Meet Scott Poethig

Scott Poethig
Fields: Plant biology, cell and developmental biology, genetics
Works at: University of Pennsylvania
Studied at: College of Wooster, Yale University
Favorite musicians: Nick Drake and Bruce Springsteen
High school job: Radio D.J.
Favorite book: “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

When Scott Poethig signed up for a developmental biology course in his senior year of college, he expected to learn how organisms transition from single cells to juveniles to adults. He did not expect to learn just how much scientists still didn’t know about this process.

“It was the first course I had taken as an undergraduate where I felt that I could ask a question that there wasn’t an answer to already,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow! This is amazing.’”

Poethig already had an interest in plant biology and an independent research project studying corn viruses. He immediately saw the potential in combining his knowledge of plants with his questions about how organisms grow. “There seemed to be a lot of low hanging fruit in plant development,” he says.

Today, Poethig is the head of a plant development lab at the University of Pennsylvania. His work probes the complex molecular mechanisms that drive the transition from a young seedling to an adult plant that hasn’t yet produced seeds.

“The analogous period in human development is the interval between birth and puberty,” he explains. “People think of puberty as the major developmental transition in postnatal human development, but a lot of change happens before that point.”

His Findings

Poethig discovered that for the mustard plant Arabidopsis, a model organism frequently studied by geneticists, change begins early. Before these plants begin to flower—a sign of reproductive maturity—they undergo a process of vegetative maturation. In Arabidopsis, Poethig found that juvenile plants can be distinguished from adult plants by where hairs are produced on a leaf. Juvenile plants only produce hairs on the upper surface of the leaf, whereas adult plants produce leaves with hairs on both the upper and lower surfaces.

By studying mutant Arabidopsis plants where the adult pattern of hair development is either delayed or advanced, Poethig identified microRNAs as key players in this developmental transition.

MicroRNA molecules commonly block the expression of specific genes. Poethig found that in Arabidopsis, a type of microRNA prevents development. Young plants have high levels of this microRNA and cannot fully mature. When those levels drop, plants progress to adulthood.

MicroRNAs similarly control development in the nematode C. elegans. Scientists study the genetics of this tiny worm to better understand related developmental processes in more complex organisms. Because plants also use microRNAs to regulate development, Poethig’s discoveries may contribute to our understanding of how these molecules govern development in animals, including humans.

Poethig now wants to learn what determines the timing of developmental changes. He asks: “Why do microRNA levels drop? What’s the signal that causes that? What is the plant measuring?” His current hypothesis: sugar.

In a recent study, he found that giving plants additional sugar reduced microRNA levels and sped up development. Meanwhile, mutant plants that couldn’t produce enough sugar on their own through photosynthesis had increased microRNA levels and delayed development compared to normal plants.

This research may one day advance our understanding of how nutrition and genetics interact to affect human development. “In essentially all organisms, aging and the timing of developmental processes are strongly affected by nutrition,” Poethig explains. “In humans, childhood obesity is sometimes associated with early puberty, and it is important to understand the molecular basis for this effect.”

Poethig believes that studying microRNAs in plants may also lead to discoveries in human genetics outside of developmental biology. “MicroRNAs control a wide range of gene activity in plants and animals,” Poethig explains. “In humans, these molecules control the activity of as many as 30 percent of our genes. So understanding how microRNAs work in plants could help us understand their function in humans.”

Besides studying the Arabidopsis plants in his lab, Poethig also studies the plants in his kitchen, and uses his fascination with the history, culture and politics of food to excite others about science. Watch video.

Field Focus: Precision Gene Editing with CRISPR

Bacterial cells infected by viruses.
Bacterial cells can be infected by viruses (shown in red and purple) and have evolved ways to defend themselves. Credit: Stock image.

Like humans, bacteria can be infected by viruses and have evolved ways to defend themselves. Researchers are now adapting this bacterial “immune system” to precisely and efficiently edit genes in cells from humans and a wide range of other organisms. Scientists are excited about the tremendous potential of this powerful tool for advancing biomedical research and treating diseases.

The bacterial defense system is called CRISPR, for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. A breakthrough in understanding CRISPR came from examining bacteria used by the dairy industry for the production of yogurt and cheese. In a study published in 2007, researchers showed that these bacteria insert viral DNA sequences into their own genomes and use that information to disarm the virus when it attacks again. Subsequent research has shown that the CRISPR system consists of small RNA molecules that target specific viral DNA sequences and proteins that cut the DNA, thus destroying the virus.

Researchers have already adapted CRISPR into a gene-editing tool that’s quicker, cheaper and more precise than existing methods. Researchers can use CRISPR to add, delete, rev up or tone down certain genes as well as create animal models for studying human diseases. The ability to precisely target genes in human cells is expected to speed progress in the development of gene-based therapies.

Although much is known about CRISPR, we still have a lot to learn. For example, how do bacterial cells obtain and insert the viral DNA into their genome? What triggers production of the CRISPR RNA molecules? How are invading viral DNAs targeted for destruction? This last question is answered in part by a pair of findings described in an earlier post, A Crisper View of the CRISPR Gene-Editing Mechanism. We also want to figure out how we can make the CRISPR gene-editing tool even more versatile and precise.

The CRISPR story offers a good example of how studying basic biological processes leads to new—and sometimes unexpected—insights and applications.

Emily Carlson also contributed to this blog post.

A Crisper View of the CRISPR Gene-Editing Mechanism

Structural model of the Cascade surveillance machine
Structural model of the Cascade surveillance machine. Credit: Ryan Jackson, Montana State University. Click for larger image

To dismantle the viruses that infect them, bacteria have evolved an immune system that identifies invading viral DNA and signals for its destruction. This gene-editing system is called CRISPR, and it’s being harnessed as a tool for modifying human genes associated with disease.

Taking another important step toward this potential application, researchers now know the structure of a key CRISPR component: a multi-subunit surveillance machine called Cascade that identifies the viral DNA. Shaped like a sea horse, Cascade is composed of 11 proteins and CRISPR-related RNA. A research team led by Blake Wiedenheft Exit icon of Montana State University used X-ray crystallography and computational analysis to determine Cascade’s configuration. In a complementary study, Scott Bailey Exit icon of Johns Hopkins University and his colleagues determined the structure of the complex bound to a viral DNA target.

Like blueprints, these structural models help scientists understand how Cascade assembles into an efficient surveillance machine and, more broadly, how the CRISPR system functions and how to adapt it as a tool for basic and clinical research.

Learn more:
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New Research Sheds Light on Drug-Induced Salivary Issues

Open human mouth
Scientists have discovered a possible mechanism behind the bad taste and dry mouth caused by some drugs. Credit: Stock image.

The effects some medicines have on our salivary glands can at times extend beyond the fleeting flavor we experience upon ingesting them. Sometimes drugs cause a prolonged bad taste or dryness in the mouth, both of which can discourage people from taking medicines they need. Now, a research team led by Joanne Wang Exit icon of the University of Washington has discovered a possible mechanism behind this phenomenon. Working primarily with mice and using a commonly prescribed antidiabetic drug known to impair taste, the scientists identified a protein in salivary gland cells that takes up the drug from the bloodstream and secretes it in saliva. Wang and her colleagues were also able to pinpoint a specific gene that, when removed, hindered this process. They hope their new insights will aid efforts to develop medicines that do not cause salivary issues.

This work also was funded by NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Learn more:
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Say Cheese

Assorted cheeses
A biofilm of bacteria and fungi, commonly known as a rind, forms on the surface of traditionally aged cheeses. Credit: Elia Ben-Ari.

Biofilms—multispecies communities of microbes that live in and on us, and in the environment—are important for human health and the function of ecosystems. But studying these microbial metropolises can be challenging because many of the environments where they’re found are hard to replicate in the lab.

Enter cheese rinds. These biofilms of bacteria and fungi form on the surface of traditionally aged cheeses, and could serve as a system for understanding how microbial communities form and function. By sequencing DNA from the rinds of 137 artisan cheese varieties collected in 10 countries, Rachel Dutton and her colleagues at Harvard University identified three general types of microbial communities that live on their tasty study subjects. After individually culturing representatives of all the species found in the rind communities the scientists added them to a growth medium that included cheese curd. This approach allowed them to recreate the communities in the lab and use them to detect numerous bacterial-fungal interactions and patterns of community composition over time.

The scientists plan to use their lab-grown cheese rinds to study whether and how various microbes compete or cooperate as they form communities, as well as what molecules and mechanisms are involved. In addition to answering fundamental questions about microbial ecology, this cheesy research might ultimately yield insights that help fight infection-causing biofilms or lead to the discovery of new antibiotics.

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Restoring the Function of an Immune Receptor Involved in Crohn’s Disease

Gut bacteria
Receptor proteins bind to bacterial cell wall fragments, initiating an immune response to remove bad gut bacteria. Credit: S. Melanie Lee, Caltech; Zbigniew Mikulski and Klaus Ley, La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology.

Our bodies depend on a set of immune receptors to remove harmful bacteria and control the growth of helpful bacteria in our guts. Genetic changes that alter the function of the receptors can have an adverse effect and result in chronic inflammatory diseases like Crohn’s disease. Catherine Leimkuhler Grimes and Vishnu Mohanan of the University of Delaware researched a Crohn’s-associated immune receptor, NOD2, to figure out how it can lose the ability to respond properly to bacteria. In the process, they identified the involvement of a protective protein called HSP70. Increasing HSP70 levels in kidney, colon and white blood cells appeared to restore NOD2 function. This work represents a first step toward developing drugs to treat Crohn’s disease.

This work was funded in part by an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) grant.

The “Virtuous Cycle” of Technology and Science

A scientist looking through a  microscope. Credit: Stock image.
Whether it’s a microscope, computer program or lab technique, technology is at the heart of biomedical research. Credit: Stock image.

Whether it’s a microscope, computer program or lab technique, technology is at the heart of biomedical research. Its central role is particularly clear from this month’s posts.

Some show how different tools led to basic discoveries with important health applications. For instance, a supercomputer unlocked the secrets of a drug-making enzyme, a software tool identified disease-causing variations among family members and high-powered microscopy revealed a mechanism allowing microtubules—and a cancer drug that targets them—to work.

Another theme featured in several posts is novel uses for established technologies. The scientists behind the cool image put a new spin on a long-standing imaging technology to gain surprising insights into how some brain cells dispose of old parts. Similarly, the finding related to sepsis demonstrates yet another application of a standard lab technique called polymerase chain reaction: assessing the immune state of people with this serious medical condition.

“We need tools to answer questions,” says NIGMS’ Doug Sheeley, who oversees biomedical technology research resource grants. “When we find the answers, we ask new questions that then require new or improved tools. It’s a virtuous cycle that keeps science moving forward.”

Raking the Family Tree for Disease-Causing Variations

Silhouettes of people with nucleic acid sequences and a stethoscope.
A new software tool analyzes disease-causing genetic variations within a family. Credit: NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute.

Changes in your DNA sequence occur randomly and rarely. But when they do happen, they can increase your risk of developing common, complex diseases, such as cancer. One way to identify disease-causing variations is to study the genomes of family members, since the changes typically are passed down to subsequent generations.

To rake through a family tree for genetic variations with the highest probabilities of causing a disease, researchers combined several commonly-used statistical methods into a new software tool called pVAAST. The scientific team, which included Mark Yandell and Lynn Jorde of the University of Utah and Chad Huff of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, used the tool to identify the genetic causes of a chronic intestinal inflammation disease and of developmental defects affecting the heart, face and limbs.

The results confirmed previously identified genetic variations for the developmental diseases and pinpointed a previously unknown variation for the intestinal inflammation. Together, the findings confirm the ability of the tool to detect disease-causing genetic changes within a family. Another research team has already used the software tool to discover rare genetic changes associated with family cases of breast cancer. These studies are likely just the beginning for studying genetic patterns of diseases than run in a family.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Cancer Institute; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and National Institute of Mental Health.

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Meet Elizabeth Grice

Elizabeth Grice
Elizabeth Grice
First job: Detasseling corn
Favorite food: Chocolate
Pets: An adopted shelter cat, Dolce
Favorite city: Athens, Greece
Hidden talent: Baking creative desserts
Credit: Bill Branson, NIH

Imagine a landscape with peaks and valleys, folds and niches, cool, dry zones and hot, wet ones. Every inch is swarming with diverse communities, but there are no cities, no buildings, no fields and no forests.

You’ve probably thought little about the inhabitants, but you see their environment every day. It’s your largest organ—your skin.

Elizabeth Grice, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the skin microbiome to learn how and why bacteria colonize particular places on the body. Already, she’s found that the bacterial communities on healthy skin are different from those on diseased skin.

She hopes her work will point to ways of treating certain skin diseases, especially chronic wounds. “I like to think that I am making discoveries that will impact the way medicine is practiced,” she says.

Grice’s Findings

To investigate what role bacteria play in diabetic wounds, Grice and her colleagues took skin swabs from both diabetic and healthy mice, and then compared the two. They found that diabetic mice had about 40 times more bacteria on their skin, but it was concentrated into few species. A more diverse array of bacteria colonized the skin of healthy mice.

The researchers then gave each mouse a small wound and spent 28 days swabbing the sites to collect bacteria and observing how the skin healed. They found that wounds on diabetic mice started to increase in size at the same time as wounds on healthy mice began to heal. In about 2 weeks, most healthy mice looked as good as new. But most of the wounds on diabetic mice had barely healed even after a month.

Interestingly, bacterial communities in the wounds became more diverse in both groups of mice as they healed—although the wounds on diabetic mice still had less diversity than the ones on healthy mice.

“Bacterial diversity is probably a good thing, especially in wounds,” says Grice. “Often, potentially infectious bacteria are found on normal skin and are kept in check by the diversity of bacteria surrounding them.”

Grice and her colleagues also found distinctly different patterns of gene activity between the two groups of mice. As a result, the diabetic mice put out a longer-lasting immune response, including inflamed skin. Scientists believe prolonged inflammation might slow the healing process.

Grice’s team suspects that one of the main types of bacteria found on diabetic wounds, Staphylococcus, makes one of the inflammation-causing genes more active.

Now that they know more about the bacteria that thrive on diabetic wounds, Grice and her colleagues are a step closer to looking at whether they could reorganize these colonies to help the wounds heal.

Content adapted from the NIGMS Findings magazine article Body Bacteria.

On the Trail of Drug-Defying Superbugs

Antibiotic-resistant strains of Staphlyococcus aureus bacteria (purple) have become the most common cause of skin infections seen in hospital emergency departments. Credit: NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Antibiotic-resistant strains of Staphlyococcus aureus bacteria (purple) have become the most common cause of skin infections seen in hospital emergency departments. Credit: NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In the United States alone, at least 2 million people each year develop serious infections with bacteria that have become resistant to the antibiotics we use to combat them, and about 23,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotic resistance can turn once-manageable infections into “superbug” diseases that are difficult—and sometimes impossible—to treat.

Scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health are studying many aspects of antibiotic resistance, including how it spreads. Read this Inside Life Science article for just a few research examples and how the work could aid efforts to curb the emergence of resistance.