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DA BOM: The Best of Microbiology News 2020 Year Round-Up: Microbial Venusians, COVID19 and CRISPR

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

Throughout 2020, we have gathered a number of fascinating stories that revolve around what microbiology is and highlighted some intriguing articles about microbiology. To wrap up the end of the year, we present to you our favorite and most influential microbiology news stories of 2020. So, without further adieu, let’s explore December’s Da Bom.

Best of Microbiology News 2020 Year Round-Up As A Cartoon

If you don't have the time to read, take a listen to our Science Podcast: The Microbe Moment

Microbiology News: Extremophiles & Space ‘Crobes

How floating microbes could live in the acid clouds of Venus

Finding Life on Other Planets Using Biological Markers

  • Exoplanet studies include looking for biosignature gases or gases that are made from life. In January 2020 A team wanted to see if phosphine could be a biological marker.

  • Most phosphine comes from biological sources on earth and is associated with anaerobic life due to its presence in anaerobic ecosystems.

  • The team simulated planets with anaerobic atmospheres and found phosphine could reach detectable levels “provided there is a high production rate.” They concluded that phosphine is a possible marker as there are no known sources of production outside of life that can generate the levels needed to be detected.

How Microbes Could Live on Venus

  • Venus has extreme conditions such as sulfuric acid and temperatures as high as 187℃ (368℉), but in August 2020 Dr. Seager published a paper theorizing that life could live in Venus’s lower cloud layers having habitable conditions for life such as extremophiles with temperatures around 60℃ (140℉).

  • The hypothetical life cycle has microbes living in sulfuric acid droplets which eventually rain down to Venus. The sulfuric acid would evaporate and, to protect itself, the microbes enter a protective state (spore) to survive the heat. Updrafts would blow the spores back up to the lower cloud layers returning the microbes back to an active state.

  • Earth has a similar life cycle in the “cloud-biome,” microbes get swept from the earth and float in the air only to come down via water droplets when it rains.

Phosphine Found on Venus

  • A team reported in September of 2020 of the detection of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus

  • All known non-life production of phosphine could not be the cause as Venus’s atmosphere quickly oxidizes the molecule, meaning that to overcome this something else needs to be producing it in quantities to be detected, possibly life. However, this may not be true….

  • In an editor’s note in November “The authors have informed the editors of Nature Astronomy about an error in the original processing of the ALMA Observatory data underlying the work in this Article, and that recalibration of the data has had an impact on the conclusions that can be drawn.” This means that the teams’ findings may have been wrong and may not have detected phosphine as others have suggested. Leaving the scientific community divided.

Microbiology News: Pathogen Profiles & Medical Microbiology - The COVID-19 Vaccines

  • Every year the editors and writers at Science magazine come together and choose what is the biggest breakthrough in Science. This year it was the COVID-19 vaccines.

  • These vaccines come to market just 11 months after the sequencing of SARS-CoV-2. Normally this process can take 10+ years! A phenomenal achievement that took an immense amount of man-power and collaborations that helped cut through a lot of the red tape.

Coronavirus Biology and replications: Implications for SARS-CoV-2: Philip V’kovski, Annika Kratzel, Silvio Steiner, Hanspeter Stalder, and Volker Thiel - Nature Reviews: Microbiology

  • What is SARS-CoV-2? It’s part of the Coronavirus (CoVs) family. Members of this family all have enveloped single-stranded RNA viruses. These are not new to the world just the first truly global pandemic. Coronavirus is responsible for the common cold, SARS (2002-2003), and MERS (2012) outbreaks that we’ve seen in the past 20 years.

  • The first coronavirus was discovered in 1931 and was an avian virus. It would be more than 30 years before the first human coronavirus was discovered.

  • So while the SARS-CoV-2 virus is novel, the research into this family of viruses is not new.

  • These viral particles are made up of just three main components, the membrane, the envelope, and surface/spike protein- which is what attaches to our own cells and causes an infection.

  • According to John Hopkins University as of this week, there had been over 80 million global cases of the disease with 1,767043 people have died because of this pandemic across the world, and 45,783,721 have reported recovering from the disease.

What are Vaccines?

  • Most Vaccines we have are either weakened (attenuated) forms like MMR and chickenpox. Other vaccines are inactive (killed) vaccines like whooping cough (pertussis) and polio.

  • The leading vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna are both messenger RNA vaccines and carry the genetic code for the spike protein of the virus. Both vaccines have an efficacy of ~95%. Flu vaccine typically has a 60% efficacy.

  • mRNA vaccine is a new type of vaccine- but researchers have been studying them for decades for diseases like flu, Zika, and rabies.

  • They are advantageous because they can easily be scaled up and can be developed faster than traditional methods.

  • Beth Skwarecki, on Lifehacker. With the mRNA vaccines, your body is trained to make just 1 of 29 SARS-CoV-2 proteins. This allows the body to make antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, protecting you once your body sees the real virus.

Who’s Next

  • On Sunday, December 20, 2020 the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted and passed on who should get the first 100 million doses of the vaccine between now and February 2021. These doses will be rolled out in phases.

  • Phase 1a: health care workers and long-term care facilities (~24 million people)

  • Phase 1b: (starts in January 2021) adults 75+ and essential workers like teachers, firefighters, grocery store workers, and prison officers (~49 million people)

  • Phase 1c: Adults 65+ and people with people at higher risk due to underlying medical conditions (129 million people)

  • Phase 2: (spring 2021) everyone else.

Coping With Public Distrust

  • There is still a huge barrier to the vaccine “buy-in” from the public. The past year has been flooded with misinformation causing mistrust and hesitancy around the vaccine. Many social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube have struggled to put policies into place that stop the spread of harmful misinformation around vaccines for years.

  • In a recent post from Karen DeSalvo, MD, M.P.H. the Chief Health Officer at Google Health, and Kristie Canegallo, Google VP of Trust & Safety said, the company has pledged $1 billion to help with education purposes around the vaccine. Including $250 million in Ad Grants to help governments give PSAs on the vaccines.

  • Google is also launching a new feature that will help users find which vaccines are authorized in their location.

  • Dr. Fauci, who celebrates his 80th Birthday on New Year’s Eve, assured kids that Santa Claus is vaccinated against COVID-19 and good to go for Christmas!

Microbiology News: Biotech & Microbial Products

The Nobel Prize Awarded for CRISPR Technology

What is CRISPR:

  • It is an acronym that stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats

  • It is a system of genetic scissors that can modify the DNA of many plants/animals/microbes. This system is used in science today to swap out mutations in DNA for the correct DNA sequence (repair), insert or delete a fragment of DNA to make a “non-function” gene or a gene that can no longer work

  • It was found in bacteria and is their “immune system” against viruses. Bacteria take a piece of viral DNA and add it to a specific area of the bacterial genome which is used as a memory and when the virus invades again the memory is used by the bacteria and cuts the viral DNA so it no longer can replicate.

Who Was Awarded the Prize:

  • Emmanuelle Charpentier of Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, Germany, and Jennifer A. Doudna of University of California, Berkeley, USA was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry by the Royal Sweedish Academy of Sciences in October of this year.

  • The award was “for the development of a method for genome editing” by developing a way to utilize the CRISPR system.

  • The two collaborated and were able to simplify the molecular components of the CRISPR system and recreate it in a test tube and demonstrated that they could program this system to cut DNA at a predetermined site.

How CRISPR Is Used

  • Several genetically modified crops including crops resistant to mold, apples that don’t brown when cut, tomatoes that produce 5x more GABA than normal, have all been developed with CRISPR and help increase crop yield.

  • Many proofs of concepts have been achieved for agriculture and human disease treatment using CRISPR.

  • There has even been a small group of people that underwent CRISPR treatment. One, Victoria Grey, was the first person treated for sickle cell disease and has shown improvement including a reduction in pain associated with it.

The CRISPR Patent Dispute

  • Jennifer published a paper in 2013 demonstrating that the CRISPR system can make changes in animal DNA. However, Feng Zhang from the Broad Institute published similar findings a month prior specifically looking at testing human cells.

  • UC Berkeley and the University of Vienna are in a patent dispute with the Broad Institute. UC Berkley and the University of Vienna filed the patent first, while the Broad Institute filled second, but paid for a fast-track review (this would grant them the patent first. The main argument by the Broad Institute is that they question if it’s clear the method devised by Jennifer and Emmanuelle was able to be implemented in human cells.

  • This dispute has not been resolved as of yet...

Those were our picks! What do you think is the greatest microbiology discovery? Tell us in a comment below!

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