Fun Science FRIEDay – Embryonic Gene Editing

The world we currently live in would have seemed like science fiction to humans in the not to distant past. Everyday more and advancements transform sci-fi dreams into reality. Most recently gene editing of human embryos has been birthed into the realm of possibility (cheesy pun intended!). In theory gene editing embryos could allow you to choose preferential traits in your soon to be human flesh-blob. That level of ability does not currently exist, but the latest developments in gene editing are still pretty astonishing.

Eggs before gene editing (left), and eggs after gene editing and already undergoing cell division (right)
(Photo credit: Ma et al. 2017)

In a recent study scientists took a human embryo and edited a dangerous mutation from the genes of that embryo; human reality, meet science fiction. Scientists at Oregon Health and Science University, with colleagues in California, China and South Korea, edited embryos, fixing a mutation that causes a common heart condition that can lead to sudden death later in life. The biggest hurdles were producing embryos in which all cells, not just some, were mutation-free, while also avoiding creating unwanted extra mutations during the process. The researchers found that when gene-editing components were introduced with sperm to the egg before fertilization, the success of the process was markedly different from previous approaches. If embryos with the repaired mutation were allowed to develop into babies, they would not only be disease-free but would also not transmit the disease to their descendants.

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The moldy kingdom gets a new neighbor

A diagrammatic tree depicting the organisation of most eukaryotes into six major groups. The relationships amongst most of the major groups and the position of the ‘root’ of the tree are shown as unresolved (note however, the grouping of Opisthokonta and Amoebozoa). The arrow shows a possible precise placement of the root, based on gene fusion data. (Simpson and Roger 2004)

Depending on your view of phylogenetics, a recent publication in Nature reporting the discovery of a new kingdom-level branch on the tree of life, basal to Kingdom Fungi, is either a major revision of our current view of taxonomy or completely unsurprising and expected. While we mostly refer to the four kingdoms within Domain Eukarya as Protista, Plantae, Fungi, and Animalia, it’s understood by the scientific community that Protista is essentially a catch-all category, not a true clade, for eukaryotes that don’t quite fit into the other three groups. While this is convenient for organization, it fails to adequately express the diversity of protists. Four kingdoms is a useful system, but there’s no reason why diversity at the kingdom level couldn’t be much higher. A strict cladist could  create hundreds, if not thousands of kingdoms from Protista alone.

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