Jeffrey S. Buguliskis Ph.D. Technical Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

The Top 10 Most Prominent Science News Stories for 2015

In the midst of the tinsel, eggnog, and holiday cheer it is often wise to pause for a moment of quiet reflection about the events of the past year. While political and socioeconomic stories have dominated the airwaves and distracted much of the news media, the life science field got some headlines with its share of controversies, ethical dilemmas, and spectacular advances.

The editorial staff at GEN would like to take a quick, reminiscent trip through this year’s most popular and impactful science stories. We present our list in chronological order from the beginning of the year.

Most Cancers Due to Bad Luck, Not Heredity or Lifestyle

On the second day of the New Year, researchers from Johns Hopkins University didn’t disappoint in stirring up controversy, by claiming that “All cancers are caused by a combination of bad luck, the environment, and heredity…” While the authors’ conclusions suggested that two-thirds of the cancers they evaluated in their study could be explained by the introduction of random mutations arising during DNA replication, the study drew sharp criticism from groups such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a specialized agency of the World Health Organization that disagreed with the authors’ conclusions and warned that the message could harm cancer research and public health.

Unculturable Bacteria Yield Resistance-Free Antibiotic

With drug resistance on the rise, the announcement of the first new class of antibiotics in almost 30 years provided some relief to physicians and researchers. Investigators from Northwestern University used a novel culturing technique, allowing them to screen a much wider array of bacteria than anyone had previously—leading to the discovery of Teixobactin. This new antibiotic inhibits lipid biosynthesis and prevents bacterial cell wall development.

Three-Parent Babies OK’d in U.K.

Early in February, Great Britain’s House of Commons passed historic legislation that would allow for three donors to be part of in vitro fertilization procedures—paving the way for the prevention of various mitochondrial diseases. In short, a donor egg, with healthy mitochondria, would have its nucleus replaced by the prospective mother’s DNA and then be fertilized by the prospective father’s sperm. At the end of the month, the legislation passed a vote in the House of Lords, and the bill was subsequently signed into law.

Two Dozen Papers Probe the Epigenomic Dimension

In what could only be classified as a major achievement for genomics researchers, the NIH’s Roadmap Epigenomics Program published two dozen scientific papers that represent the first comprehensive maps and analyses of the human epigenome of more than 100 types of cells and tissues. The epigenome is part of the machinery that helps direct how genes are turned off and on in these different cell types. The information from these studies should enable researchers to take data from different cell types and directly compare them—providing insight into many conditions such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Long-Acting Therapeutic Could Take Place of HIV Vaccine

In exciting news for patients batting HIV, researchers from the Scripps Research Institute developed a novel therapeutic molecule, which they reported was effective at blocking all strains of HIV. Moreover, the compound blocked HIV transmission at concentrations that were significantly higher than what would be typically transmitted between humans and was efficacious for up to eight months after injection. The researchers are continuing their testing in monkeys and are looking to begin human clinical trials as quickly as possible.  

Sweet Potato Is a Natural GMO

This story raised many a GEN readers’ eyebrows, as the debate over genetically modified organisms continued to wage, even within the life sciences community. In the case of the sweet potato, a staple side dish around the holiday season, researchers found evidence of transfer DNA sequences from Agrobacterium species within the plants genome. Moreover, the T-DNA sequences were found in all cultivated sweet potato clones, but not in the crop’s closely related wild relatives, which would suggest that the bacterial T-DNA provided an advantageous trait that was selected for during domestication.  

CRISPR-Edited Human Embryos Raise Ruckus

In what was likely the most controversial science story of the year, Chinese researchers from the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou used the much-heralded CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing system on human embryos. The backlash was swift and the study drew the sharp ire of the international scientific community as just a month prior they agreed to place a moratorium on gene-editing studies of human embryos. To their credit, the Chinese scientists acknowledge that their study underscored the need for a more comprehensive understanding of genome editing tools and that clinical application of CRISPR/Cas9 may be premature at this point.

New Study Data Could Lead to Reversal of Aging Process

The genetic basis for the fountain of youth might be one easy way to explain this popular story. A collaboration between researchers from the Salk Institute and the Chinese Academy of Science identified what they believe are the key genetic drivers of the aging process. Using Werner syndrome (progeria), a disease that causes rapid aging, the scientists were able to identify the connection between a mutated gene that causes rapid aging and observations of disorganized heterochromatin—a scenario that leads to global gene expression changes.

New Stem Cell Type Opens Door to Range of Novel Therapies

This interesting story from the same lab at the Salk Institute as the aging story describes a new type of stem cell that could provide a much needed model for early human development—and allow human organs to be grown in animals for research, drug development, or even transplantation purposes. The researchers report about a new type of pluripotent cell that is much easier to grow in vitro and can graft into an embryo when injected into the appropriate region. The new cell type was appropriately named region-selective pluripotent stem cells (rsPSCs).

Detecting All Infective Viruses at Once

Our final top story for 2015 comes from investigators at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who have devised a new genomic approach that can detect virtually any virus that infects humans or animals. The new test, which the researchers have dubbed ViroCap can detect viruses not found by standard testing based on genome sequencing and could be extremely useful for detecting outbreaks of fast spreading viruses such as Ebola or Marburg. Since the test casts such a wide net, it even be utilized in situations where the cause of an outbreak in unknown.