Genomic clinical trial recruiting takes to Facebook

Need clinical trial study subjects? There’s an app for that. Researchers at the University of Michigan are hoping that using the social media site Facebook will help them reach tens of thousands of potential new study subjects for a clinical study loosely defined as a search for gene–environment interactions. The Genes for Good Facebook app is the primary recruiting tool for the study, which asks participants to send in a sample of saliva and periodically fill out online health forms in exchange for information about genetic heritage and ongoing access to the study’s health mapping tools. To participate, subjects must be adult US citizens who agree to answer detailed questionnaires not only about health history but also about “habits, attitudes, and relationships,” according to the researchers’ website ( The investigators offer to return information about genetic ancestry, including access to an interactive map with information about individual migration patterns of maternal and paternal ancestors. As an added enticement, they offer to tell participants whether they harbor Neanderthal DNA. In an interesting twist, they also offer participants the ability to download their raw genetic data. Study leader Gonçalo Abecasis, professor of biostatistics at the University of Michigan, told BuzzFeed News that the Facebook app is simply a portal and that Facebook will not have access to volunteers’ personal information. The idea is to reach people where they already gather and share information. At this stage, the researchers will not share any information with participants about their potential risk factors for disease, but they are not ruling out adding that element in the future, the prospect of which could raise some interesting ethical issues. —Karyn Hede, News Editor

To uncoil DNA, try “walk the dog”

Just as DNA’s familiar spiraling double helix arises from its precise chemical makeup, so too its tightly coiled nucleosomes wind like a yo-yo, uncoiling in one direction, according to new research on the physics of DNA packing. DNA, it turns out, has a definite preference for the direction in which it uncoils. The study, published in March 2015 in the journal Cell, provides evidence that the force required to tug DNA from its nucleosome core using optical tweezers increases or decreases depending on which end is pulled. The research team found that, like the string wound around a yo-yo, DNA uncoils when pulled in one direction and winds itself more tightly when pulled in the other direction. Principal investigator Taekjip Ha, a member of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, said in a news release accompanying the article that “many people thought we should have known this many decades ago, but there are still surprises in the physics of DNA.” The study investigated how DNA balances two requirements: flexibility and stability. A yo-yo needs just the right string tension to be able to do tricks like “walk the dog.” Similarly, a DNA molecule must be stable enough to coil neatly into its nucleosome core but retain enough flexible stretchiness to be able to uncoil when needed to make proteins. The researchers found that DNA’s base sequence can influence how tightly it is wound, suggesting that mutations may affect DNA flexibility, which in turn may affect how easily it can be unwound when needed. Ha’s research team next plans to determine the flexibility of an entire genome, creating the first genome-wide map of the physical properties of DNA. —Karyn Hede, News Editor

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