The announcement came in June. Berkeley Extension, the continuing education arm of UC Berkeley, was offering its first-ever introductory course—CRISPR Genome Editing: From Biology to Technology—on the revolutionary new tool that allows scientists to make precise edits in the genome. A lab and lecture course on CRISPR for anyone who has the interest (and money) to enroll? What a crazy idea. It seemed a bit like offering a workshop on how to enrich plutonium.
One of biology’s wilder facts is that we’re all family. You and me, sure, but also me and a mushroom. Triceratops shared genes with you. So does the virus that makes you cough, and a rosebush. Bacteria left us on the tree of life around 2.7 billion years ago, but the wet world they came from is still ours: One code runs all of life. The same proteins that imprint memories in your neurons, for example, do so in octopi, ravens, and sea slugs. This genetic conservation means tricks from one species can be hijacked. If you stick a jellyfish gene in a monkey, it’ll glow green.
THE YEAR HAS BEEN A JUMBLE FOR ME. Long story short: I was Portuguese, then I wasn’t, then I was again.
It all started after my wife and I spat in vials and mailed the samples off to a laboratory, where our DNA was extracted from the skin cells that had sloughed off into our saliva. Many thousands of DNA segments were read and analyzed, and the results returned via email.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1984 the senior scientists of Cetus Corp., a Berkeley biotech company, found themselves in a bind. One of their employees, a promising young scientist named Kary Mullis, had dreamed up a technique to exponentially replicate tiny scraps of DNA. He called it polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and if it worked it would change the world and likely earn Cetus a mountain of money. The only problem was Mullis was an interpersonal wrecking ball.
ON APRIL 24, 1981, THE BODY OF A YOUNG WOMAN with auburn braids and a fringed jacket was discovered off the side of a road in Troy, Ohio.
She had been strangled to death only hours before. Authorities took DNA samples but couldn’t find a match for the woman. For decades, she was described only by the clothes on her back: “Buckskin Girl.”
In May 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented a program called Rapid DNA testing—subjecting families crossing the Mexican border to cheek swab tests, which produce extensive DNA profiles in less than two hours that are entered into a national criminal database. The initial pilot program, begun this summer, was ostensibly rolled out to identify “fraudulent family units”—groups of children and adults who are not blood-related but were trying to achieve special immigration status—and prosecute them for fraud.
Posted on November 20, 2019 - 2:03pm
At 15, she was a class-skipping, catch-me-if-you-can maverick hitchhiking to D.C. to protest the Vietnam War. Looking back on those years now, Frances Arnold says, “Fifteen is one of those terrifying ages, where you’re frustrated because you know something’s wrong, but you have no idea how to fix it. So I did what I could, which is protest.
“But as I’ve gone through my life,” she continues, “I know that it’s my responsibility to fix it. I’m much better at fixing things than protesting.”
Last month’s arrest of NorCal Rapist suspect, Roy Charles Waller, sent shockwaves across the Cal campus and the state. Waller, after all, was a longtime employee of UC Berkeley’s Office of Environment, Health and Safety, and his capture resulted from a new forensic tool that promises to solve many cold cases: open-source genealogical databases.
Posted on October 11, 2018 - 3:05pm
The recent capture of a suspect for the notorious Golden State Killer crimes was a vindication of both diligent detective work and modern technology. More than four decades after the first incident attributed to the GSK, which ultimately tallied at least 12 murders, 45 rapes, and more than 100 home burglaries, 72-year-old Joseph DeAngelo was arrested in his California home.
Posted on July 25, 2018 - 1:49pm
The Bajau people, commonly known as “sea nomads,” live in coastal regions of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They spend some 60 percent of their working hours in the sea, foraging for food at depths of up to 230 feet below the surface. Bajau divers are known to hold their breath for several minutes at a time.
How do they do it? Researchers think they have found the key: larger spleens.
Findings like these are a reminder that humans, like all animals, are products of evolution.
In 2010, Patrick O. Brown, then a biochemist at Stanford University, and Michael Eisen, Berkeley professor of genetics, were at a board meeting in Washington, D.C., for PLOS, the Public Library of Science.
No issue of a magazine devoted to the theme of Adaptation would be complete without some attention paid to biological evolution, à la Charles Darwin. To learn more about the subject we turned to Anna Thanukos, M.A. ’00, Ph.D. ’02, principal editor of Understanding Evolution, a free Web resource produced by the University of California Museum of Paleontology.
It is a curious thing to consider that UC Berkeley, a school notably lacking a marine biology program, has produced not one, not two, but three published studies on the venerable octopus within the last year. But then octopuses, too, are curious to consider. They have three hearts; blue, copper-based blood; regenerating tentacles; and a level of sentience unique among invertebrates.
Silicon is so passé. Those who are truly au courant in the coding world are working with carbon—specifically DNA, that most ancient and elegant of codes. Such biohacking is central to the rapidly expanding field of synthetic biology, a term that somehow seems a little threatening to many of us who are the products of the old fashioned kind of biology that’s been around since the planet first managed to gin up a few primitive prokaryotes 3.5 billion years ago.
Posted on August 12, 2014 - 11:27am
Want to live forever? Be a tumor. We may eventually download analogs of our brains into computers and thus achieve a certain kind of immortality, but dramatically extending the functionality of the human body is looking problematic. Cancer cells, on the other hand, can propagate endlessly.
Which once again shows that life is inherently unfair, even in death. Why should insensate and destructive carcinomas enjoy the boon of immortality while we sentient human beings are preordained to decline and ultimate oblivion?
Posted on July 16, 2014 - 9:02am