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Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 20.04.15

20 Apr, 2015

Our fortnightly round-up of news from the Wellcome Trust community…

A bright future for the mountain gorilla


The first project to sequence the whole genomes of mountain gorillas has left scientists feeling more optimistic about the future of this critically endangered species, according to research published in Science.

Scientists have been concerned about the dwindling population of mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountain range on the Rwandan border, where extensive inbreeding and a small genetic pool were thought to make the gorillas susceptible to disease and environmental change.

Using samples collected by the Rwanda Development Board and The Institut Congolese pour la Conservation du Nature Gorilla Doctors, researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute found that although genetic diversity was low, many harmful mutations had been removed. The gorillas were genetically adapted to surviving in small populations and had been doing so for many thousands of years.

“Mountain gorillas are among the most intensively studied primates in the wild, but this is the first in-depth, whole-genome analysis,” says Dr Chris Tyler-Smith from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “Three years on from sequencing the gorilla reference genome, we can now compare the genomes of all gorilla populations, including the critically endangered mountain gorilla, and begin to understand their similarities and differences, and the genetic impact of inbreeding.”

It’s not all in the genes

B0007707 Molecular model: DNA

Our genes may not be able to tell us the whole story when it comes to our inherited characteristics, according to Wellcome Trust-funded research. For the first time scientists have identified a role for proteins called histones in our genetic inheritance.

Histones compact our DNA by acting as a spool that it can thread around. They can also control whether a particular gene is switched on or off. Researchers found that naturally occurring changes in these histones – and the effect on genes these changes create – can be passed on to future generations.

Although researchers are unsure about how often this occurs, this discovery offers a new explanation for how some characteristics may be inherited. The study was published in Science.

Professor Robin Allshire, Wellcome Trust Principal Investigator who led the study, said: “We’ve shown without doubt that changes in the histone spools that make up chromosomes can be copied and passed through generations. Our finding settles the idea that inherited traits can be epigenetic, meaning that they are not solely down to changes in a gene’s DNA.”

Destroying prostate cancers’ core weakness

B0009678 Prostate cancer cell, SEM

90% of cancer related deaths are caused when the cancer metastasises, or spreads, around the body. Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute have identified a genetic root of the spread of lethal prostate cancer, a development that could offer new hopes for treatment.

Despite the huge genetic variation of cells within a prostate cancer tumour, scientists found that all cells that spread share a common genetic fault and a common ancestral cell in the prostate. Studying this genetic fault, which is unique to each person, may help scientists develop approaches for personalised medicine.

Ros Eeles, professor of oncogenetics at the Institute of Cancer Research, said: “The common faults we found in each man could potentially offer new targets for treatment. But we found that, once cancer cells have spread, they continue to evolve genetically, so choosing the most effective treatments will remain a key challenge.”

The study was originally published in Nature.

Other Wellcome Trust-funded Research News

Scientists at Imperial College London have identified a new protein that promotes the proliferation of immune cells that can destroy both cancer cells and cells infected with viruses. The Wellcome-funded study has been six years in the making and researchers will now attempt to develop a gene therapy that will boost these cancer-fighting cells.

A study published in Nature Communications explains how the genetic profile of Americans may be more complex than previously thought. Using over 4000 samples from 64 populations across Europe, Africa and the Americas, scientists found a genetic fingerprint of the slave trade, colonisation and previously unknown migration patterns.

In Other News

Two Wellcome Trust funded researchers have been recognised in this year’s Royal Society of Edinburgh awards. Malaria expert Mhairi Stewart, who is based at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology in Glasgow, is awarded the Innovator in Public Engagement prize for creating collaborative activities between science and art. Senior Research Fellow in Biomedical Ethics, Dr Martyn Pickersgill is awarded the RSE/Henry Duncan Medal for his work in medical sociology and commitment to public engagement.

Dr Thomas Kariuki has been appointed as Director of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA). The Kenyan immunologist will head the cross-Africa science funding and agenda setting organisation that aims to boost research autonomy in Africa.

The Allen Institute for Brain Science, in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, is leading a new global initiative to advance the digital reconstruction of individual neurons. BigNeuron will test the wide range of neuron-reconstructing techniques that exist to create a standardized protocol for researchers to study neuron morphology and function. As part of the initiative, the Cambridge Algorithm Porting Hackathon, will take place between 4th and 8th May 2015.

Image credits: (From top to bottom) Baby Mountain Gorilla by Braford Dupllsea, via Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND; Molecular model:DNA, Maurizio De Angelis – Wellcome Images; Prostate cancer cell, SEM, Anne Weston – Wellcome Images.

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