Happy Birthday, BioBeat

This month, our blog that highlights NIGMS-funded research turns four years old! For each candle, we thought we’d illuminate an aspect of the blog to offer you, our reader, an insider’s view.

Who are we?

Over the years, the editorial team has included onsite science writers, office interns, staff scientists and guest authors from universities. Kathryn, who’s a regular contributor, writes entirely from her home office. Chris, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and now manages the blog, used to do research in a lab. Alisa has worked in NIGMS’ Bethesda-based office the longest: 22 years! She and I remember when we first launched Biomedical Beat as an e-newsletter in 2005. You can read more about each of the writers on the contributors page and if you know someone who’s considering a career in science communications, tell them to drop us a line.

How do we come up with the stories?

We get our story ideas from a range of sources. For instance, newspaper articles about an experimental pest control strategy in Florida and California prompted us to write about NIGMS-funded studies exploring the basic science of the technique. A beautiful visual from a grantee’s institution inspired a short post on tissue regeneration research. And an ongoing conversation with NIGMS scientific staff about the important role of research organisms in biological studies sparked the idea for a playful profile of one such science superstar.

A big change in our storytelling has been shifting the focus from a single finding to broader progress in a lab or field. So instead of reporting on a study just published in a scientific journal, we may write about the scientist’s career path or showcase a collection of recent findings in that particular field. These approaches help us demonstrate that scientific understanding usually progresses through the slow and steady work undertaken by many labs.

What are our favorite posts?

I polled the writers on posts they liked, and the list is really long! Here are the top picks.


Four Ways Inheritance Is More Complex Than Mendel Knew


The Endoplasmic Reticulum: Networking in the Cell


Interview With a Scientist: Janet Iwasa, Molecular Animator


From Basic Research to Bioelectric Medicine


An Insider’s Look at Life: Magnified, an Airport Exhibit of Stunning Microscopy Images

What are your favorite posts?

We regularly review data about the number of times a blog post has been viewed to identify the ones that interest readers the most. That information also helps guide our decisions about other topics to feature on the blog. The Cool Image posts are among the most popular! Below are some other chart-topping posts.


Our Complicated Relationship With Viruses


The Proteasome: The Cells Trash Processor in Action


Demystifying General Anesthetics


Meet Sarkis Mazmanian and the Bacteria That Keep Us Healthy


5 Reasons Biologists Love Math

We always like hearing from readers! If there’s a basic biomedical research topic you’d like us to write about, or if you have feedback on a story or the blog in general, please leave your suggestions in the comment field below or email me.

RISE-ing Above: Embracing Physical Disability in the Lab

This is the fourth post in a new series highlighting NIGMS’ efforts toward developing a robust, diverse and well-trained scientific workforce.

Marina Nakhla

Marina Z. Nakhla
Hometown: West Los Angeles, California
Blogs For: Ottobock “Life in Motion,” Exit icon a forum for the amputee community, where she’s covered topics ranging from medical insurance to dating.
Influential Book: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Favorite TV Show: Grey’s Anatomy
Languages: English and Arabic
Unusual Fact: Gets a new pair of legs every year or two

Nakhla at her graduation from California State University, Northridge, where she graduated with a B.A. in psychology with honors. She is currently a second-year master’s student there studying clinical psychology. Credit: Christina Nakhla.

When Marina Z. Nakhla was just a toddler, she lost both of her legs. Now 22 and a graduate student at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), she has hurdled obstacles most of us never face.

Nakhla conducts research to better understand the decrease in mental abilities experienced by people with brain diseases. She is a scholar in CSUN’s Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) Program. This training program aims to enrich and diversify the pool of future biomedical researchers. Her long-term goal is to earn a Ph.D., to work as a clinical psychologist and to continue conducting research in neuropsychology. Along the way, she aspires to be a leader to her peers and an advocate for underrepresented people, particularly those with disabilities.

I first learned about Nakhla from an email message titled “CSUN RISE Student.” The acronym, pronounced “see [the] sun rise,” is an apt motto for a program that prepares students for a bright future in science. I believe it also encapsulates Nakhla’s positive, forward-looking mindset, despite the obstacles she has faced. Here’s her story:

Q: What got you interested in science?

A: Growing up, I was always drawn to science. I enjoyed learning how things work. I first became interested in psychology after reading The Catcher in the Rye in high school. I was so intrigued by Holden Caulfield’s thought processes and experiences of alienation and depression, despite the fact that he came from a wealthy family and went to a good school.

Why are some people more prone to experiencing depression? Why are some peoples’ thought processes so different than others? What factors contribute to resiliency? How can we help these people? These questions also made me think about the significant adversities that I had personally experienced. My desire to know more about the brain, as well as my personal experiences, instilled my passion to make a difference in others’ lives through science. Continue reading “RISE-ing Above: Embracing Physical Disability in the Lab”

Cool Image: Biological Bubbles

Cells are in the process of pinching off parts of their membranes to produce bubbles filled with a mix of proteins and RNAs. Researchers are harnessing this process to develop better drug delivery techniques. The image, courtesy of Chi Zhao, David Busch, Connor Vershel and Jeanne Stachowiak of the University of Texas at Austin, was entered in the Biophysical Society’s 2017 Art of Science Image contest and featured on the NIH Director’s Blog.

This fiery-looking image shows animal cells caught in the act of making bubbles, or blebbing.

Certain cells regularly pinch off parts of their membranes to produce bubbles filled with a mix of proteins and RNAs. The green and yellow portions in the image show the cell membranes as they separate from the cell’s skeleton and bleb from the main cell. The bubbles, shown in red, are called plasma-derived membrane vesicles, or PMVs. PMVs can travel to other parts of the body where they may aid in cell-to-cell communication.

The University of Texas at Austin researchers who produced this image are exploring ways to use PMVs to deliver medicines to precise locations in the body.

Blebbing for Drug Delivery

Drug delivery research tries to find ways to carry medicines to only the tissues in the body that need them with the goal of reducing side effects. To achieve this, delivery methods need to recognize just the cells they target, usually by finding a unique protein on the cell’s surface. Scientists can make proteins that recognize and attach to targets such as cancer cells, but they’ve had trouble attaching medicines to the proteins they made. To get around this problem, scientists could employ PMV-making cells in a laboratory, perhaps even cells taken from a patient who is receiving treatment. They could engineer the cells to make the targeting proteins and then attach the targeting proteins to the PMV surface. The cell’s own protein-making machinery does the hardest job.

The Texas scientists have engineered such donor cells with proteins on their surfaces that precisely target certain kinds of breast cancer cells. When the donor cells are induced to bleb, they produce PMVs laden with the target proteins that locate and bind to the cancer cells.

Researchers hope that eventually PMVs with surface targeting proteins could be filled with medicines and infused into the patient to deliver the drugs specifically to cancerous cells while leaving healthy tissues untouched. Research will continue to investigate this possibility.

This research was funded in part by NIH under grant R01GM112065.

Viruses: Manufacturing Tycoons?

Pseudomonas chlororaphis

A computer image shows a bacterial cell invaded by a virus. The virus uses the cell to copy itself many times. It has built a protein compartment (red, rough circle surrounding the center) to house its DNA. Viral heads (blue, smaller pentagonal shapes spread through out) and tails (pink, rod shaped near the edges) are essential parts of a finished viral particle. The small, light blue particles are the bacterium’s own protein-making ribosomes. Credit: Vorrapon Chaikeeratisak, Kanika Khanna, Axel Brilot and Katrina Nguyen.

As inventors and factory owners learned during the Industrial Revolution, the best way to manufacture a lot of products is with an assembly line that follows a set of precisely organized steps employing many copies of identical and interchangeable parts. Some viruses are among life’s original mass producers: They use sophisticated organization principles to turn bacterial cells into virus particle factories.

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of California, San Francisco, used cutting-edge techniques to watch a bacteria-infecting virus (bacteriophage) set up its particle-making factory inside a host cell.

The image above shows this happening inside a Pseudomonas chlororaphis, a soil-borne bacterium that protects plants against fungal pathogens. The virus builds a compartment (red, rough circle surrounding the center) that helps organize an assembly line for making copies of itself. The compartment looks like a cell nucleus, which bacteria do not have, and it functions like a nucleus by keeping activities that directly involve DNA separate from other cellular functions. Continue reading “Viruses: Manufacturing Tycoons?”

Chasing Fireflies—and Better Cellular Imaging Techniques

firefly
Firefly. Credit: Stock photo.

The yellow-green glow from this summer’s fireflies teased my kids across the yard. Max and Stella zigzagged the grass, occasionally jumping into the air to cup a firefly in their hands and then proudly shouting, “I got one!”

Chasing fireflies on a summer night is a childhood rite of passage for many, including Nathan Shaner who grew up in New Jersey. “It was one of my favorite things about summer,” he recalls. “I’d catch them with my hands—I’d never jar them.”

Today, Shaner studies the science of bioluminescence, which gives fireflies and many other organisms the natural ability to emit light. His goal is to make bright bioluminescent tags that he and other scientists can use to study living cells in greater detail. “There’s this very beautiful thing that evolved in nature, and we can use it to enable new discoveries,” he says.

Thousands of organisms glow as a way to communicate, spook predators, lure prey or attract mates. There are a few terrestial examples, such as fireflies, glowworm insect larvae and foxfire fungi, and many more acquatic ones, including types of marine plankton, fish, jellyfish, shrimp, squid and sea urchins. One research team estimated nearly three quarters of sea life have bioluminescent capabilities.

Bioluminescence is common across the tree of life (left to right): Panellus Stipticus (foxfire fungi); Lampryis noctiluca (glowworm insect); Aurelia Aurita (moon jellyfish). Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ylem; Wikimedia Commons, Wofl; stock photo.

Every studied case of bioluminescence involves oxygen, a light-emitting pigment called luciferin and a protein called luciferase. Luciferase encourages the pigment’s reaction with oxygen, releasing energy in the form of light. Although many bioluminescent creatures have their own form of luciferase, they share just a handful of luciferins. For example, the luciferin called coelenterazine is found in many aquatic organisms. Continue reading “Chasing Fireflies—and Better Cellular Imaging Techniques”

Interview With a Scientist: Namandjé Bumpus, Drug Metabolism Maven

Medications are designed to treat diseases and make us healthier. But our bodies don’t know that. To them, medications are merely foreign molecules that need to be removed.

Before our bodies can get rid of these drug molecules, enzymes in the liver do the chemical work of preparing the molecules for removal. There are hundreds of different versions of these drug-processing enzymes. Some versions work quickly, others work slowly. In some cases, the versions you have determine how well a medication works for you, and whether you experience side effects from it.

Namandjé Bumpus Exit icon, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is interested in how human bodies respond to HIV medications. She studies the enzymes that process these drugs. Her research team discovered that a genetic variant of a liver enzyme impacts the way some people handle a particular HIV drug. This variant is found in around 80 percent of people of European descent. She describes her work in this video.

Bumpus recently presented her research to a more scientifically advanced audience at an Early Career Investigator Lecture at the National Institutes of Health. Watch her talk titled Drug Metabolism, Pharmacogenetics and the Quest to Personalize HIV Treatment and Prevention.

Dr. Bumpus’ work is supported in part by NIGMS grant R01GM103853.

The Drama of Cell Death

spermatids

Spermatids—one stage in the formation of sperm—in the fruit fly (Drosophila). Credit: Sigi Benjamin-Hong, Rockefeller University (modified).

Although it looks like a bursting firework from a Fourth of July celebration, this image actually was created from pictures of spermatids—one stage in the formation of sperm—in the fruit fly (Drosophila). Drosophila is an organism that scientists often use as a model for studying how cells accomplish their amazing tasks. Drosophila studies can help reveal where an essential cellular process goes wrong in diseases such as autoimmune conditions or cancer. Cell death, or apoptosis, is one of these processes.

Almost every animal cell has the ability to destroy itself via apoptosis. Apoptosis is important because it allows the body both to develop normally and get rid of dangerous and unwanted cells when it needs to later in life, such as when cells become cancerous. Many different signals both within and outside the cell influence whether apoptosis happens when it should, and abnormal regulation of this process is associated with some diseases. Hermann Steller Exit icon and colleagues at Rockefeller University in New York City study Drosophila and mammalian cells to tease apart the steps of apoptosis and the many molecular signals that regulate it. Continue reading “The Drama of Cell Death”

Flipping the Switch on Controlling Disease-Carrying Insects

Illustration of some of the jobs that the ER performs in the cell.

This image shows a mosquito egg. Wolbachia bacteria, which infect many species of insects including mosquitos, move from one generation to the next inside insect eggs. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Mogana Das Murtey and Patchamuthu Ramasamy, Universiti Sains, Malaysia.

Suppressing insects that spread disease is an essential public health effort, and scientists are testing a possible new tool to use in this challenging arena. They’re harnessing a microbe capable of controlling insects’ reproductive processes.

The microbes, called Wolbachia, live inside the cells of about two-thirds of insect species worldwide, and they can manipulate the host’s reproductive cells in ways that boost their own survival. Scientists think they can use Wolbachia’s methods to reduce populations of insects that spread disease among humans.

A Switch to Control Fertility

Wolbachia have evolved complex ways to control insect reproduction so as to infect increasing numbers of an insect species—such as those prolific disease-spreaders, mosquitos. One method Wolbachia uses is called cytoplasmic incompatibility, or CI. The end result of CI, basically, is that the sperm of infected male insects cause sterility in uninfected females.

Wolbachia that have infected male insects can insert proteins that produce a kind of infertility switch into the host’s sperm. When the sperm later fuses with an egg from an uninfected female, the switch is triggered and renders the egg sterile. If the female is already infected, her eggs will contain Wolbachia, which can turn off the switch and allow the egg to develop. This trick ensures that more Wolbachia-infected insects will survive and continue to reproduce, while uninfected ones will be less successful.

Already, some states Exit icon and countries Exit icon are releasing Wolbachia-infected male mosquitoes into wild mosquito populations that carry disease-causing viruses to test this strategy for insect control. Males carrying a Wolbachia strain that strongly induces infertility in uninfected females should reduce the numbers of mosquito eggs that mature, leading to fewer mosquitos. Continue reading “Flipping the Switch on Controlling Disease-Carrying Insects”

Researchers Score Goal with New Atomic-Scale Model of Salmonella-Infecting Virus

An atomic-scale model of a virus that infects the Salmonella bacterium. Credit: C. Hryc and the Chiu Lab, Baylor College of Medicine.

This sphere could be a prototype design for the 2018 World Cup official match soccer ball, but you won’t see it dribbled around any soccer fields. The image is actually an atomic-scale model of a virus that infects the Salmonella bacterium. Like a soccer ball, both are approximately spherical shapes created by a combination of hexagonal (six-sided) and pentagonal (five-sided) units. Wah Chiu, a biochemist at Baylor College of Medicine, and his colleagues used new computational methods to construct the model from more than 20,000 cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) images. Cryo-EM is a sophisticated technique that uses electron beams for visualizing frozen samples of proteins and other biological specimens.

The researchers’ model, published in a recent issue of PNAS, shows the virus’ protein shell, or capsid, that encloses the virus’ genetic material. Each color shows capsid proteins having the same interactions with their neighbors. The fine resolution allowed researchers to identify the protein interactions essential to building a stable shell. They developed a new approach to checking the accuracy and reliability of the virus model and reporting what parts are the most certain. The approach could be used to evaluate other complex biological structures, potentially leading to better quality models and new avenues for drug design and development.

This research is funded in part by NIH under grants R01GM079429, P01GM063210, P41GM103832, PN2EY016525, T15LM007093.

Sea Urchin Regeneration May Help Us Understand Aging

Sea urchin

The variegated sea urchin typically lives for about 4 years in the wild. The close-up view shows the sea urchin’s spines and tube feet that regrew after being removed 15 days earlier. Credit: Helena Reinardy (left) and Andrea Bodnar (right), Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.

If you’ve ever been to the beach and walked around the rocks during low tide, you’ve probably seen a sea urchin. You may not have known that sea urchins found along the Pacific shore can live for more than 100 years. What’s even cooler is that, as they age, they don’t seem to lose their abilities to reproduce or regenerate damaged body parts. While different species of sea urchins have varying life expectancies, they all seem to share fountain-of-youth characteristics. For these and other reasons, scientists study sea urchins to investigate aging and other basic life processes. Continue reading “Sea Urchin Regeneration May Help Us Understand Aging”