Top stories: ‘Thinking’ soil, dumb luck in science publishing, and a science reporter fumbles his way through CRISPR

(Left to right): SISSA; Carolina Ramirez Figueroa, Luis Hernan, and Martyn Dade-Robertson; A image by Kim Albrect, data image by Roberta Sinatra

Top stories: ‘Thinking’ soil, dumb luck in science publishing, and a science reporter fumbles his way through CRISPR

One of our reporters tried to do CRISPR. He failed miserably

Science staff writer Jon Cohen may be fluent in the language of biology, but the molecular complexities of CRISPR have long baffled him. So he decided to test what one scientist told him about the novel gene-editing technique: CRISPR (for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats") is so simple to use that "any idiot" could do it. But Cohen is not just “any idiot.” You can watch him giving CRISPR his all in this video.

See the first color images produced by an electron microscope

In a macroscopic advance, scientists have taken the first multicolor images of cells using an electron microscope. Electron microscopes can magnify an object up to 10 million times, allowing researchers to peer into the inner workings of, say, a cell or a fly’s eye, but until now they’ve only been able to see in black and white. The new advance—15 years in the making—uses rare earth metals called lanthanides layered over cells on a microscope slide. So far, the researchers can only produce three colors—red, green, and yellow. But with a few more tweaks, researchers hope to add other colors to the mix soon.

Hey scientists, how much of your publication success is due to dumb luck?

What makes some scientists’ careers take off whereas others’ stagnate? There are personal factors, of course: Some run clever experiments, have good collaborating skills, and are eloquent in communicating their work. But there’s also dumb luck. A new study shows that some people who publish the same number of papers—even in the very same journals—get more citations than chance alone can explain. However, something called the Q-factor—which combines elements like eloquence, team-building skills, and creativity—might help. It takes a while to nail down: The authors found that calculating a scientist’s Q-factor requires at least 20 papers and 10 years of citations. But once they had it, they found that they could accurately predict the number of citations earned by that scientist’s 40th paper with 80% accuracy.

How to cram your entire genome into a tiny nucleus

Over the past decade, researchers have come to realize that how our DNA is bunched into the nucleus is a miracle of packaging, with very deliberate loops and bends that bring specific parts of each chromosome into contact to help control what genes are active. In a new study, researchers used statistical approaches to convert experimental data into a 3D model. Previous experiments—capturing when one bit of DNA came close to another bit of DNA—had provided only indirect information about individual connections, but the new modeling has resulted in a comprehensive, biologically correct depiction of how our DNA fits into a nucleus.

‘Thinking soil’ made of bacteria could keep buildings from collapsing

It can be quite costly, even catastrophic, when the land under a building subsides. Now, a biodesigner and his colleagues have been pushing hard to develop biocement, a material that custom-built soil microbes would produce in response to the changing pressures in soil to help shore up the ground under foundations. They identified 122 bacterial genes that increased their activity by at least threefold by the pressure change. The team then modified the bacterial genome so that the regulatory DNA responsible for activating one of these genes was attached to a gene for a protein that glows when produced. The more pressure exerted on the microbe, the more intensely it glows. Eventually the researchers plan to replace the glowing protein gene with genes that make biocement, creating a “thinking soil” that will keep buildings safe and be a self-constructing foundation.

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