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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“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. 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.”
When someone mentions aging, you may think of visible changes, like graying hair. Scientists can see signs of aging in cells, too. Understanding how basic cell processes are involved in aging is a first step to help people lead longer, healthier lives. NIGMS-funded researchers are discovering how aging cells change and applying this knowledge to health care.
Discovering the Wisdom of Worms
C. elegans with a ribosomal protein glowing red and muscle fibers glowing green. Credit: Hannah Somers, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory.
Aric Rogers, Ph.D., and Jarod Rollins, Ph.D., assistant professors of regenerative biology and medicine at Mount Desert Island (MDI) Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, are investigating aging by studying a tiny roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans. Researchers often study C. elegans because, though it may seem drastically different from humans, it shares many genes and molecular pathways with us. Plus, its 2- to 3-week lifespan enables researchers to quickly see the effects of genetic or environmental factors on aging.
Drs. Rogers and Rollins investigate how C. elegans expresses genes differently under dietary restriction, enabling it to live longer. Understanding how genes are expressed when organisms live an extended life sheds light on the genetics underlying aging. This information could help researchers develop drugs or behavior modification programs that prolong life and delay the onset of age-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia.
Most of the mouthwatering dishes in a Thanksgiving feast share a vital ingredient: salt! Though the words “salt” and “sodium” are often used interchangeably, table salt is actually a compound combining the elements sodium and chloride. Table salt is the most common form that sodium takes on Earth. Many other sodium compounds are also useful to us. For instance, you might use baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate, in preparing Thanksgiving treats. Sodium compounds are also used in soaps and cosmetics and in producing paper, glass, metals, medicines, and more.
The best-known sodium compound is table salt (sodium chloride). Sodium also gives traditional streetlights their yellow glow and is essential for muscle and nerve function. Credit: Compound Interest. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge
Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D. Credit: University of California, Berkeley.
The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., and Emmanuelle Charpentier, Ph.D., for the development of the gene-editing tool CRISPR. Dr. Doudna shared her thoughts on the award and answered questions about CRISPR in a live chat with NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. Here are a few highlights from the interview.
Q: How did you find out that you won the Nobel Prize?
A: It’s a little bit of an embarrassing story. I slept through a very important phone call and finally woke up when a reporter called me. I was just coming out of a deep sleep, and the reporter was asking, “What do you think about the Nobel?” And I said, “I don’t know anything about it. Who won it?” I thought they were asking for comments on somebody else who won it. And she said, “Oh my gosh! You don’t know! You won it!”
To get a look at cell components that are too small to see with a normal light microscope, scientists often use cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). As the prefix cryo- means “cold” or “freezing,” cryo-EM involves rapidly freezing a cell, virus, molecular complex, or other structure to prevent water molecules from forming crystals. This preserves the sample in its natural state and keeps it still so that it can be imaged with an electron microscope, which uses beams of electrons instead of light. Some electrons are scattered by the sample, while others pass through it and through magnetic lenses to land on a detector and form an image.
Typically, samples contain many copies of the object a scientist wants to study, frozen in a range of orientations. Researchers take images of these various positions and combine them into a detailed 3D model of the structure. Electron microscopes allow us to see much smaller structures than light microscopes do because the wavelengths of electrons are much shorter than the wavelength of light. NIGMS-funded researchers are using cryo-EM to investigate a range of scientific questions.
Caught in Translation
3D reconstructions of two stages in the assembly of the bacterial ribosome created from time-resolved cryo-EM images. Credit: Joachim Frank, Columbia University.
Joachim Frank, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and of biological sciences at Columbia University in New York, New York, along with two other researchers, won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing cryo.
Dr. Frank’s lab focuses on the process of translation, where structures called ribosomes turn genetic instructions into proteins, which are needed for many chemical reactions that support life. Recently, Dr. Frank has adopted and further developed a technique called time-resolved cryo-EM. This method captures images of short-lived states in translation that disappear too quickly (after less than a second) for standard cryo-EM to capture. The ability to fully visualize translation could help researchers identify errors in the process that lead to disease and also to develop treatments.