UCSF Researchers Control Embryonic Stem Cells With Light

Human embryonic stem cells

Human embryonic stem cells

Reddit can be a very powerful tool if used properly. The site has a recurrent series called AMA (“ask me anything”). World leaders, artists, and prominent figures have been featured here. For our purposes, which are Biology related, I’ll share with you a recent Science AMA. Matt Thompson, a scientist from San Francisco California, wanted to understand how STEM cells specialize—with the hopes of one day directing their fates via lasers. Scientists are using lasers, 3D printing technologies, and stem cells to usher in a future that was only possible in the world of science fiction.

Imagine a day when researchers can illuminate a bath of undifferentiated stem cells with a pattern of different colors of light and come back the next day to find a complex pattern of blood and nerve and liver tissue forming an organ.

From Matt Thompson’s Lab:

Matt’s graduate research at Harvard University focused on understanding cell fate decisions in response to developmental signals. Currently, he is exploring cellular decisions that occur in cell populations, for example, within tissues of a developing organism or within our immune system. How do large numbers of progenitor cells within a developing organism exchange information and coordinate their state to construct a complex tissue? What are the rules that organize multi-cellular phenomena and how are these rules implemented in molecular circuits that operate in single cells? He is using a combination of approaches including mathematical models, statistical analysis of high-throughput gene expression data, and single cell RNA sequencing experiments. His current work is reconstituting a set of developmental processes in the lab using mouse embryonic stem cell differentiation and developing imaging methods for tracking and perturbing the activity of signaling pathways and transcriptional regulators in many single cells at once. Matt will use this data with computational models to classify mechanisms used by tissues to develop and repair themselves without centralized control.–Via 

Nanotechnology and gene therapy


The nano-scale ceramic marble represents a cell. This nano machine is a hundred times thinner than a single human hair.

The XXIst century promises great technological leaps in the fields of biotechnology and genetic engineering—possibly bringing us the dystopies we’ve seen in films like GATTACA (Niccol, 1997). That’s the worst case scenario, of course. Best case scenario, cancer research—one example of many—will greatly benefit from tools such as the one described in this blog post:

Nanoinjectors provide scientists with unprecedented ways of manipulating genetic material, thus getting us closer to the promise of Biotechnology, which was first hinted at with the mapping of the Human Genome, during the last decade of the XXth Century: 

The ability to transfer a gene or DNA sequence from one animal into the genome of another plays a critical role in the medical research of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

But the traditional method of transferring genetic material into a new cell, microinjection, has a serious downside. This method uses a hollow needle to pump a DNA-filled liquid into an egg cell nucleus, but that extra fluid causes the cell to swell and die 40 percent of the time.

Now a multidisciplinary team of Brigham Young University scientists has developed a way to significantly reduce cell death when introducing DNA into egg cells. The researchers have created a microscopic lance that delivers DNA to the cells through electrical forces.—Via

DNA is fragile. This means that scientists need ways to very carefully handle these molecules. The following images, taken from the primary source of this blog post, show how the lance works. You can also watch a video of the process below:

Nano injector III

More information about these types of technologies can be found here.

5 point bonus question for AP and 10H Bio students*:

Knowing what we know about the structure of DNA, explain the following passage:

“”Because DNA is naturally negatively charged, it is attracted to the outside of the lance using positive voltage,” said Brian Jensen, BYU professor of mechanical engineering.””

What part of the DNA molecule accounts for its “negatively charged” feature?

*To receive full credit, you have to answer the bonus question below.

Beautifully creepy, 3D printed synthetic tissue.

No es una gastrula. This is synthetic.

No es una gastrula. This is synthetic.

A custom-built programmable 3D printer can create materials with several of the properties of living tissues, Oxford University scientists have demonstrated”. — Via 3D printer can build synthetic tissues 

The following 8 second video shows this lifeless object behaving like a lotus flower–with yellow and blue hues:

This Protein Could Change Biotech Forever – Forbes


“Gel electrophoresis: 6 “DNA-tracks”. In the first row (left), DNA with known fragment sizes was used as a reference. Different bands indicate different fragment sizes (the smaller, the faster it travels, the lower it is in the image); different intensities indicate different concentrations (the brighter, the more DNA).” Via Wikipedia

New ways of manipulating genetic code–of writing, reading, copying, and editing the laguage of life–are cropping up almost on a daily basis. Our daily lives can change forever thanks to these advancements in biotechnology. It still remains to be seen if these changes are good or bad. I approach them with some reserve, with cautious optimism:

Bacteria, like human beings and almost every other living thing, keeps its genetic code in a library of DNA molecules. But to use that code, the organism copies the DNA into a related molecule called RNA. Cas9 can be paired with an RNA transcript to target a matching DNA sequence and cut it. That kills viruses, but scientists use it to cut DNA in exactly the place they want. The result is not so much like using a word processor as a biology lab version of what movie editors had to do back when they spliced together pieces of film.

This excerpt was taken from the article: This Protein Could Change Biotech Forever – Forbes.

Eugenics and Biotechnology.

Eugenics was a proposed solution to all of mankind's troubles. Let's hope that it does not catch on again.

Eugenics was a proposed solution to all of mankind’s troubles. Let’s hope that it does not catch on again.

We’ve begun with Biotechnology, chapter 20 of our book. The best possible approach I could think of for beginning this chapter, was through a film which we concluded watching today: Gattaca, directed by Andrew Niccol in 1997. Biotechnology and many of its sociological and technical implications are suggested here — sci-fi as an alternative way to approach contemporary scientific issues. One of the protagonists of the film is named Eugene, which literally means ‘well born’ (Eu = good, true; Gene = born). Thus, not surprisingly, eugenics comes to mind. A short Wikipedia excerpt from the eugenics article:

The way eugenics was practiced in this period (19th and 20th centuries) involved “interventions”, which is a euphemistic name for the identification and classification of individuals and their families, including the poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous women, homosexuals and entire racial groups — such as the Roma and Jews — as “degenerate” or “unfit”; the segregation or institutionalisation of such individuals and groups, their sterilization, euthanasia, and in the extreme case of Nazi Germany, their mass extermination.[6]

Eugenics became an academic discipline at many colleges and universities, and received funding from many sources.[7] Three International Eugenics Conferences presented a global venue for eugenicists with meetings in 1912 in London, and in 1921 and 1932 in New York. Eugenic policies were first implemented in the early 1900s in the United States.[8] Later, in the 1920s and 30s, the eugenic policy of sterilizing certain mental patients was implemented in a variety of other countries, including Belgium,[9]Brazil,[10]Canada,[11] and Sweden,[12] among others. The scientific reputation of eugenics started to decline in the 1930s, a time when Ernst Rüdin used eugenics as a justification for the racial policies of Nazi Germany, and when proponents of eugenics among scientists and thinkers prompted a backlash in the public. Nevertheless, in Sweden the eugenics program continued until 1975.[12] — Parentheses added by me.

The following links* provide a context on where we are in terms of eugenics in the 21st century:

1) One of the articles deals with technicals achievements that are worth a look at if we want to better understand the impact of Biotechnology in te next few decades: Life expectancy linked to DNA length.

2) This second article–with a somewhat misleading and poorly chosen title–is an interview that chillingly reminds us of the dystopia presented in Niccol’s film: China is engineering genius babies.

*Reading is compulsory.