Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Holiday Recipes

Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday break. Mine was very relaxing.

One of my favorite activities was cooking, paired with food photography -- which, you may think is obvious and easy but it's not! Something that looks inviting may turn out to be totally meh in a picture. Here are some of my best shots (with recipes), but I also threw away many shots that turned out very bad. I think the best for food photography is a good macro lens that enhances textures and good eyes for surroundings, like a nice table cloth and simple china/silverware, for example. The highlight needs to be the food itself, so avoid too much clutter in the picture. Enjoy!

Farfalle al Salmone

This is one of our favorite dishes for the holidays: Farfalle al Salmone. For this one, you'll need a package of smoked salmon, fresh chives, a box of bowtie pasta, creme freche or half and half, butter and 1 lemon.

Cut the smoked salmon in small pieces, sautee' it for a few minutes in a pan with melted butter, then add about half a cup of creme fraiche or 1/2 and 1/2. Simmer a few minutes until the cream is thick. For an even creamier texture, add two tablespoons of mascarpone. In the meantime, cook the farfalle al dente, drain them, then toss them in the pan with the salmon. Season to taste with pepper and salt (though usually the smoked salmon is already salty). Mix well, then serve with chopped chives and lemon zest on top.

Spinach-filled Baguette

I got the above recipe from a friend and modified it slightly: spinach-filled baguette. Makes a fantastic appetizer. You'll need one baguette, green onions, one bag of pre-washed spinach, cream cheese, shredded mozzarella, butter, parmesan cheese, olive oil, paprika flakes, nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Melt some butter in a pan, sautee' two chopped green onions, then add the spinach and season with salt, pepper, paprika, and nutmeg. stir until the spinach are wilted, then reduce the heat to low. Add about 1/3 of a cream cheese tablet, cubed, and stir until melted. Remove the pan from the stove and add about 1/2 cup of shredded mozzarella and 4 tablespoons of parmesan cheese. 

Prepare the baguette: cut it in fourths, hollow them, then slice them without separating the slices. This will make it easier to separate the slices when serving without squeezing out the filling. Spoon the filling inside, then sprinkle the top with olive oil and parmesan cheese. Wrap the baguette fourths in aluminum foil and bake at 350 for 20 minutes.  

Penne alla Crema di Spinaci

Finally, I had some leftover of the spinach filling from the recipe above. It was a bit too thick, so I added some 1/2 and 1/2 and then tossed over some penne pasta. It was delicious !!!!

Hope you enjoy these recipes, if you end up making them let me know and send me some pictures too. :-) Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy Holidays from Chimeras

Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for a 

peaceful, joyous, and healthy New Year.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Scientists reproduce a stress-induced phenotype in mouse pups thanks to epigenetic reprogramming

© Elena E. Giorgi

I'm excited to be blogging about science again, albeit only occasionally. Those of you who have been following the blog from its very beginnings, back in 2011, know that I've always been fascinated with epigenetics, one of my favorite topics to discuss. So much so that I've managed to include it into the plot of my detective thriller Chimeras. The thrills in the book are fictional, but the science is all real.

I was talking with my colleague Karissa Sanbonmatsu last week, who's been working on RNA and epigenetics since the early 2000s, and she was telling me how the field is still riddled with controversy. There's more and more evidence that environmentally triggered traits like stress, fat storage, and the propensity to acquire certain diseases can be passed on from one generation to the next via activated epigenetic marks, yet many scientists still refuse to believe it. How can things that are not encoded in the DNA be transmitted to the new generation? Germ cells carry epigenetic signatures that have been shaped by the environmental exposures from the parents, but how are these signatures communicated across generations?

A little background.
Our cells carry long bits of RNA that sense molecules and their changes in concentrations. Depending on the environmental exposures they find, they recruit epigenetic factors that then activate certain genes and/or deactivate others. This happens by inducing changes in the chromatin, the big yarn of DNA that sits inside the nucleus. When a gene needs to be activated, the big yarn moves until that particular gene is exposed on the surface and then translated into proteins. On the other hand, to silence the gene, the chromosome move around again and "hide" the gene deep inside the chromatin. RNA molecule act as regulators of these mechanisms, "deciding" which genes to activate and which ones to silence.

A recent study published on PNAS sheds new light on the mechanisms that communicate epigenetic marks from the germ line to the offspring, proving that epigenetic signatures acquired by the parents can be passed onto the offspring. Rodgers et al., from the University of Pennsylvania, used a mouse model to establish the following points:

  • First, they exposed male mice to chronic stress prior to breeding, and then observed reprogramming of certain genes in the hypothalamus of the offspring;
  • Second, they looked at the sperm of the stressed mice and compared it to the sperm of non-stressed mice; they found a change in content of micro RNAs (miRNAs), and 9 miRNA molecules in particular were found in much higher concentrations in the stressed mice's sperm [1]. Rodger et al. hypothesized that the 9 miRNAs were responsible for the genetic reprogramming induced by the chronic stress exposure and passed on through the paternal line.

To prove it, they injected the 9 miRNAs into single-cell zygotes that were then implanted into normal female mice, raised with no stress exposure, and then examined to see if they presented the same stress phenotype observed in the stressed male's offspring. Indeed, expression of the target genes in the hypothalamus was reduced in the mice that originated from these zygotes, and the expression patterns observed in these mice recapitulated what they had observed in the offspring of the stressed mice.

This study, published in PNAS last october [2], is a milestone in epigenetics, as it finally shows a molecular mechanism that allows genetic reprogramming in the parent to be transmitted to the offspring.

As a final thought, I want to toss in my two cents on the debated rise of autism spectrum and ADHD disorders currently observed in the Western world. Of course, there's the caveat that the diagnostic methods have changed drastically in the past few decades. Still, the increase seems real and the sad truth is that there's probably more than one cause, and the causes lie not just in what the child has been exposed to, but, once you throw in epigenetics into the pictures, his/her parents and grandparents as well. My parents for example grew up at the peak use of asbestos, DDT, and lead in paint. Yes, they survived and, knock on wood, they are quite healthy in fact. But I do fear that we will carry the consequences of those exposures for a few more generations. And who knows what the current exposure to the massive use of corn syrup and antibiotics will do to future generations. Food for thought.

[1] Rodgers AB, Morgan CP, Bronson SL, Revello S, & Bale TL (2013). Paternal stress exposure alters sperm microRNA content and reprograms offspring HPA stress axis regulation. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33 (21), 9003-12 PMID: 23699511

[2] Rodgers, A., Morgan, C., Leu, N., & Bale, T. (2015). Transgenerational epigenetic programming via sperm microRNA recapitulates effects of paternal stress Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1508347112

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Fog !!!!

Fog doesn't happen very often here in the Southwest, so when it does descend upon us, I feel like I just hit the jackpot. We had a nice snowstorm over the week-end and as soon as the fog rolled in, I grabbed the camera and ran out. I even chanced on a nice, friendly crow. :-)

A few hours and layers of textures later, this is what I have to share. Prints available here.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Hunting for the signatures of cancer

Today I'm proud to introduce you to a talented postdoctoral fellow in my own group at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. No, I had nothing to do with his work, which is why I can discuss it without any competing interests. Ours is the Theoretical Biology group, and what that means is that we do biology from a purely theoretical perspective: we design analytical models and analyze data from experiments. Sounds trivial, but it's not, and it takes the joint forces of people coming from the most disparate fields to do what we do: in our group, you'll find physicists, immunologists, biologists, statisticians, mathematicians, and then more physicists.

The particular research I want to discuss today involves looking at the genomes of cancer cells. Perhaps the most famous mutations associated with cancer are the ones found in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. These are germline mutations, i.e. mutations that are found in certain people from birth. Women who have these mutations in the BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 genes have a 60% higher chance of developing breast cancer during their lifetime than those who don't (and yet 80% of breast cancers are not associated to these mutations, see this older post for more details on that).

DNA has a certain likelihood to accumulate new random mutations every time the cell divides. These are called somatic mutations, i.e. mutations that aren't present at birth, but arise as we age. Some environmental exposures like smoking and radiation can also cause somatic mutations. Cancer tissue, as you can imagine, is riddled with somatic mutations, but, as it turns out, the mutations differ from cancer to cancer, and also depending on what exposure caused the disease. For example, certain mutational patterns occur most frequently in lung cancer caused by smoking, while others in skin cancers caused by ultraviolet light. These mutational patterns become "signatures" of a particular cancer, and the question is: can we predict the prognosis of the disease based on these signatures? Can we find specific treatments that work for specific signatures?

Some drugs are already in use that work only with cancer tissues that have specific receptors.

Ludmil Alexandrov, a postdoc in my group, used the incredible wealth of DNA sequencing data from tumor tissues to develop a mathematical framework that analyzes the different mutational patterns of each single cell genomes and explore how these signatures developed over time. As Alexandrov wrote in his recent article [1] in Science:
"I curated the majority of publicly available data and compiled a data set encompassing ~5 million somatic mutations from the mutational catalogs of 7042 primary cancers of 30 different classes. These data revealed the existence of 21 distinct mutational signatures in human cancer. Some were present in many cancer types, [. . .] others were confined to a single cancer class."
Because of this work, which he developed during his graduate research at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Ludmil won the Science and SciLifeLab prize for young scientists (awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Science Magazine) and the 2015 Weintraub Award for Graduate Research. In his own words,
"In summary, my Ph.D. thesis provided a basis for deciphering mutational signatures from cancer genomics data and developed the first comprehensive census of mutational signatures in human cancer. The results reveal the diversity of mutational processes underlying the development of cancer and have far-reaching implications for understanding cancer etiology, as well as for developing cancer prevention strategies and novel targeted cancer therapies."
Congratulations, Ludmil, well deserved!

[1] Alexandrov, L. (2015). Understanding the origins of human cancer Science, 350 (6265), 1175-1177 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad7363

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Greeting cards and 2016 calendar

I promise, I'm not using the blog as a plug, but every year I make my own greeting cards and calendar, and, given how many people ask me, this year I decided to make them available for purchase to anyone who's interested. And I learned something new: you can customize almost anything on and make it available for purchase.

So, yes, I now have my own store.

If you head over there, you'll find my 2016 calendar, which features my best shots of the year, all taken in the beautiful American Southwest:

The actual price is $22.50 plus shipping. And you can even customize it!
Purchase here

I also have blank holiday cards available, made with my own pictures and blank inside (but you can customize them with whatever message you want). Until midnight tonight you can use the code GETYOURCARDS and save 75% off cards and 20% off everything else.

Thanks for visiting my store, enjoy! :-)

As always, high quality prints and home decor with my images are available for purchase here and here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Cover reveal: White Light by Anna Simpson

White Light by Anna Simpson
Publisher: Three Worlds Press
Genre: Cozy
Release Date: December 22/2015

Today I'm celebrating my friend Anna Simpson's (a.k.a Emaginette) cover reveal for her new book, White Light, coming from Three World Press on Dec. 22, right in time for Christmas. :-)

About The Book:

Emma never dreamed of being a super-sleuth. In her mind, she’s more Scooby Doo than Nancy Drew and when her nosy neighbor, Mrs. Perkins, drags her to an anniversary party to solve a mystery, she rolls her eyes, buys a box of chocolates and hops in the car.
What’s a party without an attack on its host—or more accurately on the host’s grandson, sparking an allergic reaction and moving the party to the hospital waiting room. Suddenly, everyone is a suspect. Emma and Mrs. Perkins, along with Great Aunt Alice (a spirit with boundary issues who keeps stepping into Emma’s body like a new dress and playing matchmaker), dive into an investigation that almost gets Emma killed along with the man they are trying to protect. With so many reasons to kill him and so much to be gained if he died, Emma and Mrs. Perkins must unravel the tenuous ties that point to every member of his family as potential killers. 
Even if it means going back to the psych ward, Emma will protect her friend and this innocent man. What good is freedom if it's haunted with guilt?
Please join me in congratulating Anna! And go pay her a visit, her blog is filled with tips and resources for writers:

About the Author:

Anna Simpson lives near the Canadian-US border with her family. Even though she's lived in several places in British Columbia, her free spirit wasn't able to settle down until she moved back to her hometown.

She is easy to find though, if you know the magic word -- emaginette. Do an internet search using it and you'll see what I mean. :-)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

December Discounted and FREE sci-fi books: awesome reads and a special giveaway!

This is part of a monthly feature with new releases and free/discounted books available for Kindle and other eReaders. If you enjoy these posts and would like to see more, please let me know in the comments. I might set up a mailing list for these if there's enough interest.

Amazon Best-Seller CassaStar by Alex J. Cavanaugh is on sale all week for .99 cents only.

To pilot the fleet’s finest ship... Few options remain for Byron. A talented but stubborn young man with a troubled past and rebellious attitude, his cockpit skills are his only hope. Slated to train as a Cosbolt fighter pilot, Byron is determined to prove his worth and begin a new life as he sets off for the moon base of Guaard.

Get Book 1 for 99 cents.
Alex J. Cavanaugh's website..

Delirium, the first episode of Susan Kaye Quinn's nine-part serial the Debt Collector, is FREE.

What’s your life worth on the open market? In this gritty future-noir, debt collectors take your life energy and give it to someone more “worthy”… all while paying the price with black marks on their souls.

Get it for FREE.
Susan Kaye Quinn's website.

Book 1 in Chris Reher's Targon Tales series, The Catalyst, is on sale for 99 cents only.

It's no easy tour of duty for Lt. Nova Whiteside when her interstellar transport is taken by pirates and she is then tagged for termination. Could it have something to do with the mysterious alien they were transporting? Having gone from merely MIA to technically AWOL, any chance of escape leaves her no choice but to rely on Sethran Kada, a former lover, for help.

Get it for 99 cents.
Chris Reher's website.

Harvey Click's supernatural thriller Demon Frenzy is on sale for 99 cents only.

Sometimes going home again is a lot like going to hell. Searching for her lost brother, Amy Jackson returns to her isolated hometown in the Appalachian Mountains. But Blackwood has changed. Now it’s run by a mysterious drug lord who has something more lethal than guns to protect him.

Get it for 99 cents.
Harvey Click's website.

Soul Breaker, the first book in Clara Coulson's paranormal series City of Crows, is on sale for 99 cents only.

There’s a hideous monster on the loose, crushing heads and taking names. But Detective Calvin Kinsey is on the case! Two years ago, Cal Kinsey was an up-and-coming cop in the Aurora Police Department. But during a fateful nighttime stakeout in search of a prolific killer, Cal witnessed the darkest corner of his dreams come to life. A rogue vampire slaughtered his partner—to put it nicely—and introduced Cal to the supernatural world he never knew existed in the shadows.

Get it for 99 cents only.
Clara Coulson's website.

The galaxy Chronicles, the latest installment in the anthology series the Future Chronicles, is out!

Space. Some call it the ultimate frontier. Humans are the verge of breaking its bonds with Earth and reaching other planets, other worlds, other galaxies. And when we do, will we go forth in peace? Or take with us our conflicts, our battles, our wars?

Get The Galaxy Chronicles.
See the full Future Chronicle series here.

A.K. Meek's new book, Acme's Menagerie, is on sale for 99 cents only. Foreword by the producer of the Future Chronicles, Samuel Peralta. 

Based on the short story Menagerie. The Acme Corporation has finally released their newest product line, Menagerie, robotic animals. It quickly becomes the latest rage in the golden city of Corinth.

Get it for 99 cents only.
A.K. Meek's website.

And, for more science-fiction fun and celebrations ...

Too many days to Star Wars and no Precious Hobbitses this year. What's a fan to do?

foxtrotOh, but it so was
Don't growl like a Wampa from boredom, come visit us at the Celebrate Imagination event on Facebook. This Saturday, December 5, from 8 am to midnight EST. Meet a bunch of great science fiction and fantasy authors, pick up some free and discount books to get you through the long winter months until the X men and Star Trek come out. Maybe even win a brand new Kindle Fire HD 6, just by joining the fun!

We'll be running trivia games, telling jokes that the cool kids would never dare to tell, and drinking nog in our ugly red and green sweaters.

Remember to check out our site before Saturday to get a jump on some great novels, short stories and audiobooks. All are great deals, some are even free! And start racking up those entries for that kindle fire!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Hope to see you there!


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

December IWSG

This is a monthly event started by the awesome Alex J. Cavanaugh and organized by the Insecure Writer's Support Group. Click here to find out more about the group and sign up for the next event.

As I was wondering what to write about this month, I realized my insecurities lately have actually been around my photography. Why? Because I had a show at the local gallery and people started noticing my portraits. So... I started getting client requests, and that's very exciting but also unnerving. Exciting because I LOVE to take portraits, and clients == free models. But it also makes me a little nervous because if you hire me to take a portrait, I won't just grab my camera and click. I edit. I make the colors pop, I blur the background until it's no longer distracting, and I tweak the light until it's perfect.

Today's phones take awesome pictures. You can get an awesome camera for $200. So, if you hire me to take your portrait, I want to make sure that whatever pictures you get are nothing like something you would've shot with your phone. This makes me nervous because there's a great amount of subjectivity that goes with editing, and so I always wonder, "What if my clients don't like the final product?"

Why am I telling all this to you guys? Because I think the same holds for writing. See, when I take a picture, I want it to be memorable. I want it to be something that you want to hang on your wall and smile every time you see it. The same goes with books. If we're just going to write the story of our life, anybody can do that. It's like snapping a shot with an iphone, right? If we want somebody to buy our books, we need to write something big, something epic, something that makes people smile, cry, laugh, and bite their lip...

Easy for me to say, right? Well, I haven't written that book yet... but I'm working on it!! How about you? ;-)

Some of my portraits