Zinc: Zapping Invaders

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Although zinc may appear last on nutrition labels, it’s the second-most abundant trace element in our bodies, behind only iron. (Trace elements are molecules our bodies need in small amounts to stay healthy). Zinc is crucial for a well-functioning immune system, wound healing, physical growth, the senses of taste and smell, and the construction of proteins and DNA. It can also partner with oxygen to form zinc oxide, a compound that scatters ultraviolet light and can act as a protective barrier over inflamed skin. Many sunscreens, burn ointments, diaper creams, and other skin treatments contain zinc oxide.

A graphic showing zinc’s abbreviation, atomic number, and atomic weight connected by lines to illustrations of an I-beam, a cosmetics bottle, and a pill. Zinc may help shorten colds, and it’s part of a compound that can protect skin from ultraviolet light. The element is also used to coat other metals and prevent rusting. Credit: Compound Interest. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge
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Through the Looking Glass: Microscopic Structures in Many Sizes

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We seldom see microscopic objects next to one another, so it can be difficult to picture how they compare. For instance, it might surprise you that a thousand cold-virus particles could line up across one human skin cell! The largest objects that scientists view through microscopes are about a millimeter (roughly the size of a poppyseed), and they’re about 10 million times larger than the smallest molecules scientists can view: atoms.

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COVID-19 Vaccine and Therapeutic Trials ACTIV-ate in West Virginia

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Hands in medical gloves drawing liquid from a vial into a syringe with a model of SARS-CoV-2 in the background. ACTIV clinical trials will evaluate the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Credit: iStock.

Since the virus that causes COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2, was first reported in late 2019, scientists have launched hundreds of studies on strategies for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. To prioritize the most promising vaccine and therapeutics candidates, streamline clinical trials, and coordinate regulatory processes, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Foundation for the NIH have established the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) partnership. ACTIV brings together eight government entities, 20 biopharmaceutical companies, and four nonprofit organizations.

The public-private partnership provides infrastructure, subject matter expertise, and funding to efficiently bring the most promising therapeutics and vaccines into clinical trials. Five ACTIV therapeutic trials are underway. NIGMS-supported Institutional Development Award Program Infrastructure for Clinical and Translational Research (IDeA-CTR) networks reach historically underserved areas and populations, which are important participants in such trials.

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Cool Images: Bewitching Bacteria

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Some bacteria benefit us as part of our microbiome—the vast collection of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies—while others can make us sick. Whether helpful or dangerous, bacteria can appear colorful and striking under a microscope. These photos provide just a small peek into the incredible diversity of these microbes.

A green pattern resembling a flower on a red background. Credit: Liyang Xiong and Lev Tsimring, BioCircuits Institute, UCSD.

This floral pattern emerged when a researcher grew two strains of bacteria—Acinetobacter baylyi (red) and Escherichia coli (green)—together for 2 days in a petri dish. A. baylyi are found in soil and typically don’t pose a threat to humans, although some strains can cause infections. E. coli normally live in the intestines of people and animals. Most strains are harmless, but some can cause food poisoning or other illnesses.

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Fight Against COVID-19 Aided by Sepsis Researchers

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Oblong light-blue structures with red spots in the middle connected to the surface of a sphere. Spike proteins on the surface of a coronavirus. Credit: David Veesler, University of Washington.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from many areas of biomedical science have worked together to learn how this new disease affects the human body, how to prevent its spread, and how to treat it. Severe cases of COVID-19 and cases of sepsis share many symptoms. Sepsis is the body’s overactive and extreme response to an infection. It’s unpredictable and can progress rapidly. Without prompt treatment, it can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.

Sepsis has similarities with some cases of COVID-19, most likely because the two conditions trigger the same reactions at the cellular level. Researchers have studied these reactions in sepsis for many years.

“When we look back on 2020 and the speed with which progress was made against COVID-19, two features will stand out,” says John Younger, M.D., a member of the NIGMS Advisory Council who recently co-chaired a working group on advancing sepsis research. “The first is how quickly the biotechnology community came together to develop vaccine candidates. The second, and arguably the most immediately impactful, is how caregivers and clinical researchers were able to rapidly refine the care of COVID-19 patients based on decades of experience with sepsis.”

This post highlights a few of the many sepsis researchers supported by NIGMS who are applying their expertise to COVID-19.

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Career Conversations: Q&A with Organic Chemist Osvaldo Gutierrez

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Osvaldo Gutierrez, Ph.D., was born in Rancho Los Prietos, a small town in central Mexico where his grandmother served as a midwife. Seeing how his grandmother helped people through her work inspired Dr. Gutierrez to pursue a career where he, too, could help people. His family emigrated to the United States when he was young. Despite challenges he faced in a new country, he graduated from high school, attended community college, and was accepted to the University of California, Los Angeles. He originally planned to become a medical doctor, but an undergraduate research experience sparked an interest in chemistry, and he ultimately earned a Ph.D. in the field.

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Year in Review: Our Top Three Posts of 2020

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Over the year, we dove into the inner workings of cells, interviewed award-winning researchers supported by NIGMS, shared a cool collection of science-themed backgrounds for video calls, and more. Here, we highlight three of the most popular posts from 2020. Tell us which of this year’s posts you liked best in the comments section below!

The Science of Infectious Disease Modeling

Oblong light-blue structures with red spots in the middle connected to the surface of a sphere. Spike proteins on the surface of a coronavirus. Credit: David Veesler, University of Washington.

What does “modeling the spread” (or “flattening the curve”) mean, and how does it apply to infectious diseases such as COVID-19? Learn about the science of infectious disease modeling and how NIGMS supports scientists in the field.

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An Enlightening Protein

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A fly glowing green. A fruit fly expressing GFP. Credit: Jay Hirsh, University of Virginia.

During the holiday season, twinkling lights are a common sight. But no matter what time of the year, you can see colorful glows in many biology labs. Scientists have enabled many organisms to light up in the dark—from cells to fruit flies and Mexican salamanders. These glowing organisms help researchers better understand basic cell processes because their DNA has been edited to express molecules such as green fluorescent protein.

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Expert Advice on Starting a Lab

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During our Starting Your Own Lab webinar, attendees asked so many insightful questions that we ran out of time to respond to all of them. So we asked nine NIGMS early career investigators to tackle the most popular ones in short videos, which were featured on our social media. Now, you can watch the whole series on our YouTube channel.

1. What advice do you have for postdocs searching for a faculty position?
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Preparing Students in Puerto Rico for Biomedical Careers

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“There’s knowledge to seize in Puerto Rico, and our program is letting students know that they have a really important role to play in solving local problems, that they are part of the solution,” says Isar P. Godreau, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Cayey Institute of Interdisciplinary Research.

Dr. Godreau, along with fellow researchers Mariluz Franco-Ortiz, Ph.D., at UPR Cayey Institute of Interdisciplinary Research, and Raymond Louis Tremblay, Ph.D., at UPR Humacao, directs an NIGMS Innovative Programs to Enhance Research Training (IPERT) grant. The UPR IPERT supports undergraduates throughout the university’s 11 campuses.

Resources Reach Thousands

Dr. Ortiz standing with other standing and kneeling students in a classroom, smiling and waving. Dr. Franco-Ortiz (second from right) with students during a Coaching for Resiliency workshop session. Credit: Ivonne Bayron-Huertas, Ph.D.

Furthering NIGMS’ goals to create a highly skilled and diverse biomedical workforce, UPR IPERT provides undergraduate students from economically disadvantaged families with skills development and mentoring opportunities. One of the program’s main components is a series of Coaching for Resiliency workshops, which cover topics such as dealing with stress, managing family expectations, and handling financial challenges. A coach leads each group that includes about 10 to 15 first-year students and half as many second-year or higher students who act as peer mentors.

The coaching sessions help students connect with one another and with mentors. “One of the main accomplishments beyond the numbers is the power of networking,” says Dr. Franco-Ortiz. “The power of networking at different levels—from student mentors and faculty mentors at the UPR campus as well as abroad—is so crucial in terms of helping students who are looking for next steps.”

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