Monday, 31 October 2016

ARTICLE: The maths of mitochondrial DNA

Evolution of Cell-to-Cell Variability in Stochastic, Controlled, Heteroplasmic mtDNA Populations
IG Johnston, NS Jones
The American Journal of Human Genetics 99 (5), 1150-1162 (2016)
  • Vital populations of mtDNA are constantly evolving in our cells in response to random influences and control from the nucleus: we build a general mathematical theory describing this poorly-understood process and show that it predicts a wide range of existing experimental outcomes and gives us lots of new insights into biology and disease
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) contains instructions for building important cellular machines. We have populations of mtDNA inside each of our cells -- almost like a population of animals in an ecosystem. Indeed, mitochondria were originally independent organisms, that billions of years ago were engulfed by our ancestor's cells and survived -- so the picture of mtDNA as a population of critters living inside our cells has evolutionary precedent! MtDNA molecules replicate and degrade in our cells in response to signals passed back and forth between mitochondria and the nucleus (the cell's "control tower"). Describing the behaviour of these population given the random, noisy environment of the cell, the fact that cells divide, and the complicated nuclear signals governing mtDNA populations, is challenging. At the same time, experiments looking in detail at mtDNA inside cells are difficult -- so predictive theoretical descriptions of these populations are highly valuable.

Why should we care about these cellular populations? MtDNA can become mutated, wrecking the instructions for building machines. If a high enough proportion of mtDNAs in a cell are mutated, our cells struggle and we get diseases. It only takes a few cells exceeding this "threshold" to cause problems -- so understanding the cell-to-cell distribution of mtDNA is medically important (as well as biologically fascinating). Simple mathematical approaches typically describe only average behaviours -- we need to describe the variability in mtDNA populations too. And for that, we need to account for the random effects that influence them.
​In our cells, signals from the "control tower" nucleus lead to the replication (orange) and degradation (purple) of mtDNA. These processes affect mtDNA populations that may contain normal (blue) and mutant (red) molecules. Our mathematical approach -- extending work addressing a similar but simpler system -- describes how the total number of machines, and the proportion of mutants, is likely to behave and change with time and as cells divide.
In the past, we have used a branch of maths called stochastic processes to answer questions about the random behaviour of mtDNA populations. But these previous approaches cannot account for the "control tower" -- the nucleus' control of mtDNA. To address this, we've developed a mathematical tradeoff -- we make a particular assumption (which we show not to be unreasonable) and in exchange are able to derive a wealth of results about mtDNA behaviour under all sorts of different nuclear control signals. Technically, we use a rather magical-sounding tool called "Van Kampen's system size expansion" to approximate mtDNA behaviour, then explore how the resulting equations behave as time progresses and cells divide.

Our approach shows that the cell-to-cell variability in heteroplasmy (the potentially damaging proportion of mutants in a cell) generally increases with time, and surprisingly does so in the same way regardless of how the control tower signals the population. We're able to update a decades-old and commonly-used expression (often called the Wright formula) for describing heteroplasmy variance, so that the formula, instead of being rather abstract and hard to interpret, is directly linked to real biological quantities. We also show that control tower attempts to decrease mutant mtDNA can induce more variability in the remaining "normal" mtDNA population. We link these and other results to biological applications, and show that our approach unifies and generalises many previous models and treatments of mtDNA -- providing a consistent and powerful theoretical platform with which to understand cellular mtDNA populations. The article is in the American Journal of Human Genetics here and a preprint version can be viewed here. Iain

Friday, 28 October 2016

ARTICLE: Random number seed

Variability in seeds: biological, ecological, and agricultural implications 
J Mitchell, IG Johnston, GW Bassel
Journal of Experimental Botany, erw397 (2016) 
  • Natural variability across scales, from the molecular to the environmental, means that individual seeds behave differently; we explore the challenges this variability poses for agriculture and food security, and how modern science can help address these challenges.
Seeds feed the world. Whether eaten themselves, or allowed to develop into crop plants which are then consumed by humans or livestock, seeds are the fundamental starting point for agriculture. But each seed has a different story. Throughout millions of years of evolution, plants have evolved to -- forgive the pun -- "hedge" their bets from one generation to the next. A parent plant cannot completely predict the environmental conditions that its offspring will face, so it induces variability in the seeds it produces. If some seeds are better at surviving in environment A and some are better in environment B, the plant has a way of ensuring its genes will survive regardless of whether the environment is A-like or B-like in future.

This bet-hedging is a sensible evolutionary strategy when environments are unpredictable. But modern agriculture makes environments much more predictable than the wild situations plants have been exposed to throughout evolutionary history. Now bet-hedging becomes a bad thing -- if we know the environment will always be C, energy spent ensuring that seeds survive in environments A and B is wasted, reducing potential yields.

Understanding and controlling the variability within populations of seeds thus has huge implications for agriculture. Variability inherent within populations of seeds, in addition to differences in the environments that seeds experience, means that, for example, seed lots germinate asynchronously (some quickly, some slowly or not at all). This leads to non-uniform and sub-optimal crop production, allows pests to enter fields, and challenges our ability to plan agricultural strategies. If we could control seed variability, these problems would be diminished, with a host of positive consequences for food security.

A given set of seeds will vary in their behaviour due to influences on many scales, from random molecular processes within cells to large-scale environmental stimuli. As a result, important features like germination propensity vary across seed lots (perhaps taking a broad distribution like that illustrated here), posing a challenge to agriculture and food security, which scientific understanding can mitigate.

In a new review, we survey our current understanding of the sources of variability in seeds, and its biological and agricultural implications. Processes across many scales induce variability in seed behaviour, from random cell biological interactions (like we've written about before!), through seed position in a parent plant, to large-scale environmental differences. We particularly focus on germination, an aspect of seed behaviour of crucial biological and agronomic importance, which takes place when a "developmental switch" in a seed is flipped. We discuss the genetic and molecular players that modern science has discovered to influence this decision to germinate in seeds, and describe the challenges in furthering our understanding of this vital question -- and how cool new tech, and maths, can help us make new progress! The review is in the Journal of Experimental Botany here. Iain

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

ARTICLE: European region is the most sceptical on vaccine safety

The State of Vaccine Confidence 2016: Global Insights Through a 67-Country Survey
Heidi J Larson, Alexandre de Figueiredo, Zhao Xiahong, William S Schulz, Pierre Verger, Iain G Johnston, Alex R Cook, Nick S Jones
EBioMedicine 12, 295-301 (2016)
  • How people view vaccines has a direct influence on the spread and impact of diseases; we use the largest-ever global survey of vaccine opinions to explore where and why people have issues with immunisation programmes.
Monitoring trust in immunisation programmes is essential if we are to identify areas and socioeconomic groups that are prone to vaccine-scepticism, and also if we are to forecast these levels of mistrust. Identification of vaccine-sceptic groups is especially important as clustering of non-vaccinators in social networks can serve to disproportionately lower the required vaccination levels for collective (or herd) immunity. To investigate these regions and socioeconomic groups, we performed a large-scale, data-driven study on attitudes towards vaccination. The survey — which we believe to be the largest on attitudes to vaccinations to date with responses from 67,000 people from 67 countries — was conducted by WIN Gallup International Association and probed respondents’ vaccine views by asking them to rate their agreement with the following statements: “vaccines are important for children to have”; “overall I think vaccines are safe”; “overall I think vaccines are effective”; and “vaccines are compatible with my religious beliefs”.

Our results show that attitudes vary by country, socioeconomic group, and between survey questions (where respondents are more likely to agree that vaccines are important than safe). Vaccine-safety related sentiment is particularly low in the European region, which has seven of the ten least confident countries, including France, where 41% of respondents disagree that vaccines are safe. Interestingly, the oldest age group — who may have been more exposed to the havoc that vaccine-preventable diseases can cause — hold more positive views on vaccines than the young, highlighting the association between perceived danger and pro-vaccine views. Education also plays a role. Individuals with higher levels of education are more likely to view vaccines as important and effective, but higher levels of education appear not to influence views on vaccine safety.

Our study, "The State of Vaccine Confidence 2016: Global Insights Through a 67-Country Survey" can be read for free in the journal EBioMedicine with a commentary here. You can find other treatments in Science magazine, New Scientist, Financial Times, Le Monde and Scientific American. Sadly our work also appeared in the Daily Mail. Alex, Iain, and Nick.