Author: Abbey Bigler-Coyne

Headshot of Abbey Bigler

Abbey is a science writer who enjoys making important biological science and public health information accessible to everyone.

Posts by Abbey Bigler-Coyne

Science Snippet: Zooming In on Nanoparticles

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A circle divided into six different, brightly colored slices, each with a different style of nanoparticle. In the center is a gray circle with the word nanoparticles.
Nanoparticles come in many different shapes and configurations. Credit: Adapted from Stevens, et. al., under Creative Commons License 4.0.

Nanoparticles may sound like gadgets from a science fiction movie, but they exist in real life. They’re particles of any material that are less than 100 nanometers (one-billionth of a meter) in all dimensions. Nanoparticles appear in nature, and humans have, mostly unknowingly, used them since ancient times. For example, hair dyeing in ancient Egypt involved lead sulfite nanoparticles, and artisans in the Middle Ages added gold and silver nanoparticles to stained-glass windows. Over the past several decades, researchers have studied nanoparticles for their potential uses in many fields, from computer engineering to biology.

A nanoparticle’s properties can differ significantly from those of larger pieces of the same material. Properties that may change include:

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What Is Antibiotic Resistance?

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Large clumps of blue, spherical bacteria on a rough, green surface.
Antibiotic resistance is a risk for patients undergoing joint replacement surgery, for example, when the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus group together (blue) and attach to the surface of the implant (green). Credit: Tripti Thapa Gupta, Khushi Patel, and Paul Stoodley, The Ohio State University; Alex Horswill, University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Bacteria can cause many common illnesses, including strep throat and ear infections. If you’ve ever gone to the doctor for one of these infections, they likely prescribed an antibiotic—a medicine designed to fight bacteria. Because bacteria can also cause life-threatening infections, antibiotics have saved many lives. However, the widespread use of antibiotics has fueled a growing problem: antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can survive some or even all antibiotics. Other microorganisms, including fungi, can similarly become resistant to the medicines that are used to treat them. Infections from these microorganisms affect many people and are difficult to treat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S. alone, resistant bacteria and fungi infect 2.8 million people each year, and more than 35,000 die as a result.

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Claira Sohn Cultivates Neurons and Diversity in the STEM Community

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A headshot of Claira Sohn.
Credit: Courtesy of Claira Sohn.

Claira Sohn credits her grandfather with sparking her interest in science. Although he never studied science at a 4-year university due to financial limitations, he took many community college classes and worked in chemistry labs developing products such as hair dyes and dissolvable stitches. “Every morning, my grandfather would take me to school, and we’d stop to get orange juice and a cookie and talk about science. When I was in elementary school, he bought me a book about quantum mechanics written for kids,” she says. “He inspired me to ask questions and encouraged me to go to college.”

Claira enrolled at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff after graduating high school. She majored in biomedical sciences and planned to become a medical doctor until her microbiology professor talked to her about the possibility of a research career. “That was an epiphany for me, because while I knew that there was research going on in the world, I didn’t realize there could be a place for me there,” Claira says. During her junior year, she joined the lab of Naomi Lee, Ph.D., where she first experienced what it felt like to be a researcher.

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Quiz: Sepsis Science

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Many oblong bacteria, some with a narrow band near their middle.
Bacteria are the most common triggers of sepsis.
Credit: Mark Ellisman and Thomas Deerinck, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California San Diego.

At least 1.7 million adults in the United States develop a life-threatening condition called sepsis each year. Sepsis is an overwhelming or impaired whole-body immune response that’s most often caused by bacterial infections. However, it can also be caused by viral infections, such as COVID-19 or influenza; fungal infections; or other injuries, including physical trauma.​​ Anyone can get sepsis, but there’s a higher risk for some people, such as those who are ages 65 and older, who have certain medical conditions, or who have recently experienced severe illness or hospitalization.

The early symptoms of sepsis can include fever, chills, rapid breathing or heart rate, disorientation, and clammy or sweaty skin. Because other conditions also have these symptoms, sepsis can be difficult to diagnose. NIGMS-supported researchers are working to increase our understanding of sepsis so that doctors can identify it more quickly and treat it more effectively.

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Science Snippet: Antioxidants Explained

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A spread of antioxidant-rich foods such as strawberries, kale, lemon, spinach, blueberries, tomatoes, parsley, grapefruit, carrots, and legumes.
Many types of fruits, vegetables, and legumes are rich in antioxidants. Credit: iStock.

While at the grocery store, you’ve likely noticed foods with labels saying they contain antioxidants, but what does that mean? In short, antioxidants are substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage. Many foods, including fruits and vegetables, naturally produce antioxidants like vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and selenium. Our bodies also naturally produce antioxidant molecules such as alpha-lipoic acid, glutathione, and coenzyme Q10.

Antioxidants are united by their ability to donate electrons, which helps them protect the body against reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS form naturally during exercise, when your body converts food into energy, or during exposure to certain environmental factors such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and sunlight. These molecules can “steal” electrons from other molecules, and though they aren’t always harmful, consistently high amounts of ROS in your body can cause a condition known as oxidative stress that can damage cells. That cell damage may also lead to chronic diseases, especially if ROS steal electrons from DNA or other important molecules and alter their functions.

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Slideshow: Breathtaking Brains

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The average human brain is only about 3 pounds, but this complex organ punches well above its weight, acting as the control center for the whole body. Many of the brain’s intricacies still aren’t fully understood. To gain more insight into brain processes, scientists often peer into the brains of research organisms such as fruit flies and mice. These organisms have shed light on how our brains maintain circadian rhythms, how neuropsychiatric disorders develop, and more.

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Investigating Bacteria’s CRISPR Defense System to Improve Human Health

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A headshot of Dr. Andrew Santiago-Frangos.
Credit: Adrian Sanchez Gonzales.

The earliest Andrew Santiago-Frangos, Ph.D., remembers being interested in science was when he was about 8 years old. He was home sick and became engrossed in a children’s book that explained how some bacteria and viruses cause illness. To this day, his curiosity about bacteria persists, and he’s making discoveries about CRISPR—a system that helps bacteria defend against viruses—as a postdoctoral researcher and NIGMS-funded Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) scholar at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman.

Becoming a Biologist

Although Dr. Santiago-Frangos wanted to become a scientist from a young age and always found biology interesting, by the time he was attending high school in his native country of Cyprus, he had developed a passion for physics and thought he’d pursue a career in that field. However, working at a biotechnology company for a summer changed his mind. “That experience made me want to dive into biology more deeply because I could see how it could be directly applied to human health. Physics can also be applied to human health, but, at least at that time, biology seemed to me like a more direct way to help humanity,” says Dr. Santiago-Frangos.

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Photo Quiz: Puzzles in Purple

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To make naturally colorless biological structures easier to study, scientists often use fluorescent tags and other tools to color them. Here, we feature images with purple hues and pair them with questions to test your knowledge of basic science concepts.

Visit our image and video gallery for more scientific photos, illustrations, and videos in all the colors of the rainbow.

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Automating Cellular Image Analysis to Find Potential Medicines

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A professional photo of Dr. Carpenter.
Dr. Anne Carpenter. Credit: Juliana Sohn.

When she started college, Anne Carpenter, Ph.D., never guessed she’d one day create software for analyzing images of cells that would help identify potential medicines and that thousands of researchers would use. She wasn’t planning to become a computational biologist, or even to focus on science at all, but she’s now an institute scientist and the senior director of the Imaging Platform at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard in Cambridge.

Starting Out in Science

Before beginning her undergraduate studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, Dr. Carpenter’s strongest interests were reading and writing. Then, her subjects expanded. “In college, I liked science as much as anything else, and I realized that was unusual, as a lot of other people really struggled with it. I decided to pursue science because I enjoyed it and the field had good job prospects,” she says. Dr. Carpenter majored in biology because she felt it had the “juiciest questions” as well as a direct impact on human health.

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Propelling Rare Disease Research for More Than 50 Years

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Many small, plastic vials, one of which a robot arm is lifting from an illuminated tray.
Vials of samples from the NIGMS HGCR. Credit: Coriell Institute for Medical Research.

The year 2022 marked 50 years since the creation of the NIGMS Human Genetic Cell Repository (HGCR) at the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, New Jersey. The NIGMS HGCR consists of cell lines and DNA samples with a focus on those from people with rare, heritable diseases. “Many rare diseases now have treatments because of the samples in the NIGMS HGCR,” says Nahid Turan, Ph.D., Coriell’s chief biobanking officer and co-principal investigator of the NIGMS HGCR. She gives the example of a rare disease advocacy group who worked with the NIGMS HGCR to establish a cell line several decades ago. It was used to identify a gene associated with the disease, which aided in the development of five treatments that have received approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Researchers have also studied NIGMS HGCR’s samples to help advance knowledge of basic biology and genetics, and even to support the development of a vaccine for a deadly virus.

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