Author: Emily Carlson

Headshot of emily Carlson

As a former NIGMS science writer, Emily liked writing stories about science to help different audiences understand and appreciate basic research and NIGMS’ role in funding it.

Posts by Emily Carlson

Cells Merrily ‘Row’ Without Sensor Proteins

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Messenger proteins (left). When these proteins aren’t activated, the cell doesn’t move (right). Credit: Devreotes Lab, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Messenger proteins help the cell make large projections (left). When these proteins aren’t activated, the cell doesn’t move (right). Credit: Devreotes Lab, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. View larger image

A new study from Peter Devreotes Exit icon, Pablo Iglesias Exit icon and other scientists at Johns Hopkins University sheds light on the way in which cells get around the body to promote embryo development, wound healing and even cancer metastasis. Here’s how they describe cell movement and their findings:

Think of the cell as a rowboat. Sensor proteins on the outside pass on directional signals to messenger proteins that serve as the cell’s coxswain. The coxswain then commands other members of the molecular crew to stay in sync, propelling the cell forward. If there are no sensor signals, the coxswain can still coordinate the cell’s movement, just not in any specific direction—it’s like a boat without a rudder.

Scientists previously thought that the messenger proteins needed the sensor ones to produce both directional and random movements. Because defects in the messenger proteins have been linked to many types of cancer, the new work suggests these molecules could serve as a drug target for immobilizing tumor cells.

Learn more:

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine News Release Exit icon

NIH Director Blogs About Value of Model Organisms in Drug Discovery Research

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(Left) Untreated yeast cells, (Right) Treated yeast cells. Credit: Daniel Tardiff, Whitehead Institute.
Treating yeast cells with the NAB compound reverses the toxic effects of elevated levels of alpha synuclein protein. Credit: Daniel Tardiff, Whitehead Institute. View larger image

These eye-catching images and the NIGMS-funded research that yielded them were recently featured by NIH Director Francis Collins on his blog. Scientists led by a team at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research engineered yeast to produce too much of a protein, alpha synuclein. In Parkinson’s disease, elevated levels or mutated forms of this protein wreak havoc on the cell. Using the model system, the researchers tested tens of thousands of compounds to identify any that reversed the toxic effects. One did. The compound, abbreviated NAB, worked similarly in an animal model and in rat neurons grown in a lab dish. Collins described the approach as “an innovative strategy for drug hunting that will likely be extended to other conditions.”

Learn more:

Using Model Organisms to Study Health and Disease Fact Sheet

Meet Emily Scott

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Emily Scott
Emily Scott
Field: Biochemistry
Works at: University of Kansas in Lawrence
Favorite hobby: Scuba diving
Likes watching: “Law & Order”
Likes reading: True-life survival stories
Credit: Chuck France, University of Kansas

With an air tank strapped to her back, college student Emily Scott dove to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico to examine life in an oxygen-starved area called the Dead Zone. The bottom waters had once teemed with red snapper, croaker and shrimp, but to Scott, the region appeared virtually devoid of life. Then, from out of the mud, appeared the long, undulating arms of a brittle star.

As Scott learned, that particular species of brittle star survived in the Dead Zone because it has something many other marine creatures don’t: an oxygen-carrying protein called hemoglobin. This same protein makes our blood red. Key to hemoglobin’s special oxygen-related properties is a small molecular disk called a heme (pronounced HEEM).

Once she saw what it meant to brittle stars, Scott was hooked on heme and proteins that contain it.

Scott’s Findings

Now an associate professor, Scott studies a family of heme proteins called cytochromes P450 (CYP450s). These proteins are enzymes that facilitate many important reactions: They break down cholesterol, help process vitamins and play an important role in flushing foreign chemicals out of our systems.

To better understand CYP450s, Scott uses a combination of two techniques–X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy—for capturing the enzymes’ structural and reactive properties.

She hopes to apply her work to design drugs that block certain CYP450 reactions linked with cancer. One target reaction, carried out by CYP2A13, converts a substance in tobacco into two cancer-causing molecules. Another target reaction is carried out by CYP17A1, an enzyme that helps the body produce steroid sex hormones but that, later in life, can fuel the uncontrolled growth of prostate or breast cancer cells.

“I’m fascinated by these proteins and figuring out how they work,” Scott says. “It’s like trying to put together a puzzle—a very addictive puzzle.” Her drive to uncover the unknown and her willingness to apply new techniques have inspired the students in her lab to do the same.

Content adapted from Hooked on Heme, an article in the September 2013 issue of Findings magazine.

Protein Helps Chromosomes ‘Speed Date’ During Cell Division

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A cell in two stages of division: prometaphase (top) and metaphase (bottom). Credit: Lilian Kabeche, Dartmouth.
This image shows a cell in two stages of division: prometaphase (top) and metaphase (bottom). To form identical daughter cells, chromosome pairs (blue) separate via the attachment of microtubules made up of tubulin proteins (pink) to specialized structures on centromeres (green). Credit: Lilian Kabeche, Dartmouth.

Chromosome segregation during cell division is like speed dating, according to Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth researcher Duane Compton. He and postdoctoral fellow Lilian Kabeche learned that protein cyclin A plays moderator, helping to properly separate chromosomes via the attachment of microtubule fibers to kinetochore structures. Here’s how Compton described the process:

“The chromosomes are testing the microtubules for compatibility—that is, looking for the right match—to make sure there are correct attachments and no errors. The old view of this process held that chromosomes and microtubules pair up individually to find the correct attachment, like conventional dating. However, our results show that the system is more like speed dating. All the chromosomes have to try many connections with microtubules in a short amount of time. Then they all make their final choices at the same time. Cyclin A acts like a timekeeper or referee to make sure no one makes bad connections prematurely.”

Such bad connections can cause chromosome segregation errors that lead to cells with an abnormal number of chromosomes, a hallmark of cancer cells. So in addition to aiding our understanding of a fundamental biological process, the new insights may point to potential ways to correct such errors.

Learn more:

Dartmouth News Release Exit icon
Compton Lab Exit icon

NIH Director Blogs About NIGMS-Funded Research

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Antifolate drugs (bottom) work by blocking the folate receptor (top). Credit: Charles Dann III, Indiana University.

Caption: Antifolate drugs (bottom) work by blocking the folate receptor (top), starving cancer cells of an essential vitamin. Credit: Charles Dann III, Indiana University.

Within the last few weeks, NIH Director Francis Collins has blogged about several findings that NIGMS helped fund: the identification of a genetic link between hair color and melanoma risk and the solving of human folate receptor structures, which may aid the design of drugs for cancer and inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. Both advances are excellent examples of the value and impact of basic research. Want more examples? Check out Curiosity Creates Cures!

Silencing Extra Copy of Chromosome 21

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After deriving induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) from the cells of a person with Down syndrome, researchers inserted the XIST gene to silence the third chromosome 21 copy. Credit: Lawrence lab.

After deriving induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) from the cells of a person with Down syndrome, researchers inserted the XIST gene to silence the third chromosome 21 copy. Credit: Lawrence lab.

Each year about 1 in 700 babies is born with Down syndrome, a condition that occurs when cells contain three copies of chromosome 21. A new technique offers a proof of principle for silencing the extra copy. Using induced pluripotent stem cells derived from a person with Down syndrome, a research team led by Jeanne Lawrence of the University of Massachusetts Medical School inserted a gene called XIST into the extra chromosome 21. The gene, which normally turns off one whole X chromosome in females, rendered the chromosome copy and most of its genes inactive. The researchers plan to test the approach in a mouse model of Down syndrome and use it to further explore the biology of chromosome errors. The findings could eventually aid the development of therapies to mitigate resulting medical problems.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Cancer Institute and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Learn more:
University of Massachusetts Medical School News Release
Lawrence Lab Exit icon