Thursday, January 29, 2009

Nice little PLoS reference by Nicholas Kristof in the Times ...

Just a quick one here. In an article in today's Times, Nicholas Kristof writes about "Putting Torture Behind Us" and he has a little PLoS reference there ...
"Granted, returning the base to Cuba may not be politically realistic. So here’s a fallback alternative: turn the base into a research center for tropical diseases.

This was proposed in a medical journal, PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, a year ago, and it makes more sense now than ever

In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are still more than half-a-million cases annually of dengue fever (which causes excruciating pain and sometimes death), nearly 50,000 new cases of leprosy and more than 700,000 cases of elephantiasis (which causes grotesque deformities). In addition, 50 million Latin Americans have hookworms inside them, often causing anemia and making it more difficult for children to concentrate in school.

Peter Hotez, the president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute at George Washington University and the editor of PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, says that an international center on Guantánamo could become a symbol of United States cooperation in the region.

Imagine if people around the world came to think of Guantánamo as a place where America led a battle against hookworms and leprosy. That would help us fight terrorism far more effectively than the prison at Guantánamo ever did.."

Hat tip to Chris Schelleng for pointing this out. The original PLoS NTD article by Peter Hotez is here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What's better than brain doping? Cello Scrotum is what.

OK I have a lot to learn. I was (and still am) pretty proud of the April 1 prank I pulled off this year with many other bloggers announcing a fake crackdown on brain doping. But my joke is not even close to this one. A letter in a recent issue of BMJ has announced that the malady known as Cello Scrotum was in fact made up. Why did they make this up? In response to a publication about guitar nipple (for more on this see CNN and the Times Online). And now they have confessed only 35 years later.

And I must say - God Bless Pubmed Central. Because here is the original very brief letter which I am posting below:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Benefits of Open Access: enabling musical interpretations of human genomics ...

Not this is one of the most creative uses of open access science publications I have seen in a while. The video is from a paper by Dan Falush and colleagues that was in PLoS Genetics. Listen/see how the music changes with the genetics/migration of humans.



So I guess given some of my recent posts, we must ask what should we call this? Musicomics (which has a following but most of the use of the term seems to refer to music and comics together, although I did find one site with a reference that is about genomics) or genomusic (most of which seems to refer to people named Geno making music). Maybe, maybe, we just should say it is "nameless" but nice.

Anyway --- a nice use of open access --- the material from the PLoS Genetics paper is under a broad Creative Commons license and thus this type of use is allowed (and the source is attributed in the YouTube notes). Not sure about the exact details of the origins of the music for the video, but Dan Falush has hinted to me that it was some spontaneous contribution by a band in LA.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's Science Team Big on Evolution

Much has been written and will be written about how Obama is taking science seriously.  To me, one great sign of this is that not only is evolution OK to talk about now, but - gasp - many of his science team actually have worked on evolution.   For example:
  • Eric Lander, part of Obama's council of advisors on science and technology, has written many papers either directly or indirectly about evolution. 
  • Harold Varmus also on this Council, has written about evolution of viruses (e.g. here),
  •  Jane Lubchenco is an ecologist who in much of her work has an evolutionary ecology angle
Even John Holdren, who is more of a physicist and as far as I can tell has not written explicitly about evolution recently certainly discussed it in some of his earlier publications with Paul Ehrlich.  

So - not only is science in general and life science in particular on the upswing.  But evolution is too.  Maybe this is why Darwin endorsed Obama so many months back. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Bush Administration IS NOT and WAS NOT anti-science

So much has been written about the supposed anti-science stance of the Bush administration (see for example Chris Mooney, AFP, many Nobel laureates, etc  and even me).  But I have been obsessing about this in my head for some time now.  And I think it misses the point.  Bush and his administration have not really been anti-science.  There I said it.  Ready to smack me over the head?

Before you do that.  Wait.  What I think Bush is is even more insidious.  He is anti-evidence.  Or, in other words, he does not believe science should be used to discover things but instead simply as a means to an end.  Sound familiar?  This was his approach to weapons, torture, Guantanamo, gathering intelligence about US citizens, and so on.   All these things were justified because evidence and objectively testing multiple possibilities was not really needed - we knew the answer and just had to back it up with something consistent with the theory.  In essence, everything he did titled against evidence in all sorts of areas.  

So - even though he was not anti-science per se.  The anti-evidence attitude hit scientists really hard.  Science is NOT about just trying to get to an end.  It is also about discovery.  And thus I look forward to a president who believes science is a way to discover things about the world that we do not already know.

Monday, January 19, 2009

You could call it symbiomics (but please do not)... but whatever name you use, this is $^@#&* so cool.

Once again, Nancy Moran's lab has knocked the scientific wind out of me with a cool paper. This seems to happen every 6 months or so (and I hope my paper with her lab a few years ago knocked the wind out of some others). And this new one, even though it is in a non OA journal which I usually avoid writing about here, is so cool, I just had to say something. So, if you are interested in a brilliant study of "The Dynamics and Time Scale of Ongoing Genomic Erosion in Symbiotic Bacteria" see the recent Science paper by Moran, Heather McLaughlin and Rotem Sorek. Here are some key lines that summarize some of what they did:
We documented the dynamics of symbiont genome evolution by sequencing seven strains of Buchnera aphidicola from pea aphid hosts....
....A. pisum is native to Eurasia, but has been introduced worldwide. It was first detected in North America in the 1870s (11). We sequenced the genomes of seven Buchnera-Ap strains descended from two colonizers of North America (and hence diverging up to 135 years ago), including two strains diverging in the laboratory for 7.5 years. Solexa sequencing was combined with verification by Sanger sequencing (12), to determine genomic sequences of these seven strains (Table 1)....
...Our estimated mutation rate for base changes was unexpectedly high: more than 10 times the previous estimates of mutation rate calculated on the basis of silent site divergences in both Buchnera and free-living bacteria...
...Our model predicts that the initial step leading to genome reduction is a shift in nucleotide composition toward higher A+T content....

Alas, I am really busy right now finishing some grants and papers or I would try to write more, especially since some may not be able to get this paper.  Note for you conflict of interest aficionados -  much of the sequencing for this project was done at the Joint Genome Institute where I have an Adjunct appointment.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Worst New Omics Word Award: Museomics

OK.  So I coined my my omics word many years ago (phylogenomics).  Fine.  Sue me.  But the spread of omics words is getting really icky.  And a new one really seems lame.  The word is "museomics"which I saw for the first time in a press release today from Cold Spring Harbor Press about a paper in Genome Research. 

I mean, the study of the Tasmanian Tiger seems like it could be interesting (have not read the paper) and there is some really fun stuff happening these days using Roche/454 sequencing. 

But meseomics?  Not to disparage museums which are critical to all of biology in my opinion.  But to me the term in a way treats museums as simply a place we store organisms before we get DNA out of them.  For this, the team at Penn St. that led this project and apparently coined the term museomics (see here where they define the term) is getting my new "Worst New Omics Word Award." 

In addition I am proposing my favorite new Omics words using their model:
  1. Roadkillomics (to go along with roadside field guides)
  2. Backyardomics (e.g., could be some sort of native plant thing)
  3. Hospitalomics (e.g., MRSA)
  4. Backoftheenvelopomics (for the anthrax case)
  5. Stuffinmypocketomics (hey, I have found some $&%$ stuff there)
  6. Restaurantomics (e.g., O157H7)
  7. Footballomics (there have been studies of MRSA transmission in games, why not omics)
  8. Slowfoodomics (genomics of things you get within 50 miles of your neighborhood)
  9. Ebayomics (genomics of things you get off Ebay)
  10. Stuffthecatdraggedinomics (my cats would like this)
  11. Wherethesundontshinomics (human microbiome?)
Any others suggestions?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Calling all phylogeneticists - we need your help with metagenomic data

I have decided to post a question here to my blog requesting help from phylogeneticists everywhere in doing phylogenetic analysis of data from metagenomic projects. Here I will try to describe the problem and then hopefully people out there can chime in on what they think we/others should do to handle this type of data.

So here is the deal. We would like to perform a variety of phylogenetic analyses of data from "environmental shotgun sequencing (ESS)" projects in which one isolates DNA from an environmental sample (e.g., soil, water) and then randomly sequences fragments of that DNA. ESS is in essence a subset of "metagenomics" which is basically the study of the genomes of organisms from environmental samples. (I wrote a brief piece on ESS in PLoS Biology last year which can be found here).

Though there are lots of things we would like to do with phylogenetic analysis of this type of data, I am going to focus here on one specific thing. We would like to take sequence reads that contain matches to specific gene/gene family (e.g., RecA, my favorite gene), build a multple sequence alignment that includes these reads as well as all members of this gene family from known organisms, and then build phylogenetic trees from these alignments. (And by we here I mean like totally lots of people, incliding in particular a Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation funded project called iSEEM I am working on with the labs of Katie Pollard and Jessica Green)

The challenge with this is really two things. First, we want to analyze just the reads themselves (i.e., we do not want to use assemblies you can make from this type of data). Second, and more importantly, we want to include in our analysis sequence reads that only cover small, not necessarily overlapping regions of the "full length" sequence alignments for the family.
The alignment would look something like
    sequence 1 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 1 XXXXXXXXX-------------------------
    sequence 2 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 2 ---------XXXXXXXXXXXX-------------
    fragment 3 ---------------------XXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 4 ----XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX------------
    sequence 3 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    sequence 4 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    sequence 5 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 5 -----------------------XXXXXXXXXXX- 
    where Xs are the regions covered by the sequences/fragments (could be DNA or amino acids)

We want to build trees from these alignments with the hope of using them to learn lots of cool things about the evolution of the fragments and the species from which they come. I can provide more information but really the key part for the phylogenetics here is the nature of the alignment.

In the past, I have decided to constrain my analyses to NOT deal with this type of alignments. I have either analyzed each fragment on its own or we have built a multiple alignment but only inlcuded fragments that cover more than 3/4 of the full length sequence and thus the matrix is much more filled out. Such an alignment would look like this


    sequence 1 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 1 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX-------
    sequence 2 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 2 --XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX--------
    fragment 3 -----XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 4 ----XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX--
    sequence 3 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    sequence 4 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    sequence 5 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 5 --XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX- 
But we really want to include the smaller fragments in our analysis. And we are just not certain how to best do this. We know LOTs of people out there think of similar problems in terms of sparse matrices, supermatrices, supertrees, EST data, etc. And we have ideas about how to do this and are asking around by email some phylogenetics gurus we know. But I thought it might be fun to have the discussion on a blog rather than by email.

So again, how might one best build phylogenetic trees from data that looks like this?

    sequence 1 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 1 XXXXXXXXX-------------------------
    sequence 2 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 2 ---------XXXXXXXXXXXX-------------
    fragment 3 ---------------------XXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 4 ----XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX------------
    sequence 3 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    sequence 4 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    sequence 5 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    fragment 5 -----------------------XXXXXXXXXXX- 

And from these trees we want to place each fragment relative to (1) the full length sequences and (2) to each other if possible. We also, of course, want branch lengths to reflect some sort of amount of evolution and thus do not just want a cladogram.

Any suggestions would be appreciated. Fire away with questions too ...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Computational Biologists bring together some of the "best jobs" in the US

Check out the WSJ article on "The Best and Worst Jobs in the U.S. - WSJ.com"

The top 5 are
1. Mathematician
2. Actuary
3. Statistician
4. Biologist
5. Software Engineer

Seems like I know a fair # of people who combine #1, #3, #4 and #5 although rarely in equal amounts. I am not sure if anyone out there combines all of the top 5 but there must be some scientist/actuaries doing this computational biology right? Seems like a pretty strange list to me in some ways, but I must say, being a mathematically inclined computational biologist is pretty fun. Now if I only knew statistics ...

Hat tip to Lior Pachter for posting this to Facebook where I found it.

Acid Rock Bacteria Genome ...

Just a little plug for a new paper of which I am a co-author. This is a report on the analysis of the genome sequence of Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans which was just published in BMC Genomics (an open access journal, by the way). This paper was a long long time coming - the genome was sequenced when I was at TIGR many years ago (Herve Tettelin coordinated most of the work). Since I was interested in the biology of this bug I volunteered to help turn the sequence into a paper, but was pretty lame about doing that. Thankfully David Holmes and Jorge Valdes in Chile helped make a paper from the data and much additional analyses. Here is the abstract:
Background
Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans is a major participant in consortia of microorganisms used for the industrial recovery of copper (bioleaching or biomining). It is a chemolithoautrophic, γ-proteobacterium using energy from the oxidation of iron- and sulfur-containing minerals for growth. It thrives at extremely low pH (pH 1–2) and fixes both carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere. It solubilizes copper and other metals from rocks and plays an important role in nutrient and metal biogeochemical cycling in acid environments. The lack of a well-developed system for genetic manipulation has prevented thorough exploration of its physiology. Also, confusion has been caused by prior metabolic models constructed based upon the examination of multiple, and sometimes distantly related, strains of the microorganism.

Results
The genome of the type strain A. ferrooxidans ATCC 23270 was sequenced and annotated to identify general features and provide a framework for in silico metabolic reconstruction. Earlier models of iron and sulfur oxidation, biofilm formation, quorum sensing, inorganic ion uptake, and amino acid metabolism are confirmed and extended. Initial models are presented for central carbon metabolism, anaerobic metabolism (including sulfur reduction, hydrogen metabolism and nitrogen fixation), stress responses, DNA repair, and metal and toxic compound fluxes.

Conclusion
Bioinformatics analysis provides a valuable platform for gene discovery and functional prediction that helps explain the activity of A. ferrooxidans in industrial bioleaching and its role as a primary producer in acidic environments. An analysis of the genome of the type strain provides a coherent view of its gene content and metabolic potential.

Stan Falkow, only 74 and getting more famous by the day

Nice article in USA Today about Stan Falkow focusing in part on his Lasker Award. Good to see him continue to get some props as he, well, rocks. Note - I wrote about him getting a Lasker Award four months ago here but maybe I was too early?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thanks "The Open Lab"

Very happy to get this email:

Many congratulations that your post (check http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2009/01/the_open_laboratory_2008_and_t.php for which one) was selected to be part of this year's print anthology of the best science blogging on the web.

Check out the collection at the link. There is some fun stuff there. I was selected for what else, my April Fools prank about brain doping. On the one hand, I wish something I wrote about science or policy was picked. On the other hand, I consider this April 1 joke of the best things I have done on the web ...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ad for Genomics Faculty Position at UC Davis

Still getting back into things after being out sick ... here is an Ad for a job everyone should want ...

The UC Davis Genome Center integrates experimental and computational approaches to address key problems at the forefront of genomics. The Center is housed in a new research building with state-of-the-art computational and laboratory facilities and currently comprises 14 experimental and computational faculty. These faculty are developing an internationally recognized program in genomics and computational biology at Davis, building on and enhancing the unique strengths and unmatched breadth of the life sciences on the UC Davis campus.

The Genome Center invites applications for tenure-track faculty positions in all areas of genomics with emphasis on next-generation proteomics and statistical genomics involving animal, plant or microbial systems. Applicants interested in genomic approaches to human diseases and investigators employing large-scale, technology-driven approaches that complement existing strengths at UC Davis are particularly encouraged to apply. Candidates should be strongly motivated by the biological importance of their research and should value the opportunity to work in close collaboration with other groups and disciplines.

Candidates may be at any academic level. At the senior level, we invite applications from prominent scientists with distinguished records of research, teaching, and leadership in genomics. At the junior level, we invite applications from candidates whose accomplishments in innovative research and commitments to teaching demonstrate their potential to develop into the future leaders in these fields.

These positions require a Ph.D. or equivalent. Appointments will be at the Assistant, Associate or Full Professor level in an appropriate academic department in any of six schools, or colleges. The position will remain open until filled. For fullest consideration, applicants should submit a letter of application, a curriculum vitae, statements of research and teaching interests, and the names of at least five references to the Genome Center Web site www.genomecenter.ucdavis.edu by January 15, 2009.

The University of California is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer