One of the best things that ever happened in the field of chemistry was the creation of the periodic table by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in the year 1869. This table classified the atoms of elements based on their atomic numbers. Last week, a team of biologists unveiled a system of classifying cell nuclei and a method that can transmute one cell nuclei to another following extensive study of the tree of life. This, in simple terms, means that they have discovered a way of possibly turning a cell from an apple tree into the cell of mahogany!
What Exactly Is Going On?
This discovery appeared last week in the journal Science, in a study by separate bodies from their previously separate efforts. These bodies include the DNA Zoo and an independent team in the Netherlands.
The DNA Zoo is an international association with dozens of member institutions including the National Science Foundation-supported Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP) at Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, and the University of Western Australia and Seaworld. The scientists in this team had focused their attention on understanding the intricacies surrounding the folding of chromosomes that make it possible for it to fit into the nucleus of the varied species that constitute the tree of life. According to Dr. Olga Dudchencko, a member of the CTBP and the Center for Genome Architecture and co-author of the new study, irrespective of the species studied, the same folding pattern was observed. With the above, they realized that all the patterns they observed were merely variations in two primary nuclear patterns the first being the one in which the chromosomes were arranged like the pages of a printed newspaper and the second, being the one in which the chromosomes are folded into a tiny ball. Dr. Erez Lieberman Aiden – an Emeritus McNair Scholar at Baylor, associate professor of molecular and human genetics, senior author of the new study, and co-director at DNA Zoo, saw this as a puzzle. According to him, the study implied that as evolution took its course, it may have been possible for species to switch between one another. This raised questions such as what is the control mechanism? Is it possible to transmute the nucleus in the lab?
The Netherlands team while conducting studies on Condensin II – a protein that plays a role in cell division, made an unexpected discovery. “… we observed the strangest thing: when we mutated the protein in human cells, the chromosomes would rearrange. It was baffling!” said Claire Hoencamp, a member of the laboratory of Dr. Benjamin Rowland at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and a co-author of the study.
At a conference in the Austrian Mountains where Rowland had presented a paper on his lab’s work, the two teams met and there, they realized Rowland had discovered a way to transmute human cells. According to Rowland,” evolution had a long head start”.
To confirm the role of Condensin II, the two teams chose to work together but this was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without access to their laboratories, the team enlisted the help of Dr. José Onuchic, the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Chair of Physics at Rice in other to use computer programs to run simulations on the effects of destroying Condensin II on a cell. In Onuchic’s lab, a team led by Dr. Sumitabha Brahmachari ran several simulations and in the end, he had this to say; “we found that so much boils down to one simple mechanism, that we can simulate as well as recapitulate, on our own, in a test tube. It’s an exciting step on the road to a new kind of genome engineering in 3D”.
These works were sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the NSF-supported Behavioral Plasticity Research Institute, the Welch Institute, The National Institute of Health, IBM, the Pawsey Supercomputing Center, and Illumina Inc. With more funds, who knows where this project may lead to? The future as we know it is changing right before our eyes.