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exploring spermatogenesis

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Canto: So If Charles Darwin was alive today, he’d be gobsmacked at the facts derived from the ‘random variation’ end of his theory of natural selection from random variation. I’m talking about genes, DNA, genetic recombination and all that we know about meiosis and mitosis, spermatogenesis and oogenesis, genomics and epigenetics, mitochondrial DNA, ribosomes, mRNA, proteins and the like, none of which I’m particularly knowledgeable about – but surely even what I know about it all would make Darwin’s head explode.

Jacinta: Yes, and of course Darwin did all his studies on phenotypes, a term he would never have heard. He studied pigeons, finches, barnacles, fossils and a wide variety of plants. But he was never able to ‘crack the code’ of random variation. Why did offspring differ from parents? Why did those offspring vary from the utterly dysfunctional to the super-functional? For a time he considered pangenesis, his coinage, as a solution. This involved ‘gemmules’ inherited from both parents, blended together and somehow modified by the environment, presumably in a Lamarckian way. So Darwin never quite cracked the code of inheritance as we understand it today, but the work with plants which occupied his last years – allowing him to avoid the acrimony around human origins surrounding the publication of On the origin of species – produced important results for the understanding of plant reproductive biology. Take this quote from the Smithsonian magazine:

Darwin designed highly rigorous experiments and made predictions—which turned out to be correct—using his theory of natural selection. For example, he predicted that the myriad floral adaptations he saw existed to ensure that flowers were outcrossed, or fertilized by individuals other than themselves. He then tested this hypothesis with over a decade of pollination experiments and found that self-pollination leads to lower fitness and higher sterility. Inbred plants, like inbred animals, don’t fare well, at least over time—a phenomenon that’s now known as inbreeding depression.

Canto: Right, but let’s not get bogged down in the history of reproductive biology and the birth of genetics here, as it’s hard enough for me to comprehend meiosis and mitosis, gametes and zygotes and all the rest, as we understand it all today. We’ve previously written about meiosis, but I want to understand, or to begin to understand, in this post, how the process of producing gametes is so different in male and female mammals.

Jacinta: Okay, so we’re talking about gametogenesis. The male gametes are called sperm, the female gametes are called eggs, and so have two forms of gametogenesis, spermatogenesis and oogenesis. In this post I’ll focus on the male, saving the best for another post. So sperm is formed in the testes…

Canto: The ballsacks?

Jacinta: Uhh, well, the sack is just the sack, also known as the scrotum. Inside, you’ll find a testicle, hopefully. And as you well know there are, ideally, two of them. That is, two sacks, each with its testicle. And a testicle is about as complex as any other piece of biological machinery – a lifetime’s learning worth. Take this illustration, courtesy of ken

Note the seminiferous tubules above. That’s where the sperm is formed, first by the mitotic division of a spermatogonial stem cell…

Canto: Eh what? How did they get in there?

Jacinta: Okay let me try to understand this for myself, but I may get more and more bogged down. It all begins at the beginning, during the early stages of male foetal development. The primordial germ cells differentiate in the testis, in these seminiferous tubules… But let me first fast forward to the end of the process and describe a complete, mature sperm cell or spermatozoon. That’s an active, motile sperm – plural spermatozoa, or just plain sperm. It’s divided into three parts, essentially, the head, the midpiece and the tail. At the head we find the acrosome and the tightly packed nucleus. The midpiece contains the mitochondria. which provides energy for the sperm’s motility, and the tail is essentially the flagellum, the sperm’s outboard motor, so to speak.

Canto: Okay, so that’s the end product – get back to the spermatogonial stem cells and the seminiferous tubules.

Jacinta: Fine. Spermatogonia are undifferentiated male germ cells, or sperm cells. It’s hard to find a simplified, but not overly simplified, explanation of how pluripotent or totipotent stem cells become germ cells, or any other cells for that matter, but it begins in the embryo. A cell signalling process in the embryo induces a small, transient proportion of the cell mass, the primitive streak, to become primordial germ cells (PGCs), along with other cells. This process is called gastrulation, in which the embryo begins to differentiate into distinct cell lineages. For the PGCs, according to a paper cited in Wikipedia, ‘The specification of primordial germ cells in mammals is mainly attributed to the downstream functions of two signaling pathways; the BMP signaling pathway and the canonical Wnt/β-catenin pathway’. This is essentially about regulatory proteins, I think.

Canto: This is getting too complicated for me. How come that second pathway is canonical?

Jacinta: See, you are paying attention. That Wnt/beta-catenin pathway gets a lot of attention in scientific papers, because we know that its deregulation is a problem in serious diseases and cancers. Basically these pathways are essential for embryonic development. The terms ‘canonical’ and ‘noncanonical’ are terms of art used to describe the standard production of Wnt proteins for development or homeostasis, and less well-known, or later-discovered pathways. I think. Anyway, let’s get back to spermatogonia, of which there are three types – A dark, A pale and B. The A dark spermatogonia are the reserves, and they don’t generally go through the mitosis process – they remain dormant. The A pale cells (so called because they have pale nuclei compared to the A dark cells) undergo mitosis to become the type B cells, which grow and develop to become primary spermatocytes, a process called spermatocytogenesis, truly. All of this occurs, as mentioned, in the seminiferous tubules of the testes, and begins at puberty.

Canto: Okay so how do these primary spermatocytes differ from spermatozoa, or how do they become spermatozoa?

Jacinta: The primary spermatocytes are diploid cells, so they need to undergo meiosis to become gametes. After meiosis 1, two haploid cells are formed, called secondary spermatocytes. And of course, being diploid cells undergoing that first process of meiosis, there’s this crossing over or recombination that occurs, shuffling the deck so to speak. And this is followed by meiosis 2, replicating the haploid cells, and so forth. But you ask how the spermatozoa are formed as an end product, so I need to take us back to those tubules in the testes. They’re packed with particular cells called Sertoli cells, and just outside the tubules are Leydig cells, which produce testosterone. Anyway, once these sperm cells have developed further they travel up to the epididymis via the rete testis, where they continue to mature, ready for ejaculation. They reach the rete testis, and presumably also the epididymis, by means of peristalsis, which you’ll know about from the intestines and other parts of the body.

Canto: Sort of. You think you know about stuff until you find out what you don’t know, which is overwhelmingly vast. Mais, continue..

Jacinta: So the last transformations, making them those mobile little tadpole-like critters, occur in the epididymis. But returning to those tubules. There are lots of Sertoli cells in there, and the sperm is developed in the gaps between them, strangely enough, but they acquire nutrients from those cells to help them along. Their journey between the cells takes them from the outer membrane of the tubule to the lumen. At the beginning of this journey they’re called spermatogonia. They’re going to go through this differentiating process to finally become spermatozoa. Now I’ve already partially described the first step, when a spermatogonium divides by mitosis, into two cells, one of which is kept in reserve, the Ad or ‘dark’ cell. The Ap or ‘pale’ cells continue on the pathway between the Sertoli cells towards the lumen, somehow becoming B cells – don’t know how that happens, but it involves mitosis, perhaps with nutrients from the Sertoli cells. I think, because the process of mitosis is continuous, those reserve cells are left behind all along the pathway. Or maybe not. But that pathway is obstructed along the way by ‘tight junctions’ between the Sertoli cells, which create separate compartments as they open and close before and behind the sperm cells (which are now called primary spermatocytes) like locks in a canal. Now these compartments, called basal and lumenal compartments, aren’t empty, they’re full of chemicals, signalling proteins and such, a different mix for each compartment, which add to the spermatocyte’s development. So the sperm grows as it travels along this pathway, accumulating more cytoplasm. And the junctions close very tightly after the sperm moves through, to prevent leakage into the next chemical environment. Now, somewhere along this pathway between the Sertoli cells, the primary spermatocyte is ready to divide into two secondary spermatocytes via meiosis, a very different form of cell division from mitosis.

Canto: Yes, meiosis has those two parts, ending with four haploid cells from one diploid cell, and genetic recombination to make us all unique.

Jacinta; Okay, moving right along, so to speak, those four haploid cells are now called spermatids, and they continue to mature in the lumen. They’re still not motile, they’re rounded cells at first, but they go through lots of changes, to the conformation of the DNA, for example, with histone proteins being replaced by protamines. We’re now entering the final processes, known as spermiogenesis, which I think occurs after transportation to the epididymis. The cytoplasm is removed, the acrosomal cap is formed, and the other structures I mentioned at the outset, the mitochondrial spiral and the fibres that form the flagellum, all take shape. This whole process, from spermatogonia to spermatozoa, takes about 65 days.

Canto: Okay, that’s enough of all that, I don’t particularly want to learn about seminal fluids and ejaculation at this point, fascinating though that might be – I’m more interested in the female stuff, the generation of eggs, known as oogenesis.

Jacinta: So that for you to detail in a future post.


Spermatogenesis | Reproductive system physiology | NCLEX-RN | Khan Academy (video)

Written by stewart henderson

June 28, 2022 at 3:21 pm

exploring meiosis

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Canto: So I’m trying to get my head around meiosis in general, and how the parental chromosomes get assorted in the process. I understand that Mendel arrived at his law or principle of independent assortment by noting the resultant phenotypes from particular crosses, especially dihybrid crosses. He knew nothing about gametes and meiosis, an understanding of which didn’t get underway until a decade or more after his 1865 experiments…

Jacinta: Well, meiosis is a v v amazing process that deserves lots of attention, because if not for, etc….

Canto: But what is meiosis for, I don’t even understand that.

Jacinta: It’s for the production of gametes – the sperm and egg cells in mammals. And that’s interesting, because, according to Medical News Today, ‘Females are born with all the eggs they will ever have in their lifetime. The amount decreases until a person stops ovulating and reaches menopause’. According to a graph they present, the number of egg cells produced is at its peak long before birth, and has reduced about tenfold by the time of birth, to about one or two million. This number continues to reduce through life, though it remains relatively stable during the period of ‘optimum fertility’ from about ages 18 to 31, when the number of eggs is around 200,000, with a lot of individual variation.

Canto: So, meiosis occurs entirely while the infant is in the womb? For females at least. And what exactly is ovulation?

Jacinta: Yes, egg cells don’t regenerate like other cells. Remember, tens of billions of our somatic cells die every day, and are being replaced – mostly. As to ovulation, this occurs as part of the menstrual cycle, which occurs with females at puberty. During menstruation, mature eggs are released from the ovaries, which are on the left and right sides of the uterus and connected to it by the fallopian tubes.

Canto: What do you mean by mature eggs? Aren’t they always mature?

Jacinta: Hmmm. Detour after detour. Four phases are recognised in the menstrual cycle – menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. It’s the follicular phase that produces mature eggs, through the release of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) by the pituitary gland. Do you want me to go into detail?

Canto: No, let’s get back to meiosis – but I always knew there was something fshy about the menstrual cycle. So meiosis is about haploid cells producing more haploid cells? You mentioned that egg cells, which are haploid cells, are at their peak long before the birth of a female child, a peak of around 10 million. But where does the first haploid cell come from, when a child starts as one fertilised egg – a diploid cell? Haploid cells combining to form diploid cells is one amazing process, but diploid cells separating to form haploid cells?

Jacinta: Okay so here’s what I think is happening. A human being starts as a diploid cell, a fertilised egg. As cells differentiate, which happens quite early, some become germ cells. But they’re diploid cells, like all the others, not haploid cells. So meiosis starts with diploid cells.

Canto: Okay, so what differentiates a germ cell from other somatic diploid cells?

Jacinta: I don’t know, just as I don’t know what makes a pluripotent or totipotent cell become a brain cell or a blood cell or whatever. This presumably has a lot to do with genetics, epigenetics and the production of endless varieties of proteins that make stuff, including germ cells. Which presumably are not egg cells or sperm cells, which are haploid cells, or gametes. And these germ cells can undergo mitosis, to reproduce themselves, or meiosis, to produce gametes. So now, at last, we describe the process, and much of this comes from Khan Academy. There are two ’rounds’ of meiosis – M1 and M2 – each of which has a number of phases. In M1 the diploid cell is split into two haploid cells each with 23 chromosomes, and in M2 the haploid cells reproduce as haploid cells, so that at the end of the cycle you have four haploid cells. And in each of these ’rounds’ there are the four phases, prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telophase. PMAT is how to remember it. And then there’s interphase, where cells just going on being themselves and doing whatever they do – though it’s important to know what happens during interphase for these other stages.

Canto: The complexity of it all is fairly mind blowing. Molecules that have a code for making proteins that perform all these functions that produce a huge variety of cells every one of which – apart from the gametes – has a nucleus containing 23 chromosomes from your mother and 23 from your father. Trillions of them!

Jacinta: Yes, it’s certainly amazing – and billions of those cells die and are replaced every day. And not just in humans but in dogs and bonobos and cetaceans and whatnot.

Canto: But here’s a thing – we’re talking about gametes, also known as germ cells, which may be female or male – sperm cells or egg cells. But sperm are also known as spermatazoa, and they’re much tinier and less complex than egg cells, and also far more numerous. Is a spermatozoon a sperm cell, or do lots of spermatozoa live in one cell, or what? One ejaculation releases – how many of these tiddlers?

Jacinta: Well sperm counts can range from about 15 million or less per millilitre of semen (that’s a low sperm count) to somewhere between 200 and 300 million. An ejaculation can vary in volume of course – generally about a teaspoon, which might be as much as 5mls. And, yes, a single sperm or spermatozoon is a male gamete, much smaller than the female ovum. So, yes, male sperm, like male political leaders, make up in numbers for what they lack in complexity.

Canto: Okay so let’s get started with PMAT and all that.

Jacinta: Well it’s all very miraculous or mind-blowing as Salman Khan rightly emphasises – to think that this complexity comes from mindless molecules and all. But here goes, and it cannot help but be a simplified description. So we start with a germ cell – and I’m not sure how this particular type of diploid cell is distinguished from other diploid cells…

Canto: Or whether, even though it’s called a germ cell, it is essentially different in male bodies as compared to female bodies, since they produce such different gametes…

Jacinta: Yeah well I’ll keep that in mind as we progress. Now we start with the interphase, during which time the chromosomes in the nucleus are synthesised. Interphase is generally subdivided into three phases, Gap 1 (G1), Synthesis (S) and Gap 2 (G2). The cell itself experiences a lot of growth during interphase.

Canto: Too vague.

Jacinta: Well I’m just getting started, but I’m not writing a book here.

Canto: Are you going to explain how the chromosomes are ‘synthesised’?

Jacinta: Probably not, this is just a summary.

Canto: I want to know about chromosome synthesis.

Jacinta: Sigh. You’re right, it sounds pretty important doesn’t it. So let’s focus in detail on interphase, which I think is much the same whether we’re looking at mitosis or meiosis.  If you consider a whole cell cycle, from its ‘birth’ – usually through mitosis – to its ‘death’ (through mitosis again? I’m not sure), 95% of its time is spent in interphase, during which it doubles in size. It is, in a sense, preparing itself for chromosomal replication and cell division. Here’s a quote from a text book, Concepts of Biology, which I found online, describing the first stage of interphase:

The first stage of interphase is called the G1 phase, or first gap, because little change is visible. However, during the G1 stage, the cell is quite active at the biochemical level. The cell is accumulating the building blocks of chromosomal DNA and the associated proteins, as well as accumulating enough energy reserves to complete the task of replicating each chromosome in the nucleus.

Canto: So it’s a clever cell, actively accumulating the material to build and replicate its particular and unique DNA – I mean unique to the particular soma that it somatically serves, along with several trillion others.

Jacinta: Actually, another source tells that the G stands for growth, which I think makes more sense. The next stage is the S or synthesis phase. Now at this stage, or the beginning of it, the chromosomes exist largely as chromatin, a kind of mixture of DNA and proteins. Histones, in particular are important proteins for packaging the DNA into a tight enough space to fit in the nucleus. I mean, 23 pairs of chromosomes doesn’t really tell you how much DNA and other molecules it all amounts to. Now, this S phase is really complicated, and summaries don’t do it justice. Here’s a quote from yet another source to kick things off:

The S phase of a cell cycle occurs during interphase, before mitosis or meiosis, and is responsible for the synthesis or replication of DNA. In this way, the genetic material of a cell is doubled before it enters mitosis or meiosis, allowing there to be enough DNA to be split into daughter cells. The S phase only begins when the cell has passed the G1 checkpoint and has grown enough to contain double the DNA. S phase is halted by a protein called p16 until this happens.

So you’re asking how these chromosomes are synthesised. Note how this says ‘synthesis or replication’, so it’s presumably about the same sort of process that occurs when cells and their chromosomes are replicated during mitosis? Here’s another passage from the same source, and I don’t pretend to understand it:

The most important event occurring in S phase is the replication of DNA. The aim of this process is to produce double the amount of DNA, providing the basis for the chromosome sets of the daughter cells. DNA replication begins at a point where regulatory pre-replication complexes are attached to the DNA in the G1 phase. These complexes act as a signal for where DNA replication should start. They are removed in the S phase before replication begins so that DNA replication doesn’t occur more than once.

Canto: Wow. That explains not much. Obviously the key to it all is the ‘regulatory pre-replication complexes’ previously attached. How could I not have known that?

Jacinta: Well let’s just say that there are known mechanisms by which DNA replication is regulated, and prevented from occurring more than once in the S phase. I’m sure all those ‘pre-replication complexes’ have been named and studied in detail by scores of geneticists. So that’s enough for now about chromosome synthesis/replication. The S phase also involves continued cell growth and the production of more proteins and enzymes for DNA synthesis. Always looking to the future. And so we move to the next phase.

Canto: Ah yes, reading ahead I see that DNA synthesis is always much the same. The DNA double helix is kind of unzipped by an enzyme called helicase, and the two single strands can be used as templates to form new and identical double strands. I’m over-simplifying of course.

Jacinta: Yes there are different processes going on to ensure that everything goes more or less smoothly, as well as to maintain cell growth outside of the genetic material. A key enzyme, DNA polymerase, binds nucleotides to the template strands using the base pairing code – A binds to T, C to G. This creates an identical new double helix of DNA.

Canto: Apparently there’s a difference between DNA replication and chromosome replication. Please explain?

Jacinta: I’m not sure if I can, but we’re talking about the replication of chromosomes in the S phase, after which each chromosome now consists of two sister chromatids (halves of a chromosome), as you see below.


In the first circle, A and B are homologous pairs. That’s to say, they’re segments of DNA, chromosomes, from each parent, though they might code differently – they might be different alleles. This is a bit complicated. Sal Khan in his video puts it this way:

Homologous pairs means that they’re not identical chromosomes, but they do code for the same genes. They might have different versions, or different alleles for a gene or for a certain trait, but they code essentially for the same kind of stuff.

Make of that what you will. I suppose it means that the homologous pair might have, say, genes for eye colour, but mum’s will code for blue, dad’s for brown. But the same kinds of genes are paired. Anyway, after replication in the S phase, you get, as above, two male and two female chromosomes, joined together in a sort of x shape. They’re joined together at that circular sort of binding site called a centromere (it’s not actually circular). The images above are misleading though, in that there are short arms and long arms leading off the centromere. You could say the centromere is off-centre. So the whole of this new x-shaped thingy is called a chromosome and each half – the right and the left – is called a chromatid. And at the four ends of the x-shaped thingy – I mean the chromosome – is a cap of repetitive DNA called a telomere.

Canto: Ah yes, I’ve heard of those and their relation to ageing…

Jacinta: Let’s not be diverted. So all of this is occurring in the nucleus, and there’s also replication of the centrosomes. Okay they’re a new structure I’m introducing, one that seems to only occur in animal-type or metazoan eukaryotic cells. They serve as microtubule organising centres (MTOCs), according to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, and which goes into great detail on the structure of these centrosomes, but for now the key is that they’re essential to the future separation of the chromatids via microtubules during prophase I. And that’s the next phase to describe. And it’s worth noting that the developments described up to now could be preliminary to meiosis or mitosis.
So, in prophase I the nuclear envelope starts to disintegrate and the pair of centrosomes are somehow pushed apart, to opposite sides of the chromosomal material, and microtubule spindles start extending from them – presumably by the magic of proteins. And another sort of magical thing happens, though I’m sure that some geneticists understand the detail of it all, which is that the homologous pairs line up on opposite sides of a kind of equator line, guided by these spindles, forming a tetrad, and this is where a process called crossing over or recombination occurs, in which the pairs exchange sections of genes. And this recombination somehow manages to avoid duplication and to maintain viability, and indeed to increase diversity. The recombination occurs at points in the chromosomes called chiasmas.
So that’s the end of prophase I. Now to metaphase 1. In this phase the nucleus has disappeared, the centromeres have completed their move to the opposite sides of the cell, and the spindle fibres of microtubules become attached to chromosomes via the kinetochores – protein structures connected to the centromeres. Here’s an interesting and useful illustration of a kinetochore.

All of this is similar to metaphase in mitosis. Then in anaphase I the homologous pairs, which remember had come together and recombined, are separated, or pulled apart, which is different from anaphase I in mitosis, where the chromosomes are split into their separate chromatids. Next comes telophase I, when the separation is complete, the facilitating microtubules break down and cytokinesis, the final separation of the chromosomes and the cytoplasm into two distinct cells, occurs. Telophase I ends with two cells and two nuclei, each containing 23 chromosomes, half of those in the original cells. They’re called daughter cells, for some reason.

Canto: Probably because son cells sounds silly.

Jacinta: Good point. So now these daughter cells start on a whole new PMAT process, which is a lot more like mitosis. Prophase II involves the disintegration of the nucleus once more, the two centrosomes start to move apart as microtubules are formed – and remember this is happening simultaneously in the two daughter cells – and then we’re into metaphase II, where the centrosomes have migrated to opposite ends of the cell, and the chromosomes line up at the ‘equator’, and the spindle fibres attach to the kinetochores of the sister chromatids. Next comes anaphase II, in which the spindle fibres draw the chromatids away from each other, as in anaphase during mitosis. And at the end of this journey they’re now treated as sister chromosomes. And all of this is happening in those two daughter cells, which start to stretch and cleave, which of course means that, in telophase II, you have cytokinesis, and the creation of new nuclear membranes, and the cytoplasm – remember that all the cytoplasm and its organelles have to be replicated too, to make, in the end four, complete haploid cells, or gametes. So that’s the potted version. There’s lots of stuff I’ve excluded, like the difference between centrosomes and centrioles, and lots of details about the cytoplasm, and there’s no doubt much more to learn (by me at least) about the crossing over that’s so essential to provide the variation that Darwin searched for in vain. Anyway, that was sort of fun and thank dog for the internet.

Canto: But I’m still confused about sperm cells and egg cells… If sperm cells are just those little tadpole things – a bunch of DNA with a flagellum, they don’t have any cytoplasm to speak of, do they?

Jacinta: Ah yes, something to look into. There’s spermatogenesis and there’s oogenesis… for a future post. It just never ends.


Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2022 at 10:25 pm

reading matters 12: food mysteries

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New Scientist 3292 July 25 2020

Jacinta: So this cover story reminds me of something I read or heard a few years back  – that if you were to list the chemical ingredients of a hen’s egg, you’d never come to the end, or something like that. 

Canto: Well you’re on the right track, the cover story is titled ‘the dark matter in your diet’, but instead of a hen’s egg it starts with garlic. Both of these commonly consumed edibles, like just about everything else we eat, contain ‘nutritional dark matter’ that scientists have only recently started to focus on, surprisingly considering that we are, to a fair degree, what we eat. 

Jacinta: Yes, so we all know that food components or nutrients are usually divided into fats, carbohydrates and proteins, though these three can be subdivided to a near-infinite degree, but there are also vitamins, minerals and other biochemical elements in various quantities, and with variously vital effects. Currently the US Dept of Agriculture (USDA) has a database of 188 nutritional components of food, under which some info is provided on many thousands of chemical elements. 

Canto: So garlic, the USDA reckons, is found in 58,055 foodstuffs, including, uhh, garlic. Raw garlic itself is described as containing 67 nutrients, both macro and micro, some of which can only be found in very minute quantities. And yet many components, such as allin, which helps to give garlic its particular odour and flavour, aren’t listed on the database. 

Jacinta: Allin is converted into allicin, through the enzyme allinase, when you crush or chop garlic. That’s when that lovely/notorious stink hits you. 

Canto: Right, and this is apparently a major problem across the whole database. They added a few dozen flavonoids – plant compounds that can lower the prevalence of cardiovascular disease – in 2003, but recent researchers have been frustrated by the many gaps, and are building their own more comprehensive database, based on their own chemical analyses. It’s called FooDB, which now lists almost 400 times the number of nutritional compounds as the USDA database. 2306 for garlic, for example, compared to the USDA’s 67. But there’s a lot of work still to be done, even on garlic. Only a tiny fraction of those compounds have been quantified – we don’t know the exact concentrations. And this is a problem for the whole of FooDB, with about 85% of compounds unquantified.

Jacinta: Sounds like we need an equivalent of the old human genome project – but for every single edible product? Nice, a few hundred lifetimes’ work, if you can get the funding. 

Canto: Well, it suggests that we’ve massively overlooked the complexity of our food – and not only the foods themselves, but their interaction with the microbes and enzymes in our body. But here’s the thing – brace yourself – some nutritionists disagree!

Jacinta: OMG! Scientists are disagreeing?

Canto: The counter-argument is that ‘dark matter’ in nutritional terms is a beat-up. That, though much research is still needed in nutritional epidemiology, in relation to particular conditions and so forth, we know what the essential nutrients are, so the ‘dark matter’, which tends to exist in ultra-minute quantities, would make little difference. But the researcher who coined the term ‘nutritional dark matter’, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, begs to differ – of course. He points out, for example, that vitamin E, or its absence, can have adverse effects at minuscule quantities, and it may be that all the flip-flopping advice we’re given about nutrition may have much to do with the gaps in our knowledge. Taking garlic again, it was found that of the 67 compounds listed for it on the USDA database, 37 had health effects one way or another, but of the 2306 on FooDB, some 574 had what they called ‘potential’ health effects. In any case, it seems to me that a more complete knowledge of what’s in our food can’t be a bad thing, and will very likely be of benefit in the long run. 

Jacinta: That makes sense, but isn’t everything even more complicated, when you think of how all these nutrients interact with our individual microbiota, and the enzymes that break down our food more or less efficiently, depending on how numerous and healthy they are, which no doubt varies between individuals? 

Canto: Yes, Barabasi and others working on all this ‘dark matter’ are well aware of these complex interactions, but they reckon that doesn’t detract from the need to know much more about this particular component of the food-nutrient-digestion-health cycle. And Barabasi does in fact compare the current state of knowledge with the days before the human genome project, when much DNA was considered ‘junk’. It’s just not a good idea to assume that such a large proportion of nutrients are barely worth knowing about. Let’s return to garlic again. It features quite a lot in the Mediterranean diet, which seems protective against cardiovascular disease. Steak, on the other hand, can be problematic. Our gut bacteria breaks down red meat, in the process producing a compound, trimethylamine, which our liver converts into trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). High levels of TMAO in the bloodstream are linked to heart and vascular problems. But allicin, from garlic, which we’ve mentioned before, and which wasn’t on the USDA database, is known to inhibit the production of trimethylamine, so a diet containing red meat – not too much mind you – can be rendered a wee bit safer, and tastier, with a nice garlic dressing. 

Jacinta: And allicin appears to be an anti-carcinogen too. And luteolin, another component of garlic not on the standard database, is also reported to protect against cardiovascular disease. We love garlic! But what about processed foods. Surely there are all sorts of ways of processing, that’s to say transforming, foods and their component nutrients that won’t show up on the list of ingredients. And how do we know if those ingredient lists are accurate in the first place?

Canto: Well, baby steps I suppose. Cooking, of course, has vital transformative effects upon many foods. And I recall that when you whisk an egg it becomes ‘denatured’ – how transformative does that sound! The more you think about the interaction of foods, with all their barely recognised components, with transformative processes occurring both outside and within our bodies, the more it makes your head spin, and the more you realise that dietary science has a long long way to go. 

garlic cultivars from the Phillippines

Written by stewart henderson

September 30, 2020 at 7:33 pm

covid19: corticosteroids, male susceptibility, evaluating health, remdesivir, coagulation factors

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from The Lancet, ‘the four horsemen of a viral apocalpse’


Canto: So short-course use of some steroids was being advocated in the medcram update 88, though without thorough RCT evidence. 

Jacinta: Well, data was presented from the Oxford RCT on those on oxygen or on ventilators showing a statistically significant reduction of mortality from short-course (up to 10 days) low dosage of dexamethasone, a freely-available steroid medication. The study involved some 2000 patients, but only those severely afflicted were helped by the medication. 

Canto: An interesting aside to the data is that in the study males outnumbered females by almost 2 to 1, and that accords with the overall ratio of male to female covid19 patients Dr Seheult is finding, which rather shocked me. Why would more males be coming down with the disease? Presumably that’s not the infection rate, but the rate at which they need to be hospitalised. 

Jacinta: Yes, you’re right, according to this Australian site (unfortunately undated):

Reports continue to emerge that men are significantly more vulnerable to COVID-19 than women. The commonly held perception that more men smoke and this makes them more susceptible along with other lifestyle factors does not tell the whole picture. White House COVID-19 Task Force director Dr Deborah Birx highlighted a “concerning trend” that men in all age brackets were becoming seriously ill from the virus at a higher rate than women, including younger males.

They’re suggesting more research needs to be done on this gender difference, for health issues in general. Some are claiming that estrogen makes a difference. In any case I think cardiovascular problems are more common in males – but maybe not so much in younger males. 

Canto: So update 89 is fairly short, and deals with US data about cases and deaths, most of it out of date now, and more on corticosteroids and the dangers of unsupervised use. Update 90 introduces us to a tool I’ve never heard of called ‘Discern’. Very useful for we autodidacts in helping us, for example, to enlighten our doctors as to our condition. Discern is a tool for evaluating internet health info, such as medcram’s updates on youtube, or anything else on youtube. The instrument asks you to evaluate the material according to 16 different criteria. Interestingly, this tool has been tested on covid19 material by a study out of Poland done in March. The results weren’t so good, especially for news channels. 

Jacinta: Yes, physicians’ information did best – but of course we don’t go to news channels for health information, and we’d advise against anyone else doing so. The study evaluated the Discern tool itself and found it excellent, then used the tool to evaluate health information, specifically on youtube. Of course know that there’s ‘viral misinformation’ from various news outlets that gets posted on youtube. And good to see that the medcram updates were some of the most highly rated using the Discern tool. 

Canto: So we’re now into reporting from early July with update 91. It starts by looking at a ‘covid risk calculator’ in which you can type in your age, gender, BMI, underlying conditions, waist circumference, and other data which you might need a full medical checkup to find out about (and that’s overdue for me), including, for example, %FMD, a measure I’ve never heard of, but which has to do with endothelial function. 

Jacinta: FMD stands for fibromuscular dysplasia. The Johns Hopkins medicine site describes it as a rare blood vessel disease in which the cells of some arteries become more stiff and fibrous and less flexible. This leads to weakness and damage. Not sure how it relates to covid19 but surely any pre-existing blood vessel damage is a danger for those contracting the virus. 

Canto: Right, so it’s unlikely anyone will know offhand their percentage of FMD. I don’t even know my HDL and LDL levels, never mind my HbA1c or lipids. I’d love to be able to take measures of all these myself, without visiting a doctor.

Jacinta: Typical male control freak. So all of this is to measure your risk of covid19 hospitalisation, ICU admission or mortality. Fun times. So next the update looks at Gilead, the makers of the antiviral remdesivir, who donated all their supplies of the drug to the USA in early May. But of course they kept manufacturing the drug and have to recoup the money they spent researching, developing and trialling it etc. The Wall Street Journal reports that a typical course of the drug will cost over $3000 per patient. Interestingly the Trump administration is wanting the drug to stay in the USA as much as possible, rather than be available overseas, and is spending money to that effect. 

Canto: Hmm. Is that protectionism? 

Jacinta: Yes I suppose. It’s not surprising that a country wants to look after its own first, especially via a product produced within its own borders. But I suspect this government would’t be interested in helping any other country – unless there was a quid pro quo. And there’s another antiviral, favipiravir, currently being trialled in Japan and the USA (I mean as of early July), and a vaccine, developed in China, is being used on the Chinese military in what seems a rather rushed and somewhat secretive fashion – we don’t know if they got the soldiers’ permission on this seemingly untried vaccine. At least at the phase 3 level.

Canto: Very CCP. 

Jacinta: So onto update 92, and we revisit the electron transport chain, with four successive electron transfers converting molecular oxygen into water. Problems within this chain can produce reactive oxygen species (ROS) such as superoxide, hydrogen peroxide and hydroxy radicals, which are destructive in excess. We also look, yet again, at covid19’s impact on angiotensin and particularly the production of superoxide, which in turn causes endothelial dysfunction, increased von Willebrand factor activity, which leads to thrombosis. People were presenting as ‘happy hypoxics’, looking and feeling fine but with very low oxygen levels, and autopsies revealed ‘microthrombi in the interalveolar septa’ of victims’ lungs. All this leading to a paper published in The Lancet which looked at factors in this process of coagulation and thrombosis:

We assessed markers of endothelial cell and platelet activation, including VWF antigen, soluble thrombomodulin [a marker of endothelial cell activation], soluble P-selectin [a marker of endothelial cell and platelet activation], and soluble CD40 ligand [a marker of platelet and T-cell activation], as well as coagulation factors, endogenous anticoagulants, and fibrinolytic enzymes.

So this was about getting to the bottom of the increased clotting. And the results were hardly surprising, but the final discussion section is worth quoting at length, as it seems to capture much that we know about covid19’s effects (at least short-term effects) at the moment: 

We therefore propose that COVID-19-associated coagulopathy is an endotheliopathy that results in augmented VWF release, platelet activation, and hypercoagulability, leading to the clinical prothrombotic manifestations of COVID-19-associated coagulopathy, which can include venous, arterial, and microvascular thrombosis. The factors responsible for this endotheliopathy and platelet activation are uncertain but could include direct viral infection of endothelial cells, collateral damage to the tissue as a result of immune infiltration and activation, complement activation, or any number of inflammatory cytokines believed to play a role in COVID-19 disease.

They suggest anti-platelet therapy and endothelial cell modification treatments as well as anticoagulation treatments, and they suggest some agents ‘which might have therapeutic potential’.

Canto: Potential? You’d think they’d be onto all this by now. 

Jacinta: Well there’s also potential for untried medications – at least untried in this context – to go terribly wrong. And it’s also likely that some hospitals are already onto using the safer forms of treatment. Dr Seheult speaks of the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) in this context, as it has been shown to be a thrombolytic when used intravenously. There are studies pending on the effects of NAC in treating covid19 patients. 

Canto: Now, I’ve just been watching something on monoclonal antibodies as perhaps the most promising treatment yet, short of a vaccine. Can you explain….

Jacinta: Yes I’ll try, maybe next time.


Coronavirus Pandemic Update 88: Dexamethasone History & Mortality Benefit Data Released From UK

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 89: COVID 19 Infections Rising in Many States; Dexamethasone Cautions

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 90: Assess The Quality of COVID-19 Info With A Validated Research Tool

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 91: Remdesivir Pricing & Disparities in Drug Availability

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 92: Blood Clots & COVID-19 – New Research & Potential Role of NAC


reading matters 7

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She has her mother’s laugh, by Carl Zimmer , science author and journalist, blogger, New York Times columnist, etc etc

content hints – inheritance and heredity, genetics and epigenetics, Darwin and Galton, the Hapsburg jaw, eugenics, Hugo de Vries, Theodor Boveri, Luther Burbank, Pearl and Carol Buck, Henry Goddard, The Kallikak Family, Hitler’s racial hygiene laws, morons, the five races etc, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Emma Wolverton, PKU, chromosomal shuffling, meiosis, cultural inheritance, mitochondrial DNA, Mendel’s Law, August Weismann, germ and soma, twin studies, genetic predispositions, mongrels, Neanderthals, chimeras, exosomes, the Yandruwandha people, IVF, genomic engineering, Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR, ooplasm transfers, rogue experiments, gene drives, pluripotency, ethical battlegrounds.

Written by stewart henderson

July 28, 2020 at 12:22 pm

epigenetics and imprinting 7: more problems, and ICRs

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2020-02-02-at-10.11.35-pm-1.pngthe only image I can find that I really understand


In the previous post in this series I wrote about the connection between two serious disorders, Angelman syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome, their connection to a missing small section of chromosome 15, and how they’re related to parental inheritance. These syndromes can sometimes also be traced back to uniparental disomy, in which the section of chromosome 15 is intact, but both copies are inherited from the mother (resulting in PWS) or the father (resulting in AS).

So the key here is that this small section of chromosome 15 needs to be inherited in the correct way because of the imprinting that comes with it. To take it to the genetic level, UBE3A is a gene which is only expressed from the maternal copy of chromosome 15. If that gene is missing in the maternal copy, or if, due to uniparental disomy, both copies of the chromosome are inherited from the father, UBE3A protein won’t be produced and symptoms of Angelman syndrome will appear. Similarly, PWS will develop if a certain imprinted gene or genes aren’t inherited from the father. Other imprinting disorders have been found, for example, one that leads to Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, though the mechanism of action is different, in that both copies of a gene on chromosome 11 are switched on when only the paternal copy should be expressed. This results in abnormal growth (too much growth) in the foetus. It too has an ‘opposite’ syndrome, Silver-Russell syndrome, in which the relevant protein expression is reduced, resulting in retarded growth and dwarfism. 

But now to the question of exactly how genes are switched on and off, or expressed and repressed. DNA methylation, briefly explained in my first post on this topic, is essential to this. Methyl groups are carbon-hydrogen compounds which can be bound to a gene to switch it off, but here’s where I start to get confused. I’ll quote Carey and try to make sense of it:

… it may be surprising to learn that it is often not the gene body that is methylated. The part of the gene that codes for protein is epigenetically broadly the same when we compare the maternal and paternal copies of the chromosome. It’s the region of the chromosome that controls the expression of the gene that is differently methylated between the two genomes.

N Carey, The epigenetics revolution, 2011 p140

The idea, I now realise, is that there’s a section of the chromosome that controls the part of the gene that codes for the protein and it’s this region that’s differently methylated. Such regions are called imprinting control regions (ICRs). Sometimes this is straightforward, but it can get extremely complicated, with whole clusters of imprinted genes on a stretch of chromosome, being expressed from the maternally or paternally derived chromosomes, and not simply through methylation. An ICR may operate over a large region, creating ‘roadblocks’, keeping different sets of genes apart, and affecting thousands of base-pairs, not always in the same way. Repressed genes may come together in a ‘chromatin knot’, while other, activated genes from the same region form separate bundles.

Imprinting is a feature of brain cells – something which, as of the writing of Carey’s book (2011), is a bit of a mystery. Not so surprising is the number of expressed imprinted genes in the placenta, a place where competing paternal-maternal demands are played out. As to what is going on in the brain, Carey writes this:

Professor Gudrun Moore of University College London has made an intriguing suggestion. She has proposed that the high levels of imprinting in the brain represents a post-natal continuation of the war of the sexes. She has speculated that some brain imprints are an attempt by the paternal genome to promote behaviour in young offspring that will stimulate the mother to continue to drain her own resources, for example by prolonged breastfeeding.

N Carey, The epigenetics revolution, 2011. pp141-2

This sounds pretty amazing, but it’s a new epigenetic world we’re exploring. I’ll explore more of it next time.


The epigenetics revolution, by Nessa Carey, 2011

Epigenetics, video: SciShow

Written by stewart henderson

February 2, 2020 at 10:33 pm

a DNA dialogue 4: purines, mostly

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Canto: So what’s a pyrimidine, molecularly speaking, and why does it differ from a purine, and why does it matter?

Jacinta: They’re two different types of nitrogenous bases, dummy, which are a subset, maybe, of nucleotide bases. All of which is largely gobbledygook at present.

Canto: Ok, we know there are four different nitrogenous bases in DNA.  Two of them, A & G, adenine and guanine, are purines, which structurally are two-carbon nitrogen ring bases. The other two, thymine and cytosine, T & C, are pyrimidines, which are one-carbon nitrogen ring bases. Uracil, in RNA, is also a pyrimidine. It replaces the thymine used in DNA.

Jacinta: That’s right, now we know that in DNA these nitrogenous bases are connected across the double helix, in pairs, in a particular way. A (a purine) always connects with T (a pyrimidine), and similarly C is always bonded to G. So why is this?

Canto: Why is it so? Well, put simply, the molecular structure of purines, which you’ll note have a two-carbon ring structure and so are larger than pyrimidines, doesn’t allow them to bond within the group, that’s to say with other purines, and the same goes with pyrimidines. It’s essentially due to the difference between hydrogen bond donors and acceptors for these groups.

Jacinta: So, looking at purines first, considering that they’re one of the building blocks of life, it’s not surprising that we find them in lots of the food we eat, especially in meat, mostly in organs like kidneys or liver. Structurally they’re heterocyclic aromatic organic compounds – as are pyrimidines. Heterocyclic simply means they have a ring structure composed of more than one element – in this case carbon and nitrogen. An aromatic compound isn’t quite what you think – structurally it means that it’s strong and stable, due to resonance bonds, which we won’t go into here. Below is a model of a purine molecule, which has the chemical formula C5H4N4 – the black globes are carbon atoms, the nitrogens are blue and the hydrogens white.

Purines and pyrimidines are both self-inhibiting and activating, so they actively bond with each other but inhibit self-bonding, so that they maintain a more or less equal amount as each other within the cell.

Canto: So that’s purines in general, but in DNA there are two purines, adenine and guanine, which must differ structurally – and are there any others?

Jacinta: Oh yes, caffeine is a purine, as well as uric acid…

Canto: Definitely aromatic.

Jacinta: And there are many others. Purines are very important molecules, used throughout the body for a variety of purposes, as components of ATP, cyclic AMP, NADH and coenzyme A, for example.

Canto: I’ve heard of some of those…

Jacinta: As to the difference between adenine and guanine, here’s how it’s described in this Research Gate article, which I’m sure is reliable:

The main difference between adenine and guanine is that adenine contains an amine group on C-6, and an additional double bond between N-1 and C-6 in its pyrimidine ring, whereas guanine contains an amine group on C-2 and a carbonyl group on C-6 in its pyrimidine ring

Canto: Shit, that explanation needs to be explained, please.

Jacinta: Haha well let’s look at more diagrammatic structures, but first – an amine group, also called an amino group, is a derivative of  NH3 (ammonia), consisting of a nitrogen atom bonded to hydrogen atoms, at its simplest. This gives adenine the formula ‎C5H5N5. Guanine has, in addition to the amine group, a carbonyl group, which is a carbon double bonded to an oxygen, C=O. This gives guanine the formula C5H5N5O. Anyway, it’ll all become clear over the next dozen or so years…



Written by stewart henderson

January 26, 2020 at 5:26 pm

A DNA dialogue 2: the double helix

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Canto: Ok we talked about base pairs at the end of dialogue 1. A (nucleo)base pair is, duh, a pairing of nucleobases. There are four types of base in DNA – adenine and thymine, which always pair together, and the other pairing, cytosine and guanine.

Jacinta: Please explain – what’s a nucleobase, what do they do, and why do they come in pairs?

Canto: Well, let’s see, how do we begin… DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid…

Jacinta: So it’s an acid. But bases are like the opposite of acids aren’t they? So how can an acid be constructed of its opposite?

Canto: Look, I can’t answer that right now – I haven’t a clue – but let’s keep investigating the structure and function, and the answers might come. So, you’ll know that there was a battle in the 1950s to elucidate the structure of DNA, and it was found to form a double helix two strands of – I don’t know what – connected to each other in a twisted sort of way by, I think, those base pairs connected by hydrogen bonds. Anyway, here’s a fairly typical explanation, from Nature Education, which we’ll try to make sense of:

The double helix describes the appearance of double-stranded DNA, which is composed of two linear strands that run opposite to each other, or anti-parallel, and twist together. Each DNA strand within the double helix is a long, linear molecule made of smaller units called nucleotides that form a chain. The chemical backbones of the double helix are made up of sugar and phosphate molecules that are connected by chemical bonds, known as sugar-phosphate backbones. The two helical strands are connected through interactions between pairs of nucleotides, also called base pairs. Two types of base pairing occur: nucleotide A pairs with T, and nucleotide C pairs with G.

Jacinta: So I think I have a problem with this description. I think I need a picture, fully labelled. So the two strands themselves are made up of nucleotides, and the connections between them are made up of bonded sugar and phosphate molecules? But the strands are connected, via sugar and phosphate, in particular ways – ‘through interactions’ – which only allow A to pair with T, and C to pair with G?.

Canto: I think that’s right. Maybe we can find a picture.

Jacinta: Ok, so we got it completely wrong. The backbone, of sugar-phosphate, is the outer, twisted strand, or two of them, like the vertical bars of a twisted ladder, or the toprails of a spiral staircase, and the base pairs are like the stairs themselves, made of two separate parts, the bases, bonded together by hydrogen…

Canto: Forget the description, the picture above is worth all our words. It also tells us that the DNA molecule is around 2 nanometres wide. That’s two billionths of a metre. And 3.4 nanometres long for a full twist of the double helix, I think.

Jacinta: Whateva. There’s also this claim that the two strands are ‘anti-parallel’. It looks to me as if they’re simply parallel, but twisted. What does this mean? Is it significant?

Canto: I don’t know – maybe we’ll find out next time. I’m already exhausted.

Jacinta: …….

Written by stewart henderson

January 16, 2020 at 5:13 pm

Posted in biochemistry, DNA, science

Tagged with , ,

epigenetics and imprinting 4: the male-female thing

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Gametes are gametes because of epigenetic modifications in their pro-nuclei, but they have to lose these modifications, or transform them, when they come together to form zygotes. The male pro-nucleus DNA methylation is stripped away immediately after sperm penetrates egg. The egg pronucleus undergoes the same process, but more gradually. It’s like a wiping away of epigenetic memory, creating totipotency, which becomes a more limited pluripotency as the blastocyst, with its inner cell mass (ICM), forms. 

The ICM cells begin differentiating through the regulation of some key genes. For example, a gene codes for a protein that switches on a set of genes, which code for proteins in a cascading effect. But it’s not quite a matter of switching genes on or off, it’s rather more complex. The process is called gene reprogramming, and it’s of course done effortlessly during every reproductive cycle. Artificial reprogramming of the kind carried out by Yamanaka and others, an essential part of cloning, hasn’t come close to this natural process that goes on in mammals and other species every day.

Clearly, though the epigenetic reprogramming for the female pronucleus is different from that carried out more swiftly in the male. As Carey puts it, ‘the pattern of epigenetic modifications in sperm is one that allows the male pronucleus to be reprogrammed relatively easily.’ Human researchers haven’t been particularly successful in reprogramming an adult nucleus by various methods, such as transferring it to a fertilised egg or treating it with the four genes isolated by Yamanaka. The natural process of gene reprogramming eliminates most of the epigenetic effects accumulated in the parent genes, but as the reprogramming is a different process in the male and female pro-nucleus, this shows that they aren’t functionally equivalent. There is a ‘parent-of-origin effect’. Experiments done on mice to explore this effect found that DNA methylation, an important form of chromatin modification (and the first one discovered), was passed on to offspring by the female parent. That’s to say, DNA from the female was more heavily methylated than that from the male. Carey describes the DNA as ‘bar-coded’ as coming from the male or the female. The common term for this is imprinting, and it’s entirely epigenetic.

Imprinting has been cast by Carey, and no doubt others, as an aspect of the ‘battle of the sexes’. This battle may well be imprinted in the pronuclei of the fertilised egg. Here’s how Carey puts the two opposing positions:

Male: This pregnant female is carrying my genes in the form of this foetus. I may never mate with her again. I want my foetus to get as big as possible so that it has the greatest chance of passing on my genes.

Female: I want this foetus to pass on my genes. But I don’t want it to be at the cost of draining me so much that I never reproduce again. I want more than this one chance to pass on my genes.

So there’s a kind of balance that has developed in we eutherian mammals, in a battle to ensure that neither sex gains the upper hand. Further experiments on mice in recent times have explored how this battle is played out epigenetically. I’ll look at them in the next post in this series.


The Epigenetics Revolution, by Nessa Carey, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

January 9, 2020 at 10:50 am

epigenetics and imprinting 3: at the beginning

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stuff that can be done with iPS cells

A zygote is the union of two gametes (haploid cells), the sperm and the egg. It’s the first diploid cell, from which all the other diploid cells – scores of trillions of them – are formed via mitosis.

What’s interesting about this from an epigenetic perspective is that gametes are specialised cells, but zygotes are essentially totipotent – the least specialised cells imaginable – and all this has to do with epigenetics.

I’m not entirely clear about what happens to turn specialist gametes into totipotent zygotes, and that’s what I’m trying to find out. I’m not sure yet whether zygotes immediately start differentiating as they divide and multiply or whether the first divisions – in what is called the zygote phase, which eventually forms the blastocyst – form an identical set of zygotes. 

The two-week period of these first divisions is called the germinal phase. During this phase zygotes divide mitotically while at the same time moving, I’m not sure how, from the fallopian tube to the uterus. Apparently, after the first few divisions, differentiation starts to occur. The cells also divide into two layers, the inner embryo and the outer placenta. The growing group of cells is called a blastocyst. The outer layer burrows into the lining of the uterus and continues to create a web of membranes and blood vessels, a fully developed placenta.

But, as Nessa Carey would say, this is a description not an explanation. How does this initial cell differentiation – into the outer layer (trophectoderm), which becomes the placenta and other extra-embryonic tissues, and the inner cell mass (ICM) – come about? Understanding these mechanisms, and the difference between totipotent cells (zygotes) and pluripotent cells (embryonic stem cells) is clearly essential for comprehending, and so creating, particular forms of life. This PMC article, which examines how the trophectoderm is formed in mice, demonstrates the complexity of all this, and raises questions about when the ‘information’ that gives rise to differentiation becomes established in these initial cells. Note for example this passage from the article, which dates to 2003:

It is now generally accepted that trophectoderm is formed from the outer cell layer of the morula, while the inner cells give rise to the ICM, which subsequently forms the epiblast and primitive endoderm lineages. What remains controversial, however, is whether there is pre-existing information accounting for these cell fate decisions earlier than the 8-cell stage of development, perhaps even as early as the oocyte itself. 

The morula is the early-stage embryo, consisting of 16 totipotent cells. The epiblast is a slightly later differentiation within the ICM. An oocyte is a cytoplasm-rich, immature egg cell.

Molecular biologists have been trying to understand cell differentiation by working backwards, trying to turn specialised cells into pluripotent stem cells, mostly through manipulating their nuclei. You can imagine the benefits, considering the furore created a while back about the use of embryonic stem (ES) cells in medical treatments. To be able to somehow transform a liver or skin cell into this pluripotential multi-dimensional tool would surely be a tremendous breakthrough. Most in the field, however, considered such a transformation to be little more than a pipe-dream.

Carey describes how this breakthrough occurred. Based on previous research, Shinya Yamanaka and his junior associate Kazutoshi Takahashi started with a list of 24 genes already found to be ‘pluripotency genes’, essential to ES cells. If these genes are switched off experimentally, ES cells begin to differentiate. The 24 genes were tested in mouse embryonic fibroblasts, and, to massively over-simplify, they eventually found that only 4 genes, acting together, could transform the fibroblasts into ES-type cells. Further research confirmed this finding, and the method was later found to work with non-embryonic cells. The new cells thus created were given the name ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’, or iPS cells, and the breakthrough has inspired a lot of research since then.

So what exactly does this have to do with epigenetics? The story continues.

Written by stewart henderson

January 6, 2020 at 5:28 pm