Extreme Healing, Weird Genomics, and Bloodsucking Invaders

Quick quiz:  Which organism . . .

  • Can regrow a severed spinal cord?
  • Is a culinary delicacy overseas but an invasive pest in the U.S.?
  • Reveals insights about tissue regeneration, evolution, and cancer biology?

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CRISPR Illustrated

You’ve probably heard news stories and other talk about CRISPR. If you’re not a scientist—well, even if you are—it can seem a bit complex. Here’s a brief recap of what it’s all about.

In 1987, scientists noticed weird, repeating sequences of DNA in bacteria. In 2002, the abbreviation CRISPR was coined to describe the genetic oddity. By 2006, it was clear that bacteria use CRISPR to defend themselves against viruses. By 2012, scientists realized that they could modify the bacterial strategy to create a gene-editing tool. Since then, CRISPR has been used in countless laboratory studies to understand basic biology and to study whether it’s possible to correct faulty genes that cause disease. Here’s an illustration of how the technique works.

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Surgeon Chris McCulloh Stands Up to Disability

Profile picture of Chris McCulloh with short, light brown hair and wearing a suit, smiling.
Credit: Chris McCulloh.
Chris McCulloh

Job: 4th-year general surgical resident, Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey
Grew up in: Manhattan
When not at work, he’s: Programming, coding, thinking about artificial intelligence, and machine learning
Hobbies: Writing/producing electronic music, weightlifting

Ten years ago, Chris McCulloh planned to enter medical school and fulfill his dream of becoming a surgeon. Instead, just months before he was to start med school, he ended up a patient. A freak accident—slipping on a hardwood floor, flying backwards, and landing neck-first on the edge of a glass coffee table—left him with both legs paralyzed at age 28. Undaunted, he deferred entering medical school for a year, undergoing surgery and spending months in rehab.

Chris McCulloh on a specialized wheelchair that holds him upright, wearing surgical scrubs and cap, in a hospital hallway alongside Elizabeth Vargas, also in scrubs and cap..
McCulloh prepares for surgery while “20/20” host Elizabeth Vargas stands alongside him as part of a 2017 interview.
Credit: Morristown Medical Center.

McCulloh has since finished medical school and recently completed a 2-year pediatric surgery research fellowship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. He is now two-thirds of the way through his surgical residency at the Morristown (New Jersey) Medical Center, thanks to the assistance of a specialized wheelchair that allows him to stand nearly to his 6-foot-3 height and helps him perform five to six surgeries a day.

He’s received plenty of attention for being a surgeon with a disability. Along with several print media stories, he was interviewed in 2013 for CBS’ “The Doctors,” and in 2017, ABC’s “20/20” included McCulloh in an episode on physicians with disabilities. But it’s not the wheelchair that distinguishes McCulloh, says Gail Besner, a pediatric surgeon and researcher who hired McCulloh as a postdoctoral fellow. Rather, it’s his enthusiasm, natural research skills, and exceptional surgical prowess that make him special. Besner sees no reason why he won’t reach his goal of landing a highly competitive pediatric surgical residency. “I think he’s capable of doing anything he puts his mind to,” she says.

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Spark Student Interest in Science with SEPA-Funded Education Materials

NIGMS cares deeply about our future generations of scientists. That’s why we continue to fund educational tools that make science exciting for students with the hope of steering them toward career paths in science. These materials are available to educators for free through the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program.

SEPA funds innovative Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM Link to external web site) and Informal Science Education (ISE Link to external web site) projects for pre-kindergarten through grade 12. By encouraging interactive partnerships between biomedical and clinical researchers and educators, schools, and other interested organizations, SEPA provides opportunities to:

  • Motivate students from underserved communities to consider careers in basic or clinical research
  • Improve community health literacy

SEPA-Funded Resources

Here are just a few SEPA-funded resources that educators can use to peak their students’ interest in science:

Charles Darwin Synthetic Interview Link to external web site (middle school through grade 9, and general public)

Still shot of a virtual Charles Darwin standing by a chalkboard that reads The Synthetic Review: Darwin and waiting for the app user to make their selection.
Credit: The Partnership in Education.

In this free interactive experience for iOS and Android devices, students learn about Charles Darwin, the naturalist, geologist, and leading contributor to the fundamental principles of evolution. Students select from a list of questions to ask a virtual Darwin and receive insight into topics that include:

  • His childhood and personal quirks
  • His adventures
  • Principles of evolution
  • Public response to his discovery

Modern-day biologists and other experts provide commentary and answer questions beyond Darwin’s 19th century knowledge. A pay version of the app includes many more questions and answers. Lesson plans and other lessons on evolution Link to external web site are also included with the apps, which were developed by The Partnership in Education at Duquesne University, along with several other SEPA-funded resources.

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Excellence in Science Mentoring Honored in Washington, D.C.

Six NIGMS grantees are among this year’s winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM)Link to external web site. The award was established by the White House in 1995. This year, it went to 27 individuals and 14 organizations.

PAESMEM recipients were honored during a 3-day eventLink to external web site in Washington, D.C. The event featured a gala presentation ceremony and a White House tour. In addition, each winner received a $10,000 grant from the National Science Foundation,Link to external web site which manages PAESMEM on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The event also included the first-ever White House State-Federal STEM Education Summit. During the summit, awardees joined leaders in education and workforce development from across the nation, including U.S. territories and several Native American tribes, to discuss trends and future priorities in STEM education. The discussions will inform the development of the next Federal STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan,Link to external web site which must be updated every 5 years according to the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.Link to external web site

The six NIGMS-supported PAESMEM winners are listed below. In this blog, we will highlight the work of each one, starting with Ann L. Chester and John A. Pollock.

  • Ann L. Chester, Ph.D., West Virginia University
  • John K. Haynes, Ph.D., Morehouse College
  • John A. Pollock, Ph.D., Duquesne University
  • Elba Elisa Serrano, Ph.D., New Mexico State University
  • Virginia Shepherd, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University
  • Maria da Graça H. Vicente, Ph.D., Louisiana State University

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Interview With a Scientist – Rommie Amaro: Computational and Theoretical Model Builder

Many researchers who search for anti-cancer drugs have labs filled with chemicals and tissue samples. Not Rommie Amaro Link to external web site. Her work uses computers to analyze the shape and behavior of a protein called p53. Defective versions of p53 are associated with more human cancers than any other malfunctioning protein.

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Americans Fighting the Opioid Crisis in Their Own Backyards

Heat maps of the U.S. for 2003 through 2014, showing overdose deaths per 100,000. The heat maps illustrate significant increase of deaths over the years, with deaths concentrated in western U.S. and parts of eastern U.S.

Credit: New York Times article, Jan. 19, 2016.

The United States is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. The rates of opioid addiction, babies born addicted to opioids, and overdoses have skyrocketed in the past decade. No population has been hit harder than rural communities. Many of these communities are in states with historically low levels of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIGMS’ Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program builds research capacities in these states by supporting basic, clinical, and translational research, as well as faculty development and infrastructure improvements. IDeA-funded programs in many states have begun prioritizing research focused on reducing the burden of opioid addiction. Below is a snapshot of three of these programs, and how they are working to help their communities:

Vermont Center on Behavior and HealthLink to external web site

Because there are generally fewer treatment resources in rural areas compared to larger cities, it can take longer for people addicted to opioids in rural settings to get the care they need. The Vermont Center on Behavior and Health works to address this need and its major implications.

“One very disconcerting trend we’re seeing with this recent crisis is that opioid-addicted individuals are being placed on wait lists lasting months to a year without any kind of treatment,” says Vermont Center on Behavior and Health director Stephen Higgins. “And it’s very unlikely that anyone who is opioid addicted is just going to abstain while they are on a wait list.”

In urban areas, buprenorphine—an approved medication for opioid addiction that can prevent or reduce withdrawal symptoms—is generally dispensed by trained physicians at treatment clinics. Unfortunately, many rural communities don’t have enough physicians and clinics to serve patients in need. While waiting for treatment, patients are at risk of premature death, overdose, and contracting diseases such as HIV.

Stacey Sigmon, a faculty member in the Vermont Center on Behavior Health, has developed a method to help tackle this problem: a modified version of a tamper-proof device that delivers daily doses of buprenorphine. The advantage of using the modified device is that it makes each day’s dose available during a preprogrammed 3-hour window within the patient’s home, eliminating the need to visit a clinic.

During a study, participants in the treatment group received interim buprenorphine from the device. They also received daily calls to assess drug use, craving, and withdrawal. Participants in the control group didn’t receive buprenorphine. They remained on the waiting list of their local clinic and didn’t receive phone calls. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), indicate that the device works. Participants who received the interim buprenorphine treatment submitted a higher percentage of drug test specimens that were negative for opioids than those in the control group at 4 weeks (88 percent vs. 0 percent), 8 weeks (84 percent vs. 0 percent), and 12 weeks (68 percent vs. 0 percent). Sigmon and colleagues are currently testing the device with a much larger group of participants.

“This tool is now available to other rural states that are also being devastated by this crisis and are not so far along in beefing up treatment capacity,” says Higgins.

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Interview With a Scientist—Julius Lucks: Shape Seeker

While DNA acts as the hard drive of the cell, storing the instructions to make all of the proteins the cell needs to carry out its various duties, another type of genetic material, RNA, takes on a wide variety of tasks, including gene regulation, protein synthesis, and sensing of metals and metabolites. Each of these jobs is handled by a slightly different molecule of RNA. But what determines which job a certain RNA molecule is tasked with? Primarily its shape. Julius LucksLink to external web site, a biological and chemical engineer at Northwestern University, and his team study the many ways in which RNA can bend itself into new shapes and how those shapes dictate the jobs the RNA molecule can take on.

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Interview With a Scientist—Elhanan Borenstein: Metagenomics Systems Biology


Cataloging the human microbiome—the complete collection of bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists, and viruses that live in and on our bodies—is an enormous task. Most estimates put the number of organisms who call us home on par with the number of our own cells. Imagine trying to figure out how the billions of critters influence each other and, ultimately, impact our health. Elhanan Borenstein,Link to external web site a computer scientist-cum-genomicist at the University of Washington, and his team are not only tackling this difficult challenge, they are also trying to obtain a systems-level understanding of the collective effect of all of the genes, proteins, and metabolites produced by the numerous species within the microbiome.

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Molecular Fireworks: How Microtubules Form Inside Cells

A video depicting red strands of various lengths exploding outward from a focal point at the left. The strands are tipped in neon green.
       Microtubules sprout from one another. Credit: Petry lab, Princeton University.

The red spray pictured here may look like fireworks erupting across the night sky on July 4th, but it’s actually a rare glimpse of tiny protein strands called microtubules sprouting and growing from one another in a lab. Microtubules are the largest of the molecules that form a cell’s skeleton. When a cell divides, microtubules help ensure that each daughter cell has a complete set of genetic information from the parent. They also help organize the cell’s interior and even act as miniature highways for certain proteins to travel along.

As their name suggests, microtubules are hollow tubes made of building blocks called tubulins. Scientists know that a protein called XMAP215 adds tubulin proteins to the ends of microtubules to make them grow, but until recently, the way that a new microtubule starts forming remained a mystery.

Sabine Petry Link to external web site and her colleagues at Princeton University developed a new imaging method for watching microtubules as they develop and found an important clue to the mystery. They adapted a technique called total internal reflection fluorescence (TIRF) microscopy, which lit up only a tiny sliver of a sample from frog egg (Xenopus) tissue. This allowed the scientists to focus clearly on a few of the thousands of microtubules in a normal cell. They could then see what happened when they added certain proteins to the sample.

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