5%, or 0.1% of buffalo and pork, beef and pork, and beef and buffalo meat, respectively. PCR was then performed using species-specific primer pairs for two genes (cytochrome b and NADH dehydrogenase subunit 5) for cross-validation. Twenty different halal-branded (i.e. pork-free) “beef” frankfurters from Malaysian markets were tested. While no pork was detected in any of the tested “beef” frankfurters, they were all beef- and buffalo-positive, thus revealing that all of the investigated Malaysian commercial “beef” products were buffalo-adulterated.

Halal Certification by PCR

The above mentioned concern for non-pork halal-assurance piqued my interest as to the extent of PCR usage for halal-related certification, and my subsequent Google Scholar search for “halal, certification, PCR” gave nearly 350 items. This relatively large number of reports signals quite widespread adoption of PCR. I encourage those interested to peruse these items later, but will mention here that the following article is the most cited—close to 100 citations as of February 2017—Identification of pork derivatives in food products by species-specific polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for halal verification

In closing, I think it’s worth noting in the context of halal certification—and increasingly popular “democratization” of technology, about which I’ve previously offered comments—a French start-up company now offers an antibody-based “dip stick” kit (Halal Test) for anyone to use for pork-free halal-assurance at home or even when eating out. Amazing.

Taken with copy write permission from French duo launch HalalTest: ‘We want to democratize analysis’ by Rachel Arthur+Rachel ARTHUR, 05-Nov-2014

Hot Dog! — There’s Now an NGS Food Authentication Service Company

Frankly—pun-to-be intended—I don’t know how “hot dog!” became an exclamatory phrase for good news. It applies, however, to the fact that Clear Labs Inc. (a 2014 start-up in Palo Alto, California) has proven that several issues of concern for consumers of hot dogs can be successfully addressed by PCR/NGS methods.

In a Clear Labs’ poster abstract for the 2016 International Association of Food Protection meeting, results were reported for a study of 345 hot dog products sold by national brands to compare product label information and ingredient lists with the results of NGS analyses. Following DNA extraction, universally accepted regions for animals, plants, and bacteria were PCR-amplified for NGS, which revealed that ~15% of these products had ingredient substitution, unexpected ingredients, or hygienic issues. In addition, 10% of all products labelled as vegetarian contained detectable levels of meat DNA. Vegetarian products also accounted for 67% of hygienic issues, such as human DNA.

At the risk of overly generalizing these findings, I believe that they probably reflect very widespread issues in the food industry, which we as consumers are virtually helpless to deal with, and can only hope that US FDA regulations begin to mandate PCR-based food certification.

Having said this, I didn’t want to end with a “downer.” Therefore, I’ll conclude with some hopefully fun facts about hot dogs, which—if you’re wondering—can be made from beef, pork, turkey, chicken, or a combination (but must be labeled as such, according to FDA information worth reading later).

Fun Frankfurter (aka Hot Dog) Facts

Just for fun, I calculated that the 7 billion frankfurters to-be-consumed by Americans this summer would stretch 56,818 miles (assuming each one were 6 inches long), which would wrap around Earth’s equator 2.3 times if placed end-to-end!

Some other fancinating frankfurter feats:

  • Taken from

    The world’s longest hot dog was 197 feet and was prepared by Shizuoka Meat Producers and the All-Japan Bread Association for the latter’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2006 at the Akasaka Prince Hotel:

  • The world’s most expensive hot dog is the “California Capitol City Dawg”, served at Capitol Dawg in Sacramento, California and cost $145.49. Proceeds from the sale of each 18-inch long, 3-pound super “Dawg” are donated to the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
  • The annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is held on Independence Day at Nathan’s Famous original, and best-known restaurant in Coney Island, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City. The current champion is Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who ate a stomach-busting 70 (!) hot dogs and buns in only 10 minutes (!) at the 2016 championship.

Taken from

As usual, your comments here are welcomed.

Evolving Polymerases to Do the Impossible

  • Polymerases Aren’t What They Used to Be! 
  • Scripps Team Evolves Polymerases That Read and Write With 2’-O-Methyl Ribonucleotides
  • Key Reagents for Romesberg’s “Molecular Moonshots” Are Supplied by TriLink BioTechnologies

Long-time devotees of these posts will likely remember a blog several years ago about Prof. Floyd Romesberg at the Department of Chemistry, The Scripps Research Institute who achieved a seemingly impossible feat. Namely, designing a new pair of complementary bases such that DNA replicating in E. coli would be comprised of six bases, thereby creating a six-base genetic code that is expanded from Nature’s four-base code.

Floyd E. Romesberg. Taken from

More recently, Romesberg has cleverly outfoxed Nature once again, this time by evolving nucleic acid polymerases into mutant polymerases that can do what heretofore seemed impossible. He and his research team’s publication (Chen et al.) is a tour de force of experimental methodology that is not easily read, and is even harder to simply summarize in a short space like this blog. Consequently, I’ll first tell you what was accomplished, then give a short synopsis of principal new methodology, and close by commenting on the significance of this fascinating work.

Doing the Impossible

Romesberg’s lab successfully achieved what I think of as “multiple molecular moonshots,” wherein a Taq polymerase (which normally reads and writes DNA during PCR), was evolved by novel selection (SELEX) methods into mutant polymerases that are able to transcribe DNA into 2’-O-methyl (2’-OMe) RNA, and reverse transcribe 2’-OMe RNA into DNA for PCR/sequencing.

As depicted below, this was exemplified using a 60-mer DNA template and 18-mer 2’-OMe RNA primer to produce a fully-modified 48-mer 2’-OMe RNA by means of an evolved mPol and all four A, G, C and U 2’-OMe NTPs, which I’m proud to say were bought from TriLink BioTechnologies! This type of molecular evolution of a polymerase has no precedent.

DNA template   5’ ————————————- 3’

RNA primer                                 ←←← 3’ xxxxxx 5’

mPol ↓ 2’-OMe NTPs

Determining the fidelity of this seemingly impossible molecular transformation was addressed by achieving a feat of comparable impossibility! As depicted below, the aforementioned 48-mer 2’-OMe RNA product was hybridized to a DNA primer for reverse transcription into a 48-mer complementary DNA (cDNA) strand, using an evolved mPol, together with all four A, G, C and T unmodified dNTPS, which were also purchased from TriLink. This unprecedented conversion of 2’-OMe RNA into cDNA was followed by conventional PCR/sequencing, the results of which demonstrated relatively high fidelity.

2’-OMe template   5’ xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx 3’

DNA primer                                           ←←← 3’ —— 5’

mPol ↓ dNTPs

cDNA                        3’ ————————————– 5’

How They Did It

In the selection cycle shown below, (1) phage-display libraries were used to expose individual polymerases (Pol) on E. coli. cells in proximity to chemically attached primer/template complexes of interest, which are mixed with natural or modified triphosphates including biotin (green; B)-labelled UTP to extend the primer. (2) Phage that display active mutant polymerases (mPols) are isolated with streptavidin (SA) beads. After washing to remove nonspecific binders, phage cleaved from the beads are used to re-infect E. coli. (3) Heat-treated lysates of E. coli that express the recovered mPols are next subjected to plate-based screening using 96-well plates coated with primer/template complex and extension buffer that contained natural or modified triphosphates and B-UTP, incorporation of which is chromogenically detected. (4) Mutants that give rise to the most activity are selected for individual gel-based analysis, from which (5) promising candidates are selected for further diversification (e.g., by gene shuffling, as depicted) and then subjected to additional rounds of evolution.

Taken from Chen et al. Nature Chemistry (2017)

What is the Significance

In a previous blog, I’ve commented on increasing interest in the utility of aptamers, which are oligonucleotides that can specifically bind small molecules or motifs in proteins, and thus be used to build electronic sensors or studied as potential therapeutic agents rivaling antibodies. Therapeutic aptamers, like antisense oligonucleotides, require incorporation of chemical modifications to impart stability toward nucleases in blood or cellular targets.

Burmeister et al. have previously reported methods for mPol transcription of a DNA template into a fully modified, nuclease-resistant 23-mer 2’-OMe RNA aptamer—also using TriLink’s 2’-OMe NTPs! However, they encountered considerable experimental difficulties in generating this therapeutically promising 23-mer against vascular endothelial growth factor. These technical issues have now been surmounted by the mPol-evolution approaches in the present work by Romesberg’s team, which enabled improved access to longer 2’-OMe RNA aptamers with reasonable efficiency and fidelity.

Moreover, the present study is the first to evolve an mPol for reverse transcription of fully modified 2’-OMe RNA into DNA, which can then be amplified by PCR and/or sequenced, thereby opening the door for a variety of new analytical methods. Most importantly, the molecular mechanism by which these remarkable mPol activities was evolved, namely, the stabilization of an interaction between the “thumb and fingers domains,” may be general and thus useful for the optimization of other Pols. In that case, we can look forward to further advances in evolving other Pols to do the impossible—hopefully using modified nucleotide triphosphates from TriLink!

As usual, your comments are welcome.