Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bug hunting and other NM encounters

Whenever I put the macro lens on my camera and set out for a field trip I learn something new. Last year I found a metallic green sweat bee and a yellow bee with blue eyes. This year I found a black bee with green eyes and ...

A yellow heart bug (yes, I know, none of these are scientific names, in fact, if somebody can provide a scientific name, please do so in the comments, I'll edit them in):

A golden bee:

And (drum roll, please, because I think this one's the star of the show) a metallic blue bee:

EDIT: thanks to Steven Halter's attentive eye, this beautiful bee has been identified as Osmia ribifloris. Thanks, Steve! Here she is, again, poking her head out of the thistle thorn and realizing she's no longer alone. "Ladies! I was here first!"

Bugs weren't the only encounters. This fellow gave us a lesson on where to properly cross the road. A huge SUV politely stopped and waited.

Finally, I did swap lenses at some point and took this picture for my friend Hollis, who's the expert on rock formations and their awesome colors. These are red rocks in Jemez Springs, NM.

Happy Memorial Day every one! :-)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Should you worry about vitamin D deficiency? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Since my last blog post, where I shared my thoughts on BRCA1, BRCA2, and preventive mastectomies, I've been asked what else can a woman do to reduce her risk of breast cancer. I've heard a big deal about vitamin D, so I did a bit of research on the matter.

As a disclaimer, I should tell you up front that, though many correlations between vitamin D deficiency and cancer risk have been found, just as many have been refuted or found inconclusive. You can read more about it on the wikipedia page.

What is vitamin D?

The name "vitamin D" includes a group of steroid-like molecules (they are similar to steroids, but not quite steroids) that help our intestine absorb calcium and phosphates. Since calcium is essential in bone development, vitamin D deficiency has been most commonly associated to osteoporosis and other bone-related diseases. There aren't many foods rich in vitamin D, however, vitamin D can be endogenously synthesized when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Unfortunately, modern lifestyle keeps us cooped up many hours in office cubicles, or in the house during chores, or in malls. When we're out enjoying the sunshine we cover up with hats and super-protective sunscreens because we've been told that the sun is bad for the skin and can cause malignancies. As a consequence, vitamin D deficiency is increasing world-wide.

There is a foundation for all the studies that have analyzed correlations between several diseases, including cancers, and vitamin D: (i) several ecological studies have found a trend for an increase in incidence of certain cancers at higher latitudes, suggesting that longer exposures to the sun may have a protective effect. (ii) The vitamin D receptor (VDR) is expressed in many cells of the immune system, and mouse models have shown that vitamin D deficiency can promote certain auto-immune diseases. In a recent review, Sundaram and Coleman examine the link between vitamin D and influenza [Adv. Nutr. 2012 3: 517-525]. (iii) "VDR regulates a wide range of cellular mechanisms central to cancer development, such as apoptosis (cell death), cell proliferation (uncontrolled cell growth), differentiation, angiogenesis, and metastasis [1]". In line with this observation, Pereira, Larriba, and Munoz published a review on the evidence that vitamin D plays a protective role in colon cancer [Endocr. Relat. Cancer 2012 19: R51-R71].

In [1], Crew discusses the use of vitamin D supplementation as part of breast cancer prevention. She presents many interesting findings, for example:
"Colon, breast, and lung cancer have all demonstrated downregulation of expression of VDR when compared to normal cells and well-differentiated tumors have shown comparably more VDR expression as measured by immunohistochemistry when compared to their poorly differentiated counterparts. Higher tumor VDR expression has also been correlated with better prognosis in cancer patients [1]."
Crew looks at different types of studies: some suggest beneficial effects from using vitamin D (calcitriol) in combination with other anti-cancer treatments; some found an inverse association with mammography density, a biomarker for breast cancer (supposedly high density increases the risk of cancer); some found an inverse association between better breast cancer prognosis and vitamin D deficiency. However, many of these studies have limitations. For example, some only assess the levels of vitamin D through dietary intake, which is not a good measure of the circulating levels because it doesn't account for vitamin D synthesized through sun exposure. Some were confounded by obesity since fat is known to sequestrate vitamin D and also raise breast cancer risk. In light of all these considerations, Crew concludes:
"Even with substantial literature on vitamin D and breast cancer, future studies need to focus on gaining a better understanding of the biologic effects of vitamin D in breast tissue. Despite compelling data from experimental and observational studies, there is still insufficient data from clinical trials to make recommendations for vitamin D supplementation for breast cancer prevention or treatment [1]."

As I often do in my posts, rather than giving you answers, I make an effort to provide you with pointers and food for thought: in the end you have to make your own decisions about your health and the wellbeing of your family. As a personal note, I'll add that on my last blood report my vitamin D circulating levels were undetectable. I had no symptoms whatsoever, but I am now taking a vitamin D supplement. I'm also much less paranoid about smothering my kiddos with sunscreen when they play outside (which has made them much happier, two birds with one stone).

[1] Crew, K. (2013). Vitamin D: Are We Ready to Supplement for Breast Cancer Prevention and Treatment? ISRN Oncology, 2013, 1-22 DOI: 10.1155/2013/483687

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Angelina no longer has them. Does that mean I should get rid of them too?

We love them and yet we hate them. They get censored, augmented, reduced, replaced, covered, exposed. They get grilled, occasionally, but those are not the ones I'm talking about. We want to see them and yet we pretend we don't. We criticize them and yet we forget what they are made for, the most beautiful thing of all: nourish a new life.

Yes, I'm talking about breasts.

Angelina Jolie's breasts have been extensively discussed this week, more now that they are reportedly gone than when they were around. Sort of ironic, if you thin about it. Angelina did the unthinkable: she had both her healthy breasts removed to prevent cancer. In a second phase of her preventive plan, she will have her ovaries removed, too. The tabloids will no longer be able to speculate on her possible new pregnancies, but they will have plenty to discuss on and around her missing body parts.

Somehow the news left me a little puzzled, unable to share the views of those who praised Angelina for her bravery. Yes, it takes guts to do what she did. At the same time, the huge resonance she's been given seems blown out of proportion. Just another Hollywood thing. It reminds me of back when our mothers were told that formula was way better than breast milk. Are we facing a new era where silicon is better than milk ducts? Are they trying to convince us that fake is healthier than real? Well, of course it is. It's fake!

So, before we go around demonizing breasts and invoking chopping off body parts in the name of longevity, I wanted to get some facts straight.

First of all, I read over and over again, "Angelina Jolie carries the gene BRCA1 ..." Turns out, we all carry the gene. What makes us different is that there are distinct copies of this gene across individuals, and some copies (but not all) do raise the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are part of the so called tumor suppressor genes, genes that code for proteins that are in charge of repairing damaged DNA. Our cells undergo numerous cellular divisions during our lifespan, and every cell division carries a certain chance of damaging the DNA. Though rare, mutations can be introduced, which can either be lethal or create a cancerous cell. Tumor suppressor proteins make a first attempt to repair the damaged DNA. If the DNA cannot be repaired, they promote apoptosis, or cell death. Another example of tumor suppressor gene is TP53, which encodes the protein p53.

The first link between BRCA1 and breast cancer was discovered in 1990 by Hall et al. [1]. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are expressed mostly in breast tissue. Some mutations in these genes cause them to code proteins that are not fully functional. When this happens, a cell with damaged DNA has a higher chance to escape the "screening" and start dividing instead of undergoing apoptosis. Because BRCA1 and BRCA2 are expressed mostly in the breast tissue, by removing the breast tissue one gets rid of the majority of cells expressing the defective genes, which in turns significantly lowers the chance of developing breast cancer.

While hundreds of mutations/variations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have been found, not all are linked to breast cancer, and the ones that are don't increase the risk in the same amount. Furthermore, the majority of breast cancers are not linked to mutations in these two genes. In other words, having the mutations raises the risk, but not having them does not lower it.

So, let's get some numbers straight. According to the American Cancer Society about 15% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with it. That leaves the majority of breast cancers unrelated to family history:
"About 85% of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history of breast cancer. These occur due to genetic mutations that happen as a result of the aging process and life in general, rather than inherited mutations."
It's a puzzle I've discussed before, the missing herediatbility. On the one hand we know genes play a large role in cancer and we spend all this research money into looking for genetic causes. Yet, the vast majority of cancers are non-hereditary.

While women with certain mutations in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes have up to 80% (the exact chance varies depending on the type of mutation they carry) increased risk of developing breast cancer, only between 5% and 10% of breast cancers are linked to deleterious mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. So, yes, get tested. But chances are, your copy of BRCA1 and BRCA2 are fine.

So, what makes BRCA1 and bRCA2 so scary?

The American Cancer Society reports that approximately 60% of women with one of the harmful mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 develop breast cancer during their lifetime, versus the 12% of women in the general population. Remember, though: these genes are not the only ones playing a role in cancer. Things like epistasis with other loci in the genome can deeply affect such risks and, unfortunately, we still don't know enough to quantify them. High levels of IGF-1, the insulin-like growth factor have also been linked to breast cancer. So while having those mutations raises the risk, it does not mean that the individual will develop breast cancer for sure as other factors are still unknown. Careful considerations should be made before making a drastic choice like Angelina's. These considerations should also include risks associated to a double mastectomy (infection, necrosis, etc.) and reconstruction surgery, neither one free of complications. I'm somehow reluctant to consider implants healthier than normal breasts, whether or not those breasts were expressing faulty genes.

What about those 85% of breast cancers that are not linked to BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations? Can we do anything to prevent those?

When you look at the global population, the most common risk factors for breast cancer are not the mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2, rather, as Bernstein reports in a 2009 review [2]:
"The most consistently acknowledged risk factors for breast cancer other than gender and race/ethnicity are age, family history of breast cancer, early menarche, late age at first birth, nulliparity, late age at menopause, high postmenopausal weight or substantial weight gain as an adult, exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation and a history of benign proliferative breast disease [2]."
All these risk factors point at one common etiology, ovarian hormones (estradiol and progesterone), because they
"promote cellular proliferation in the breast, providing greater opportunity for the accumulation of random errors, which may lead to tumor development [2]."
Body weight and exercise can be linked to different levels of estradiol in the blood (high body weight is associated with higher levels, exercise is associated with lower levels), hence their correlation to breast cancer risk. Some studies found up to 40% reduction in risk in women who exercised in particular in their adolescence. Of all risk factors, these two, body weight and exercise, are the ones we can actually take control over and actively lower our risk of developing breast cancer. A diet rich in antioxidants may lower the risk of DNA damage during cellular division.

Things we have less control over is the woman's age at the first pregnancy. One of my grad school professors used to say, "Having a baby as a teen may ruin your life, but it sure lowers your risk of developing breast cancer later in life." The risk keeps lowering for every additional pregnancy, though not as significantly as with the first one.

What's not clear is the extent to which breastfeeding can lower the risk of breast cancer, as the American Cancer Society reports:
"Research suggests that breastfeeding has only a slight effect on breast cancer risk and that effect is only among women who have breastfed for a long time. They also concluded that breastfeeding seems to be more protective against the most aggressive types of breast cancer, including tumors in women with mutations in the BRCA1 gene, basal-like cancers, hormone-receptor negative, and possibly triple negative tumors."
And while we do the things that we can to lower our risks, I am hopeful that one day gene therapy will be perfected to the point that it will offer a better options than what, in gross terms, amounts to amputation.


[1] Hall, J., Lee, M., Newman, B., Morrow, J., Anderson, L., Huey, B., & King, M. (1990). Linkage of early-onset familial breast cancer to chromosome 17q21 Science, 250 (4988), 1684-1689 DOI: 10.1126/science.2270482

[2] Bernstein, L. (2008). Identifying population-based approaches to lower breast cancer risk Oncogene, 27 DOI: 10.1038/onc.2009.348

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Pumping fuel from bacteria

In my last post I discussed a bioengineered E. coli strain capable of producing an engine compatible biofuel. I hailed the finding as more efficient than ordinary biofuels because this technique has less environmental impact than biofuels from crops, for example, or cellulose, which instead use great amounts of water and forest land.

I did some more reading on the topic and found out that, surprise surprise, there are some costs in harvesting biofuels from bacteria as well, so my discussion was incomplete. However, there are good news at the horizon.

When I first read the Howard et al. paper, I imagined a petri dish of E. coli sitting in a slime of oil-like substance. I think I got confused with making yogurt. :-) In reality, the biofuel molecules are stored inside the cells (bacteria, in this case) and need to be taken out without harming the cells. Biofuel secretion strategies have been dubbed "milking." The difference, though, is that contrary to milk and cows, biofuels are generally toxic to the bacteria that produce them.

Several methods have been investigated to efficiently "milk" biofuel molecules out of bacteria without harming them. To understand these strategies, we need to learn a new concept: an efflux pump is a membrane transporter protein that carries a substance toxic to the cell outside the cell itself. These proteins remove all kinds of toxic substances, including antibiotics, for example, and they may be specific to one in particular, or carry a whole range.

In [1], Dunlop et al. discuss the use of efflux pumps in "milking" biofuels out of bacteria and reduce their toxicity to the cells:
"Many compounds being considered as candidates for advanced biofuels are toxic to microorganisms. This introduces an undesirable trade-off when engineering metabolic pathways for biofuel production because the engineered microbes must balance production against survival. Cellular export systems, such as efflux pumps, provide a direct mechanism for reducing biofuel toxicity."
The researchers first looked at the whole genome of E. coli to identify all genes encoding efflux pumps. They found 43 different pumps expressed in the E. coli genome, and tested them against a range of possible biofuels. Their strategy was as follows: the grew a culture of pooled bacteria with different subpopluations, each subpopulation expressing a different pump. In the absence of toxic biofuel-like substances, all subpopulations grew in equal proportions, and none had an advantage over the others. When a substance was introduced, the subpopulations with the most advantageous pumps with respect to that particular substance outgrew the rest.

This is what happened, for example, when they introduced geranyl acetate:
"When the pooled culture was grown in the presence of an inhibitory biofuel such as geranyl acetate, some efflux pumps conferred a distinct advantage. Although all strains started out with equal representation, after 38 h the population composition changed, with cells containing the advantageous pumps becoming an increasingly large proportion of the population. The efflux pumps that enhanced tolerance to geranyl acetate originated from a variety of hosts and include both known and previously uncharacterized pumps."
In their study, Dunlop et al. used a type of membrane transporters called "RND," which are made of big molecules and are only found in Gram-negative bacteria. In a more recent paper [2], Doshi et al. studied a broader set of pumps called ABC, ATP-binding cassette:
"Unlike RND proteins, transporters belonging to the ATP- binding cassette (ABC) protein family are widely found in all five kingdoms of life. They share a conserved structural architecture and specifically import or export a wide variety of molecules and ions across cellular membranes."
Doshi et al. tested whether this family of broadly specific pumps could efficiently mediate the secretion of four different biofuel molecules. Similarly to the Howard et al. paper, they used a bioengineered strain of E. coli and noticed that
"the secretion process was sustained for at least 6 days without the need to replenish the growth medium or culture. Thus, for the same quantity of biofuel produced conventionally, we have a dramatic reduction in biomass scale and significant gain in the ease of recovering the biofuel."
Though my understanding is that work still needs to be done to improve this technique and make it feasible for different types of biofuels, the fact that these transporters are spread across different species makes it potentially translatable to other organisms and therefore of broader use.

On a completely different note, can you guess what the macro picture is? :-)

[1] Dunlop, M., Dossani, Z., Szmidt, H., Chu, H., Lee, T., Keasling, J., Hadi, M., & Mukhopadhyay, A. (2011). Engineering microbial biofuel tolerance and export using efflux pumps Molecular Systems Biology, 7 DOI: 10.1038/msb.2011.21

[2] Doshi, R., Nguyen, T., & Chang, G. (2013). Transporter-mediated biofuel secretion Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1301358110

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Fill the tank, please. With bacteria!

I apologize if you've already heard about this, but the paper is really cool and I couldn't resist discussing it here.

Escherichia coli, or E. coli for brevity, is a bacterium normally associated with "bad" things like food poisoning. Even though most strains are actually harmless, even the CDC has a page dedicated to E. coli outbreaks. Since it's part of our gut flora, the lower intestines in particular, it's usually not a good sign when E. coli is found in places like restaurants and cafeterias. (Yuck!)

What's less known to the public is that E. coli is one of the most studied bacteria and makes a great model for mutations, gene duplications, and horizontal gene transfer.

What's even less known is that this amazing bacterium has the potential to save our planet from further drilling. How? By producing fuel. Yes, you read that right: through a combination of gene modifications, researchers from the University of Exeter [1] induced "petroleum-replica hydrocarbons" production in E. coli. These hydrocarbons are structurally and chemically similar to fossil fuels.

In their paper, Howard et al. argue against the current biofuels because they bring additional costs in downstream processing and are not 100% compatible with the engines on the market.
"To overcome the end-user blend wall, it is essential to generate precise chemical replacements to fossil fuels through sustainable means.Retail transport fuels are composed primarily of hydro- carbons (n-alkanes) of various carbon chain lengths (Cn), branched hydrocarbons (iso-alkanes), and unsaturated hydrocarbons (n- alkenes). The ideal biofuels are therefore n-alkanes, iso-alkanes, and n-alkenes that are chemically and structurally identical to the fossil fuels they are designed to replace [1]."
Gasoline, diesel and jet fuels are made primarily of molecules called alkanes, or saturated hydrocarbons. Most people are familiar, or at least have heard of methane, the simplest alkane molecule. These molecules are naturally produced not just by bacteria, but also by plants and insects when they metabolize fatty acids. In 2010 Schirmer et al. described in a Science paper [2] an alkane biosynthesis pathway in cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae.
"The pathway consists of an acyl-acyl carrier protein reductase and an aldehyde decarbonylase, which together convert intermediates of fatty acid metabolism to alkanes and alkenes [2]."
Understanding how alkanes are produced and, in particular, which genes are involved in their production, was the first step. The second step was answering the question: can we tweak this pathway to produce alkanes that can replace our current fuels?

Seen under this light, the PNAS study published last March 15 [1] is a bioengineering success story. Howard et al. designed a novel metabolic pathway that forced E. coli to use free fatty acids instead of fatty acid compounds as in cyanobacteria, and produce fuel-like alkanes, what the authors call "industrially relevant, petroleum replica fuel molecules." Once finalized, this type of biofuel will be compatible with current engines and will not need to be blended with other petroleum derived chemicals.

A bit of perspective: though derived from natural and biological sources, biofuels still contribute to pollution, carbon emissions, and global warming. Despite the amicable "bio" prefix, they all come with a non-null carbon footprint, some more than others. The true efficiency of any kind of fuel is the energy they produce minus the energy and costs it takes to derive them. For example, producing biofuels from crops drains precious resources, first and foremost, water, but also arable land, forests when arable land is not available, and food sources in underdeveloped countries.

So here's where biofuels from bacteria have a striking advantage: E. coli is one of the cheapest and easiest bacterium to grow in a lab. It doesn't drain water reservoirs and it doesn't need deforestation to grow. Contrary to most biofuels out there, that have high production and energy costs, the carbon footprint of biofuels derived from bacteria only comes from carbon emissions when you burn them.

And while this is an excellent thing, I still think that the real change we need to make to preserve our planet is to switch to renewable energy.

[1] Howard, T., Middelhaufe, S., Moore, K., Edner, C., Kolak, D., Taylor, G., Parker, D., Lee, R., Smirnoff, N., Aves, S., & Love, J. (2013). Synthesis of customized petroleum-replica fuel molecules by targeted modification of free fatty acid pools in Escherichia coli Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1215966110

[2] Schirmer, A., Rude, M., Li, X., Popova, E., & del Cardayre, S. (2010). Microbial Biosynthesis of Alkanes Science, 329 (5991), 559-562 DOI: 10.1126/science.1187936