5 Reasons Biologists Love Math

Biologists use math in a variety of ways, from designing experiments to mapping complex biological systems. Credit: Stock image.

On Saturday (at 9:26:53 to be exact), math lovers and others around the world will celebrate Pi—that really long number that represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. I asked our scientific experts why math is important to biomedical research. Here are a few reasons.

  1. Math allows biologists to describe how molecules move in and out of cells, how bacteria shuttle through blood vessels, how drugs get broken down in the body and many other physiological processes.
  2. Studying the geometry, topology and other physical characteristics of DNA, proteins and cellular structures has shed light on their functions and on approaches for enhancing or disrupting those functions.
  3. Math helps scientists design their experiments, including clinical trials, so they result in meaningful data, a.k.a statistical significance.
  4. Scientists use math to piece together all the different parts of a cell, an organ or an entire organism to better understand how the parts interact and how perturbations in these complex systems may contribute to disease.
  5. Sometimes it’s impossible or too difficult to answer a research question through traditional lab experiments, so biologists rely on math to develop models that represent the system they’re studying, whether it’s a metastasizing cancer cell or an emerging infectious disease. These approaches allow scientists to indicate the likelihood of certain outcomes as well as refine the research questions.

Want more? Here’s a video with 10 reasons biologists should know some math.

Scientists Shine Light on What Triggers REM Sleep

Illustration of a brain.
While studying how the brain controls REM sleep, researchers focused on areas abbreviated LDT and PPT in the mouse brainstem. This illustration shows where these two areas are located in the human brain. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. View larger image

Has the “spring forward” time change left you feeling drowsy? While researchers can’t give you back your lost ZZZs, they are unraveling a long-standing mystery about sleep. Their work will advance the scientific understanding of the process and could improve ways to foster natural sleep patterns in people with sleep disorders.

Working at Massachusetts General Hospital and MIT, Christa Van Dort Exit icon, Matthew Wilson Exit icon and Emery Brown Exit icon focused on the stage of sleep known as REM. Our most vivid dreams occur during this period, as do rapid eye movements, for which the state is named. Many scientists also believe REM is crucial for learning and memory.

REM occurs several times throughout the night, interspersed with other sleep states collectively called non-REM sleep. Although REM is clearly necessary—it occurs in all land mammals and birds—researchers don’t really know why. They also don’t understand how the brain turns REM on and off. Continue reading

Remotely and Noninvasively Controlling Genes and Cells in Living Animals

Remote control car key.
Researchers are developing a system to remotely control genes or cells in living animals with radio wave technology similar to that used to operate remote control car keys. Credit: Stock image.

One of the items on biomedical researchers’ “to-do” list is devising noninvasive ways to control the activity of specific genes or cells in order to study what those genes or cells do and, ultimately, to treat a range of human diseases and disorders.

A team of scientists recently reported progress on a new, noninvasive system that could remotely and rapidly control biological targets in living animals Exit icon. The system can be activated remotely using either low-frequency radio waves or a magnetic field. Similar radio wave technology operates automatic garage-door openers and remote control car keys and is used in medicine to control electronic pacemakers noninvasively. Magnetic fields are used to activate sensors in burglar alarm systems and to turn your laptop to hibernate mode when the cover is closed. Continue reading

Delivering Gene-Editing Proteins to Living Cells

Illustration of a DNA strand being cut by a pair of scissors.
Researchers are testing new ways to get gene editing proteins into living cells to potentially modify human genes associated with disease. Credit: Stock image.

Over the last two decades, exciting tools have emerged that allow researchers to cut and paste specific sequences of DNA within living cells, a process called gene editing. These tools, including one adapted from a bacterial defense system called CRISPR, have energized the research community with the possibility of using them to modify human genes associated with disease.

A major barrier to testing medical applications of gene editing has been getting the proteins that do the cutting into the cells of living animals. The main methods used in the laboratory take a roundabout route: Researchers push the DNA templates for making the proteins into cells, and then the cells’ own protein factories produce the editing proteins.

Researchers led by David Liu Exit icon from Harvard University are trying to cut out the middleman, so to speak, by ferrying the editing proteins, not the DNA instructions, directly into cells. In a proof-of-concept study, their system successfully delivered three different types of editing proteins into cells in the inner ears of live mice. Continue reading

E. Coli Bacteria as Medical Sensors and Hard Drives?

Modified E. coli bacteria can serve as sensors and data storage devices for environmental and medical monitoring. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. View larger image

E. coli bacteria help us digest our food, produce vitamin K and have served as a model organism in research for decades. Now, they might one day be harnessed as environmental or medical sensors and long-term data storage devices Exit icon.

MIT researchers Timothy Lu Exit icon and Fahim Farzadfard modified the DNA of E. coli cells so that the cells could be deployed to detect a signal (for example, a small molecule, a drug or the presence of light) in their surroundings. To create the modified E. coli, the scientists inserted into the bacteria a custom-designed genetic tool.

When exposed to the specified signal, the tool triggers a series of biochemical processes that work together to introduce a single mutation at a specific site in the E. coli’s DNA. This genetic change serves to record exposure to the signal, and it’s passed on to subsequent generations of bacteria, providing a continued record of exposure to the signal. In essence, the modified bacteria act like a hard drive, storing biochemical memory for long periods of time. The memory can be retrieved by sequencing the bacteria or through a number of other laboratory techniques. Continue reading

Correcting a Cellular Routing Error Could Treat Rare Kidney Disease

AGT protein and peroxisomes in untreated and treated cells.
The altered AGT protein (red) and peroxisomes (green) appear in different places in untreated cells (top), but they appear together (shown in yellow) in cells treated with DECA (bottom). Credit: Carla Koehler/Reproduced with permission from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. View larger image.

Our cells have organized systems to route newly created proteins to the places where they’re needed to do their jobs. For some people born with a rare and potentially fatal genetic kidney disorder called PH1, a genetically altered form of a particular protein mistakenly ends up in mitochondria instead of in another organelle, the peroxisome. This cellular routing error of the AGT protein results in the harmful buildup of oxalate, which leads to kidney failure and other problems at an early age.

In new work led by UCLA biochemist Carla Koehler Exit icon, researchers used a robotic screening system to identify a compound that interferes with the delivery of proteins to mitochondria. Koehler’s team Exit icon showed that adding a small amount of the compound, known as DECA, to cells grown in the laboratory prevented the altered form of the AGT protein from going to the mitochondria and sent it to the peroxisome. The compound also reduced oxalate levels in a cell model of PH1.

The team’s findings suggest that DECA, which is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating certain bacterial infections, could be a promising candidate for treating children affected by PH1. And, Koehler notes, the screening strategy that she and her team used to identify DECA as a potential therapy may help researchers identify other new therapies for the disorder.

This work was funded in part by NIH under grant R01GM061721.

How Instructions for Gene Activity Are Passed Across Generations

C. elegans embryos
Images of C. elegans embryos show transmission of an epigenetic mark (green) during cell division from a one-cell embryo (left) to a two-cell embryo (right). Credit: Laura J. Gaydos.

Chemical tags that cells attach to DNA or to DNA-packaging proteins across the genome—called epigenetic marks—can alter gene activity, or expression, without changing the underlying DNA code. As a result, these epigenetic changes can influence health and disease. But it’s a matter of debate as to whether and how certain epigenetic changes on DNA-packaging proteins can be passed from parents to their offspring.

In studies with a model organism, the worm C. elegans, researchers led by Susan Strome Exit icon of the University of California, Santa Cruz, have offered new details that help resolve the debate.

Strome’s team created worms with a genetic change that knocks out the enzyme responsible for making a particular methylation mark, a type of epigenetic mark that can turn off gene expression at certain points of an embryo’s development. Then the scientists bred the knockout worms with normal ones. Looking at the chromosomes from the resulting eggs, sperm and dividing cells of embryos after fertilization, the researchers found that the methylation marks are passed from both parents to offspring. The enzyme, however, is passed to the offspring just by the egg cell. For embryos with the enzyme, the epigenetic marks are passed faithfully through many cell divisions. For those without it, the epigenetic mark can be passed through a few cell divisions.

Because all animals use the same enzyme to create this particular methylation mark, the results have implications for parent-to-child epigenetic inheritance as well as cell-to-cell inheritance in other organisms.

This work was funded in part by NIH under grants R01GM034059, T32GM008646 and P40OD010440.

Learn more:

University of California, Santa Cruz News Release Exit icon
Dynamic DNA Section from The New Genetics Booklet

Stem Cells Do Geometry

Human embryonic cells
As seen under a microscope, human embryonic cells (colored dots) confined to circles measuring 1 millimeter across start to specialize and form distinct layers similar to those seen in early development. Credit: Aryeh Warmflash, Rockefeller University. View larger image

Each fluorescent point of light making up the multicolored rings in this image is an individual human embryonic cell in the early stages of development. Scientists seeking to understand the molecular cues responsible for early embryonic patterning found that human embryonic cells confined to areas of precisely controlled size and shape begin to specialize, migrate and organize into distinct layers just as they would under natural conditions.

Read the Inside Life Science article to learn more about this research, which has opened a new window for studying early development and could advance efforts aimed at using human stem cells to replace diseased cells and regenerate lost or injured body parts.


4 Timely Facts About Our Biological Clocks

Illustration of circadian rhythm.
Genes and proteins run biological clocks that help keep daily rhythms in synch. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. View larger image

After you roll your clocks back by an hour this Sunday, you may feel tired. That’s because our bodies—more specifically, our circadian rhythms—need a little time to adjust. These daily cycles are run by a network of tiny, coordinated biological clocks.

NIGMS’ Mike Sesma tracks circadian rhythm research being conducted in labs across the country, and he shares a few timely details about our internal clocks:

1. They’re incredibly intricate.

Biological clocks are composed of genes and proteins that operate in a feedback loop. Clock genes contain instructions for making clock proteins, whose levels rise and fall in a regular cyclic pattern. This pattern in turn regulates the activity of the genes. Many of the results from circadian rhythm research this year have uncovered more parts of the molecular machinery that fine-tune the clock. Earlier in the month, we blogged about an RNA molecule that cues the internal clock.

2. Every organism has them—from algae to zebras.

Many of the clock genes and proteins are similar across species, allowing researchers to make important findings about human circadian processes by studying the clock components of organisms like fruit flies, bread mold and plants.

3. Whether we’re awake or asleep, our clocks keep ticking.

While they might get temporarily thrown off by changes in light or temperature, our clocks usually can reset themselves.

4. Nearly everything about how our body works is tied to biological clocks.

Our clocks influence alertness, hunger, metabolism, fertility, mood and other physiological conditions. For this reason, clock dysfunction is associated with various disorders, including insomnia, diabetes and depression. Even drug efficacy has been linked to our clocks: Studies have shown that some drugs might be more effective if given earlier in the day.

Learn more:
Circadian Rhythms Fact Sheet
Resetting Our Clocks: New Details About How the Body Tells Time Article from Inside Life Science

Outwitting Antibiotic Resistance

Marine scene with fish and corals
The ocean is a rich source of microbes that could yield infection-fighting natural molecules. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Exit icon.

Antibiotics save countless lives and are among the most commonly prescribed drugs. But the bacteria and other microbes they’re designed to eradicate can evolve ways to evade the drugs. This antibiotic resistance, which is on the rise due to an array of factors, can make certain infections difficult—and sometimes impossible—to treat.

Read the Inside Life Science article to learn how scientists are working to combat antibiotic resistance, from efforts to discover potential new antibiotics to studies seeking more effective ways of using existing ones.