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By all accounts, I think we can say that this year’s event was a smashing success!

The panel discussion was absolutely fantastic: the blog questions were stimulating and the audience questions were excellent as well. We had well over 200 attendees, many of them students. Honestly, with how dynamic the discussion was, we could have gone on for another hour. Our sincere thanks to the panelists, Drs. Baker, Nelson, and Jackson, and to the moderator, Dr. Cheryl Logan. They really made the discussion. It was clear from the audience’s questions that many people have a personal investment in the panel’s discussion, focusing as it did on issues of ancestry and how genetic information is used to contruct identity.

The turnout for Dr. Hawks’s keynote address was amazing: there must have been over 300 people! Dr. Hawks gave a wonderful presentation on Neandertals and, yes, many modern humans DO have Neandertal genes! Thanks to Dr. Hawks for joining us.

Check back soon, as we will be posting the video of the panel discussion and the keynote address on the blog.

We’d like to keep the conversation going, so please post your comments on this year’s event here…

The day has arrived!

So, here we are! We hope you’ll be able to join us for our event today (see details in the previous post). We’d like to thank all those who have submitted questions to our participants via the blog: there are some really interesting ones, and many of them will be addressed today. In fact, our participants will be meeting for lunch today to go over your questions, talk about them, and select several to be answered in the panel discussion.

Hope to see you all there, it should be great!

The event is upon us! So, here is the schedule of events for tomorrow (Wednesday, March 23rd; a map of UNCG’s campus is available here):

1. 3-5pm EUC Auditorium: panel discussion featuring Dr. Alondra Nelson (Columbia University; see her bio here, and check out this post and this post), Dr. Lee Baker (Duke University; see his bio here and this post), and Dr. Fatimah Jackson (UNC-Chapel Hill; see her bio here). Each participant will be asked to speak for 10 minutes about how they see their research intersecting with this year’s theme (“Our genetic past and genomic future”), and then a roundtable discussion and audience questions will follow (moderated by Dr. Cheryl Logan, UNCG; see her bio here). Much of the roundtable will focus on questions submitted beforehand via this blog (see below).

2. 5-630pm EUC Kirkland Room: a reception will follow after the panel discussion. Refreshments will be provided (it’ll be a great spread, trust us…). This will serve as an “open house” of sorts,  allowing the participants to interact directly with the student body and the general public. Students from UNCG’s Student Anthropological Society (SAS) will be available to direct people from the panel discussion to the reception.

3. 7-9pm Meade Auditorium (Sullivan Science Building 101): keynote address by Dr. John Hawks (University of Wisconsin-Madison; see his bio here and check out his weblog here). The title is “Neandertime: Deciphering the Secrets of Ancient Genomes”. The talk will consider the state-of-the-art in Neandertal genomics; it should be fantastic. Q & A will follow the talk.

Some general notes:

  • Given the late afternoon time of the panel discussion, we understand that people may not be able to show up right at three or stay until the end. We encourage people to show up at any time and listen to what our panel has to say.
  • Microphone stands will be available for the audience to ask questions at our panel and after the keynote address. However, you are also encouraged to submit questions beforehand to our participants. You can do so here. Keep in mind that you don’t have to attend to submit a question; we’ll be recording the entire event and will post the file on the blog afterwards…so, you will still be able to hear and see your question being addressed!

We hope to see you all at the event!!

We traditionally think about the tree of life in terms of Kingdoms: plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, etc. Genetics has really revolutionized the way we think about the tree of life and, because our classifications should reflect ancestry (that is, who is more closely related to whom), it has actually called into question a lot of our traditional classifications. Most biologists split up life into three domains: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eucarya (the last of which includes animals, plants, fungi, etc.).

The three domains of life. From Carl Zimmer's blog The Loom.

Science writer Carl Zimmer has an interesting post on his blog about how the newest genetic data may even call this classification into question by adding a fourth domain. From his post:

There’s a lot of debate about whether eukaryotes actually split off from within the archaea, or just branched off from a common ancestor. Nevertheless, the two forms of life are quite distinct. For one thing, the common ancestor of living eukaryotes acquired oxygen-consuming bacteria that became a permanent part of their cells, called mitochondria. They’re keeping you alive right now.

A lot of scientists wonder how all the new species that scientists are discovering are going to change the shape of this tree. Will its three-part structure endure, with each part simply growing denser with new branches? Or have we been missing entire swaths of the tree of life?

It’s possible–but just possible at this point–that we have missed a big part of it.

Genetics are indicating that the fourth domain is represented by Nucleocytoplasmic Large DNA Viruses (NCLDV), or, as Zimmer comically refers to them, “Giant Viruses” (because they’re big and they have many more genes, >1,000, than “regular” viruses, which only have around 10 or so). It turns out that the genes from these “Giant Viruses” are so different that some researchers suggest they should be grouped in their own domain.

New research is looking at tons of genes from these sorts of organisms. Here is a video based on the work of Jonathan A. Eisen and his colleagues:


Wu, D., et al. (2011). Stalking the fourth domain in metagenomic data: searching for, discovering, and interpreting novel, deep branches in marker gene phylogenetic trees. PLoS Online 6.

Our keynote speaker John Hawks posted on his blog yesterday about his keynote address this Wednesday. It should be really, really great. From his blog:

I’ve got to tell you, the talk I’m giving about Neandertal genetics is the very best I’ve ever prepared. I don’t say this kind of thing lightly, but if you’re in the area and care about Neandertals, this is as good as it gets. We are discovering new stuff every day, the pace of discovery right now is running way ahead of the pace of publication.

So, if you were thinking about attending, then this should give you good reason to definitely come!

As a story in the New York Times reports, some people respond well to aerobic exercise, while others seem to benefit less or not at all. There are studies that show there is a genetic component to this: various exercise traits (and the drive to exercise at all) do certainly run in families. A new study has scanned to genomes of 473 individuals subjected to the same 5-month exercise regime and found that particular SNPs (pronounced “snips;” we’ve talked about these before, see this post) are associated with a robust response to exercise. From the New York Times story:

The researchers looked at 324,611 individual snippets over all. Each of the volunteers had already completed a carefully supervised five-month exercise program, during which participants pedaled stationary bicycles three times a week, at controlled and identical intensities. Some wound up much fitter, as determined by the increase in the amount of oxygen their bodies consumed during intense exercise, a measure called maximal oxygen capacity, or VO2 max. In others, VO2 max had barely budged. No obvious, consistent differences in age, gender, body mass or commitment marked those who responded well and those who continued to huff and struggle during their workouts, even after five months.

But there was a divergence in their genomes. The researchers identified 21 specific SNPs, out of the more than 300,000 examined, that differed consistently between the two groups. SNPs come in pairs, since each of us receives one paternal copy and one maternal copy. So there were 42 different individual versions of the 21 SNPs. Those exercisers who had 19 or more of these SNPs improved their cardiorespiratory fitness three times as much as those who had nine or fewer.

One interesting question that is raised by this research is: if one finds that they do not have the advantageous SNPs, will they simply not try to exercise at all?

Our keynote speaker John Hawks describes this study and harps on the New York Times reporting on his blog.


Bouchard, C., et al. Genomic predictors of maximal oxygen uptake response to standardized exercise training programs. Journal of Applied Physiology in press.

Researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm have now set the world record for number of simultaneous DNA sequence analyses: 5,000. Now, we’re not talking about whole-genome sequencing here; they’re just sequencing parts of an individual’s DNA sequence, but it’s impressive nonetheless. From the summary in ScienceDaily:

“Today the great majority of samples are run ten at a time. This yields a cost of SEK 10,000 (USD $1,600) per sample. We have run 5,000 samples at the same time at the same cost, that is, SEK 100,000. This computes to SEK 20 (USD $3) per sample,” says Peter Savolainen.

He points out several areas where his and his colleagues’ new method can have a great impact. One of them is cancer research, where there is a great need to scan numerous cell samples from many individuals. This is to see which cells and genes are involved in the cancer.

“Another field where our method can be of huge importance is in organ transplants. Many DNA analyses are needed to create a database for matching organ donors with transplant recipients. This will be of major importance to DNA research,” says Peter Savolainen.

Pretty cool stuff…

Ok, let’s start off with the basics:

Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder where nerve cells that make dopamine are destroyed. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter and without it, nerve cells are unable to properly send messages to other parts of the body. Eventually, the destruction of dopamine-producing cells leads to a loss of muscle function that gets worse over time. The typical symptoms of Parkinson’s are shaking and difficulty with walking, movement, and muscle coordination.  Unfortunately, not a lot is known about why these nerve cells waste away in the first place.

In gene therapy, a gene variant is used to alter the function of a cell or an organ. The way that genes are transferred into cells is pretty interesting: the gene is put into an inert virus, which is then injected into the target cell to deliver the gene.

Now, a new large-scale study suggests that a type of gene therapy (called NLX-P101) may be able to improve Parkinson’s symptoms. The gene that was targeted is called GAD (stands for glutamic acid decarboxylase). This gene produces a chemical called GABA (stands for Gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is a neurotransmitter than inhibits the excessive firing of neurons seen among Parkinson’s patients. From an interview in ScienceDaily with one of the researchers, Dr. Matthew During:

“In Parkinson’s disease, not only do patients lose many dopamine-producing brain cells, but they also develop substantial reductions in the activity and amount of GABA in their brains. This causes a dysfunction in brain circuitry responsible for coordinating movement,” explains Dr. During.

So, what they’ve done is inject a fully-functioning GAD gene into the brains of Parkinson’s patients. Those that were injected showed substantial improvement compared to individuals that did not receive the treatment.  


LeWitt, P.A. et al. (2011). AAV2-GAD gene therapy for advanced Parkinson’s disease: a double-blind, sham-surgery controlled, randomised trial. Lancet Neurology in press.

The FDA held a meeting on March 8th and 9th about direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing. According to the FDA’s executive summary, DTC is:

…clinical genetic tests that are marketed directly to consumers (DTC clinical genetic tests), where a consumer can order tests and receive test results without the involvement of a clinician.

As Dan Vorhaus of the Genomics Law Report describes it, the main issue of the meeting was to decide how (and if) the FDA will regulate DTC genetic tests. There were really two perspectives:

1. Those who oppose DTC genetic testing worry that incorrect or misinterpreted tests could produce harmful outcomes, and they even questioned whether anything of value is actually gained from the tests in the first place.

2. Those who support DTC genetic testing argue that the information empowered patients to explore their “genetic selves” without any ill effects.

The meeting will sum up with recommendations for the FDA from the Molecular and Clinical Genetics Panel (MCGP), which is an FDA committee that “reviews and evaluates data concerning the safety and effectiveness of marketed and investigational in vitro devices for use in clinical laboratory medicine including clinical and molecular genetics and makes appropriate recommendations to the Commissioner of Food and Drugs.” Vorhaus suspects that the MCGP will recommend:

that clinical (as defined by the FDA, which is itself a separate issue) direct-to-consumer genetic testing, when offered without a requirement that a clinician participate in the ordering, receipt and interpretation of the test, be removed from the marketplace. At least for the time being.

Our keynote speaker, John Hawks, blogs about this issue and considers himself a “genetic libertarian.” He describes his position:

I believe that I have a fundamental right to my own biological information. What I mean is that, if anybody has biological information about me, I should be able to access and use it. Additionally, I think it is immoral for anyone to charge me excessive rates to access my own information. So that’s where I’m coming from. I’m a genetic libertarian. 

For more info see the FDA’s website for the event.

What do you think about DTC genetic testing? Do you think it’s a good idea? How much regulation (if any) should be provided by government agencies?

Well, we’re all back from Spring Break here at UNCG…and our event is only 8 days away! Check out event details here, and don’t forget to post questions for our participants here.


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