Kathryn Calkins

About Kathryn Calkins

Kathryn Calkins, a long-time reporter for a weekly biotechnology newsletter, is always looking for the best way to share her enthusiasm for the biological sciences.

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

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

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

Beauty is in the Eye

Our eyes are the gateway to countless brilliant sights. However, as evidenced by the images on this page, the eye itself can be breathtakingly exquisite as well. This May, as we celebrate Healthy Vision Month with the National Eye Institute, we hope sharing the beauty hidden in your eyes will inspire you to take the necessary steps to protect your vision, prevent vision loss and make the most of the vision you have remaining.

Visit NEI to learn more about caring for your eyes.

Happy Healthy Vision Month!

Mammalian eye

Eyes are beautiful, and they take on a whole new look in this agate-like image, which highlights just how complex mammalian eyes really are. Researchers used staining and imaging techniques to turn each of the 70-plus cell types in this mouse eye a different color. The image won first place in the 2011 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. Credit: Bryan William Jones, University of Utah Moran Eye Center.
Mouse eye

This burst of starry points is actually part of the retina from a mouse eye. The image comes from a research project investigating the promise of gene therapy for glaucoma. Untreated glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness. The disease is characterized by the death of cells called retinal ganglion cells. Scientists are hoping to deliver gene therapy to these cells as a treatment for glaucoma. In this photo, a fluorescent protein (GFP) lights up to show the location of retinal ganglion cells—and to reveal how well the proposed gene therapy technique might work. Credit: Kenyoung Kim, Wonkyu Ju and Mark Ellisman, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego.
Mouse eye

What appears as a tree branch painstakingly wrapped in green wire is a microscopic blood vessel from the retina at the back of a mouse eye. These vessels can help diagnose conditions such as glaucoma and diabetic eye disease. The vessels also have a characteristic appearance in people with high blood pressure. This detailed image was created to help scientists understand what happens in a genetic disease called neurofibromatosis, in which tumors begin to form on nerve tissue. Credit: National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego.
Mouse eye

Like a colorful fiber-optic network, this microscopic layer from a mouse’s eye relays information from the retina to the brain. Retinal ganglion neurons (orange) and their associated optic nerve fibers (red) are overlaid with blood vessels (blue) and spidery glial cells (green). By comparing detailed images of healthy eye tissues with similar images of a diseased eye, researchers can learn about changes in biology that occur as eye diseases develop. Credit: National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego.

The Endoplasmic Reticulum: Networking Inside the Cell

Like a successful business networker, a cell’s endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is the structure that reaches out—quite literally—to form connections with many different parts of a cell. In several important ways, the ER enables those other parts, or organelles, to do their jobs. Exciting new images of this key member of the cellular workforce may clarify how it performs its roles. Such knowledge will also help studies of motor neuron and other disorders, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), that are associated with abnormalities in ER functioning.

Structure Follows Function

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

An illustration of some of the jobs that the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) performs in the cell. Some ER membranes (purple) host ribosomes on their surface. Other ER membranes (blue) extending into the cytoplasm are the site of lipid synthesis and protein folding. The ER passes on newly created lipids and proteins to the Golgi apparatus (green), which packages them into vesicles for distribution throughout the cell. Credit: Judith Stoffer.

Initiated in 1965, the Postdoctoral Research Associate Program (PRAT) is a competitive postdoctoral fellowship program to pursue research in one of the laboratories of the National Institutes of Health. PRAT is a 3-year program providing outstanding laboratory experiences, access to NIH’s extensive resources, mentorship, career development activities and networking. The program places special emphasis on training fellows in all areas supported by NIGMS, including cell biology, biophysics, genetics, developmental biology, pharmacology, physiology, biological chemistry, computational biology, immunology, neuroscience, technology development and bioinformatics

The ER is a continuous membrane that extends like a net from the envelope of the nucleus outward to the cell membrane. Tiny RNA- and protein-laden particles called ribosomes sit on its surface in some places, translating genetic code from the nucleus into amino acid chains. The chains then get folded inside the ER into their three-dimensional protein structures and delivered to the ER membrane or to other organelles to start their work. The ER is also the site where lipids—essential elements of the membranes within and surrounding a cell—are made. The ER interacts with the cytoskeleton—a network of protein fibers that gives the cell its shape—when a cell divides, moves or changes shape. Further, the ER stores calcium ions in cells, which are vital for signaling and other work.

To do so many jobs, the ER needs a flexible structure that can adapt quickly in response to changing situations. It also needs a lot of surface area where lipids and proteins can be made and stored. Scientists have thought that ER structure combined nets of tubules, or small tubes, with areas of membrane sheets. However, recent NIGMS PRAT (Postdoctoral Research Associate; see side bar) fellow Aubrey Weigel, working with her mentor and former PRAT fellow Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (currently at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia) and colleagues, including Nobel laureate Eric Betzig, wondered whether limitations in existing imagining technologies were hiding a better answer to how the ER meets its surface-area structural needs in the periphery, the portion of the cell not immediately surrounding the nucleus. Continue reading

Actin’s Many Roles

Skin cancer cells

Skin cancer cells from a mouse. Credit: Catherine and James Galbraith, Oregon Health and Science University, Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine, Knight Cancer Institute.

This heart-shaped image shows two mouse skin cancer cells connected to each other with actin, a protein that is part of the cellular skeleton. Researchers use mouse cells like these to tease out the molecular methods that cancer uses to invade new tissues in the body. It turns out that actin plays an essential role.

Cells can move as a collective, or independently. Movement of an individual cell requires a series of carefully controlled steps. Among them, a cell must break contacts with its neighbor cells and change its connections to the proteins and fibers around it. In addition, it must sense and follow a chemical path through the tissue it lies in. To do this, a cell changes shape, molding its membrane into flaps or feet called protrusions reaching in the direction it is traveling. Actin, among a variety of other molecules, is involved in all of these steps, but especially the shape change, when it gathers inside the cell membrane to help form the protrusions. Continue reading

Cool Image: Inside a Biofilm Build-up

A growing Vibrio cholerae biofilm.

A growing Vibrio cholerae biofilm. Each slightly curved comma shape represents an individual bacterium from assembled confocal microscopy images. Different colors show each bacterium’s position in the biofilm in relation to the surface on which the film is growing. Credit: Jing Yan, Ph.D., and Bonnie Bassler, Ph.D., Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.

Bacteria use many methods to overcome threats in their environment. One of these ways is forming colonies called biofilms on surfaces of objects. Often appearing like the bubble-shaped fortress represented in this image, biofilms enable bacteria to withstand attacks, compete for space and survive fluctuations in nutrient supply. Bacteria aggregated within biofilms inside our bodies, for example, resist antibiotic therapy more effectively than free swimming cells, making infections difficult to treat. On the other hand, biofilms are also useful for making microbial fuel cells and for waste-water treatment. Learning how biofilms work, therefore, could provide essential tools in our ongoing battle against disease-causing agents and in our efforts to harness beneficial bacterial behaviors. Researchers are now using new imaging techniques to watch how biofilms grow, cell by cell, and to identify more effective ways of disrupting or fostering them.

Until now, poor imaging resolution meant that scientists could not see what individual bacteria in the films are up to as the biofilms grow. The issue is that bacteria are tiny, making imaging each cell, as well as the ability to distinguish each cell in the biofilm community, problematic. Continue reading

The Irresistible Resistome: How Infant Diapers Might Help Combat Antibiotic Resistance (sort of)

Gautam Dantas
Credit: Pablo Tsukayama, Ph.D.,
Washington University School of Medicine
Gautam Dantas
Born: Mumbai, India
Most proud of: His family, which brings him joy and pride
Favorite lab tradition: OOFF! Official Optional Formal Fridays, when members of his lab can dress up, eat bread—made in the lab’s own bread machine—and drink beer and wine together at the end of the day
When not in the lab, he: Enjoys home brewing, pickling and canning, and spending time with his wife and children. He also attends musical performances, including those of his wife, who sings in the St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Advice to aspiring scientists: Pursue hobbies, take risks, explore beyond your comfort zone. “You can do a Ph.D., but also have other experiences.” He says his own outside activities refine his focus in the lab, keep him grounded and help him be an empathetic mentor to his students. Plus, he met his wife while singing in the chorus of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota

When I Grow Up…

Gautam Dantas remembers the day in 10th grade when he first wanted to be a scientist. It was the day he had a new biology teacher, a visiting researcher from the U.S. The teacher passionately described his own biochemical studies of how organisms live together in communities. By the end of the class, Dantas had resolved to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

He ended up doing much more—gaining expertise in computational biology, protein design and synthetic biology. He now combines his skills and knowledge in multifaceted research that spans four departments at Washington University in St. Louis. His goal: to better understand and help combat a vital public health threat—drug-resistant bacteria.

“Our motivation is that we are living in the antibiotic era, and antibiotic resistance is getting out of control,” Dantas says. “We have very few new antibiotics we can use, so we’re kind of scrambling [to find new ways to treat bacterial diseases].”

His research focuses on one of the groups most vulnerable to bacterial infections—newborn babies.

According to his lab’s website Exit icon, the research is “at the interface of microbial genomics, ecology, synthetic biology, and systems biology,” and it aims “to understand, harness, and engineer the biochemical processing potential of microbial communities.” They do it by scrounging around in infant diapers.

Antibiotic Angst

Since their introduction in the 1940s, antibiotic drugs have saved countless lives. Simultaneously, they weeded out strains of bacteria easily killed by the drugs, allowing drug-resistant strains to thrive. Every year, at least 2 million people in the U.S. become infected and at least 23,000 die from drug-resistant bacteria, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Continue reading

The ECM: A Dynamic System for Moving Our Cells

In part I of this series, we mentioned that the extracellular matrix (ECM) makes our tissues stiff or squishy, solid or see-through. Here, we reveal how the ECM helps body cells move around, a process vital for wounds to heal and a fetus to grow.

Sealing and Healing Wounds

MMPs are essential for closing wounds. Credit: Stock image.

When we get injured, the first thing our body does is to form a blood clot to stop the bleeding. Skin cells then start migrating into the wound to close the cut. The ECM is essential for this step, creating a physical support structure—like a road or train track—over which skin cells travel to seal the injured spot.

The ECM is made up of a host of proteins produced before and after injury. Some other proteins called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) also crowd into wounds. Because humans have so many different MMPs—a full 24 of them!—it’s been difficult for scientists to figure out what roles, if any, the proteins play in healing scrapes and cuts. Continue reading

A Labor Day-Themed Collection: Hard-Working Cell Structures

Hard labor might be the very thing we try to avoid on Labor Day. But our cells and their components don’t have the luxury of taking a day off. Their non-stop work is what keeps us going and healthy.

Scientists often compare cells with small factories. Just like a factory, a cell contains specialized compartments and machines—including organelles and other structures—that each play their own roles in getting the job done. In the vignettes below, we give a shout out to some of these tireless cellular workers.

Energy Generators
Credit: Thomas Deerinck, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research
Mitochondria are the cell’s power plants. They convert energy from food into a molecule called ATP that fuels virtually every process in the cell. As shown here, mitochondria (brown) often have distinct, oblong shapes. Like most other organelles, mitochondria are encased in an outer membrane. But they also have an inner membrane that folds many times, increasing the area available for energy production. In addition, mitochondria store calcium ions, help make hemoglobin—the vital iron-containing protein that allows red blood cells to carry oxygen—and even take part in producing some hormones. Defects in mitochondria can lead to a host of rare but often incurable diseases that range from mild to devastating. Researchers are studying mitochondria to better understand their manifold jobs in the cell and to find treatments for mitochondrial diseases.

Continue reading