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Journal: Nature biotechnology


The heartbeat originates within the sinoatrial node (SAN), a small structure containing <10,000 genuine pacemaker cells. If the SAN fails, the ∼5 billion working cardiomyocytes downstream of it become quiescent, leading to circulatory collapse in the absence of electronic pacemaker therapy. Here we demonstrate conversion of rodent cardiomyocytes to SAN cells in vitro and in vivo by expression of Tbx18, a gene critical for early SAN specification. Within days of in vivo Tbx18 transduction, 9.2% of transduced, ventricular cardiomyocytes develop spontaneous electrical firing physiologically indistinguishable from that of SAN cells, along with morphological and epigenetic features characteristic of SAN cells. In vivo, focal Tbx18 gene transfer in the guinea-pig ventricle yields ectopic pacemaker activity, correcting a bradycardic disease phenotype. Myocytes transduced in vivo acquire the cardinal tapering morphology and physiological automaticity of native SAN pacemaker cells. The creation of induced SAN pacemaker (iSAN) cells opens new prospects for bioengineered pacemakers.

Concepts: Cardiac anatomy, Cardiac electrophysiology, Cardiology, Artificial pacemaker, Gene, Sinoatrial node, Heart, Cardiac pacemaker


Manufacturing processes for biological molecules in the research laboratory have failed to keep pace with the rapid advances in automization and parellelization. We report the development of a digital-to-biological converter for fully automated, versatile and demand-based production of functional biologics starting from DNA sequence information. Specifically, DNA templates, RNA molecules, proteins and viral particles were produced in an automated fashion from digitally transmitted DNA sequences without human intervention.

Concepts: Genetics, DNA sequencing, Manufacturing, DNA sequence, RNA, Molecular biology, Gene, DNA


Because there are currently no biological treatments for hearing loss, we sought to advance gene therapy approaches to treat genetic deafness. We focused on Usher syndrome, a devastating genetic disorder that causes blindness, balance disorders and profound deafness, and studied a knock-in mouse model, Ush1c c.216G>A, for Usher syndrome type IC (USH1C). As restoration of complex auditory and balance function is likely to require gene delivery systems that target auditory and vestibular sensory cells with high efficiency, we delivered wild-type Ush1c into the inner ear of Ush1c c.216G>A mice using a synthetic adeno-associated viral vector, Anc80L65, shown to transduce 80-90% of sensory hair cells. We demonstrate recovery of gene and protein expression, restoration of sensory cell function, rescue of complex auditory function and recovery of hearing and balance behavior to near wild-type levels. The data represent unprecedented recovery of inner ear function and suggest that biological therapies to treat deafness may be suitable for translation to humans with genetic inner ear disorders.

Concepts: Biology, Cochlea, Vestibular system, Genetics, Auditory system, Inner ear, DNA, Gene


Gene drive systems that enable super-Mendelian inheritance of a transgene have the potential to modify insect populations over a timeframe of a few years. We describe CRISPR-Cas9 endonuclease constructs that function as gene drive systems in Anopheles gambiae, the main vector for malaria. We identified three genes (AGAP005958, AGAP011377 and AGAP007280) that confer a recessive female-sterility phenotype upon disruption, and inserted into each locus CRISPR-Cas9 gene drive constructs designed to target and edit each gene. For each targeted locus we observed a strong gene drive at the molecular level, with transmission rates to progeny of 91.4 to 99.6%. Population modeling and cage experiments indicate that a CRISPR-Cas9 construct targeting one of these loci, AGAP007280, meets the minimum requirement for a gene drive targeting female reproduction in an insect population. These findings could expedite the development of gene drives to suppress mosquito populations to levels that do not support malaria transmission.

Concepts: Allele, Biology, Genetics, Gene, Anopheles gambiae, Mosquito, Malaria, Anopheles


Specifically targeting genomic rearrangements and mutations in tumor cells remains an elusive goal in cancer therapy. Here, we used Cas9-based genome editing to introduce the gene encoding the prodrug-converting enzyme herpes simplex virus type 1 thymidine kinase (HSV1-tk) into the genomes of cancer cells carrying unique sequences resulting from genome rearrangements. Specifically, we targeted the breakpoints of TMEM135-CCDC67 and MAN2A1-FER fusions in human prostate cancer or hepatocellular carcinoma cells in vitro and in mouse xenografts. We designed one adenovirus to deliver the nickase Cas9(D10A) and guide RNAs targeting the breakpoint sequences, and another to deliver an EGFP-HSV1-tk construct flanked by sequences homologous to those surrounding the breakpoint. Infection with both viruses resulted in breakpoint-dependent expression of EGFP-tk and ganciclovir-mediated apoptosis. When mouse xenografts were treated with adenoviruses and ganciclovir, all animals showed decreased tumor burden and no mortality during the study. Thus, Cas9-mediated suicide-gene insertion may be a viable genotype-specific cancer therapy.

Concepts: Herpes simplex, Bacteria, Genome, DNA, Gene, Genetics, Cancer, Virus


Cultivated citrus are selections from, or hybrids of, wild progenitor species whose identities and contributions to citrus domestication remain controversial. Here we sequence and compare citrus genomes-a high-quality reference haploid clementine genome and mandarin, pummelo, sweet-orange and sour-orange genomes-and show that cultivated types derive from two progenitor species. Although cultivated pummelos represent selections from one progenitor species, Citrus maxima, cultivated mandarins are introgressions of C. maxima into the ancestral mandarin species Citrus reticulata. The most widely cultivated citrus, sweet orange, is the offspring of previously admixed individuals, but sour orange is an F1 hybrid of pure C. maxima and C. reticulata parents, thus implying that wild mandarins were part of the early breeding germplasm. A Chinese wild ‘mandarin’ diverges substantially from C. reticulata, thus suggesting the possibility of other unrecognized wild citrus species. Understanding citrus phylogeny through genome analysis clarifies taxonomic relationships and facilitates sequence-directed genetic improvement.

Concepts: Clementine, Grapefruit, Rutaceae, Pomelo, Tangerine, Mandarin orange, Orange, Citrus


Cell replacement therapies for neurodegenerative disease have focused on transplantation of the cell types affected by the pathological process. Here we describe an alternative strategy for Parkinson’s disease in which dopamine neurons are generated by direct conversion of astrocytes. Using three transcription factors, NEUROD1, ASCL1 and LMX1A, and the microRNA miR218, collectively designated NeAL218, we reprogram human astrocytes in vitro, and mouse astrocytes in vivo, into induced dopamine neurons (iDANs). Reprogramming efficiency in vitro is improved by small molecules that promote chromatin remodeling and activate the TGFβ, Shh and Wnt signaling pathways. The reprogramming efficiency of human astrocytes reaches up to 16%, resulting in iDANs with appropriate midbrain markers and excitability. In a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease, NeAL218 alone reprograms adult striatal astrocytes into iDANs that are excitable and correct some aspects of motor behavior in vivo, including gait impairments. With further optimization, this approach may enable clinical therapies for Parkinson’s disease by delivery of genes rather than cells.

Concepts: Neurotransmitter, Chromosome, Gene expression, Substantia nigra, Cell nucleus, Gene, Dopamine, DNA


Additive manufacturing, otherwise known as three-dimensional (3D) printing, is driving major innovations in many areas, such as engineering, manufacturing, art, education and medicine. Recent advances have enabled 3D printing of biocompatible materials, cells and supporting components into complex 3D functional living tissues. 3D bioprinting is being applied to regenerative medicine to address the need for tissues and organs suitable for transplantation. Compared with non-biological printing, 3D bioprinting involves additional complexities, such as the choice of materials, cell types, growth and differentiation factors, and technical challenges related to the sensitivities of living cells and the construction of tissues. Addressing these complexities requires the integration of technologies from the fields of engineering, biomaterials science, cell biology, physics and medicine. 3D bioprinting has already been used for the generation and transplantation of several tissues, including multilayered skin, bone, vascular grafts, tracheal splints, heart tissue and cartilaginous structures. Other applications include developing high-throughput 3D-bioprinted tissue models for research, drug discovery and toxicology.

Concepts: Cell type, DNA, Cell biology, Cell nucleus, Organ, Biology, Organelle, Cell


High crop yields depend on the continuous input of orthophosphate (PO(4)(−3))-based fertilizers and herbicides. Two major challenges for agriculture are that phosphorus is a nonrenewable resource and that weeds have developed broad herbicide resistance. One strategy to overcome both problems is to engineer plants to outcompete weeds and microorganisms for limiting resources, thereby reducing the requirement for both fertilizers and herbicides. Plants and most microorganisms are unable to metabolize phosphite (PO(3)(−3)), so we developed a dual fertilization and weed control system by generating transgenic plants that can use phosphite as a sole phosphorus source. Under greenhouse conditions, these transgenic plants require 30–50% less phosphorus input when fertilized with phosphite to achieve similar productivity to that obtained by the same plants using orthophosphate fertilizer and, when in competition with weeds, accumulate 2–10 times greater biomass than when fertilized with orthophosphate.

Concepts: Ammonia, Phosphate, Glyphosate, Photosynthesis, Fertilizer, Weed, Nitrogen, Phosphorus


Aberrant T-cell activation underlies many autoimmune disorders, yet most attempts to induce T-cell tolerance have failed. Building on previous strategies for tolerance induction that exploited natural mechanisms for clearing apoptotic debris, we show that antigen-decorated microparticles (500-nm diameter) induce long-term T-cell tolerance in mice with relapsing experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis. Specifically, intravenous infusion of either polystyrene or biodegradable poly(lactide-co-glycolide) microparticles bearing encephalitogenic peptides prevents the onset and modifies the course of the disease. These beneficial effects require microparticle uptake by marginal zone macrophages expressing the scavenger receptor MARCO and are mediated in part by the activity of regulatory T cells, abortive T-cell activation and T-cell anergy. Together these data highlight the potential for using microparticles to target natural apoptotic clearance pathways to inactivate pathogenic T cells and halt the disease process in autoimmunity.

Concepts: Regulatory T cell, White blood cell, Protein, T cells, Autoimmunity, Major histocompatibility complex, T cell, Immune system