Interview with a Scientist: Jeramiah Smith on the Genomic Antics of an Ancient Vertebrate

The first known descriptions of cancer come from ancient Egypt more than 3,500 years ago. Early physicians attributed the disease to several factors, including an imbalance in the body’s humoral fluids, trauma, and parasites. Only in the past 50 years or so have we figured out that mutations in critical genes are often the trigger. The sea lamprey, a slimy, snake-like blood sucker, is proving to be an ideal tool for understanding these mutations.

The sea lamprey, often called the jawless fish, is an ancient vertebrate whose ancestor diverged from the other vertebrate lineages (fish, reptiles, birds and mammals) more than 500 million years ago. Jeramiah Smith,Link to external web site associate professor of biology at the University of Kentucky, has discovered that lamprey have two separate genomes: a complete genome specific to their reproductive cells, consisting of 99 chromosomes (humans have 23 pairs) and another genome in which about 20 percent of genes have been deleted after development. Using the lamprey model, Smith and his colleagues have learned that many of these deleted genes—such as those that initiate growth pathways—are similar to human oncogenes (i.e., cancer-causing genes).

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The Skull’s Petrous Bone and the Rise of Ancient Human DNA: Q & A with Genetic Archaeologist David Reich

A macro image of the petrous bone. 3 sections are color coded A (green), B (blue), and C (red)The human petrous bone in the skull protects the inner ear structures. Though it is one of the hardest, densest bones in the body, some portions (such as the area in orange, protecting the cochlea) are denser than others. Possibly because the petrous bone is so dense, DNA within the petrous bone is better preserved than in other bones. In some cases, scientists have extracted more than 100 times more DNA from the petrous bone than other bones, including teeth. Credit: Pinhasi et al., 2015, PLOS ONE.

For the past few decades, new evidence about ancient humans—in the form of skeletal remains, tools, and other artifacts—has trickled in, inching us closer to an understanding of how our species evolved and spread out across the planet. In just the past few years, however, knowledge of our deep past expanded significantly thanks to a series of technological breakthroughs in sequencing of ancient human genomes. This technology can be used to find genetic links among populations of human ancestors dating back hundreds of thousands of years.

In addition to advances in genomic technology, another factor is driving the explosion of new discoveries—an inch-long section of the human skull. Found near our ears, this pyramid-shaped portion of the temporal bone is nicknamed the petrous bone. The bone is very hard, possibly because it needs to protect fragile structures such as the cochlea, which translates sound into brain signals, and the semicircular canals, which help us maintain our balance. Perhaps because the petrous bone is so dense, it also is the bone in the body that best preserves DNA after a person dies. As a result, archaeologists are scrambling to study samples taken from this pyramid-shaped structure to unlock the mysteries of our species’ formative years.

Here’s a sampling of headlines declaring new findings about ancient peoples from around the globe that were based on genetic information obtained from the petrous bone (NIGMS-funded research indicated in black):

“How the introduction of farming changed the human genome” November 2015

“Fourth strand’ of European ancestry originated with hunter-gatherers isolated by Ice Age” November 2015

“Scientists sequence first ancient Irish human genomes” December 2015

“Genetic studies provide insight into ancient Britain’s diversity” January 2016

“The world’s first farmers were surprisingly diverse” June 2016

“Study reveals Asian ancestry of Pacific islanders” October 2016

“Ancient DNA solves mystery of the Canaanites, reveals the biblical people’s fate” July 2017

“Ancient DNA data fills in thousands of years of human prehistory in Africa” September 2017

“European Hunter-Gatherers Interbred With Farmers From the Near East” November 2017

“Surprise as DNA reveals new group of Native Americans: the ancient Beringians” January 2018

“Ancient DNA reveals genetic replacement despite language continuity in the South Pacific” February 2018

“Stone Age Moroccan Genomes Reveal Sub-Saharan African, Near Eastern Ancestry” March 2018

“Some early modern populations in Britain may have had dark skin” March 2018

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Genomic Gymnastics of a Single-Celled Ciliate and How It Relates to Humans

Laura Landweber
Credit: Denise Applewhite.
Laura Landweber
Grew up in: Princeton, New Jersey
Job site: Columbia University, New York City
Favorite food: Dark chocolate and dark leafy greens
Favorite music: 1940’s style big band jazz
Favorite hobby: Swing dancing
If I weren’t a scientist I would be a: Chocolatier (see “Experiments in Chocolate” sidebar at bottom of story)

One day last fall, molecular biologist Laura Landweber Link to external web site surveyed the Princeton University lab where she’d worked for 22 years. She and her team members had spent many hours that day laboriously affixing yellow Post-it notes to the laboratory equipment—microscopes, centrifuges, computers—they would bring with them to Columbia University, where Landweber had just been appointed full professor. Each Post-it specified the machinery’s location in the new lab. Items that would be left behind—glassware, chemical solutions, furniture, office supplies—were left unlabeled.

As Landweber viewed the lab, decorated with a field of sunny squares, her thoughts turned to another sorting process—the one used by her primary research subject, a microscopic organism, to sift through excess DNA following mating. Rather than using Post-it notes, the creature, a type of single-celled organism called a ciliate, uses small pieces of RNA to tag which bits of genetic material to keep and which to toss.

Landweber is particularly fond of Oxytricha trifallax, a ciliate with relatives that live in soil, ponds and oceans all over the world. The kidney-shaped cell is covered with hair-like projections called cilia that help it move around and devour bacteria and algae. Oxytricha is not only bizarre in appearance, it’s also genetically creative.

Unlike humans, whose cells are programmed to die rather than pass on genomic errors, Oxytricha cells appear to delight in genomic chaos. During sexual reproduction, the ciliate shatters the DNA in one of its two nuclei into hundreds of thousands of pieces, descrambles the DNA letters, throws most away, then recombines the rest to create a new genome.

Landweber has set out to understand how—and possibly why—Oxytricha performs these unusual genomic acrobatics. Ultimately, she hopes that learning how Oxytricha rearranges its genome can illuminate some of the events that go awry during cancer, a disease in which the genome often suffers significant reorganization and damage.

Oxytricha’s Unique Features

Oxytricha carries two separate nuclei—a macronucleus and a micronucleus. The macronucleus, by far the larger of the two, functions like a typical genome, the source of gene transcription for proteins. The tiny micronucleus only sees action occasionally, when Oxytricha reproduces sexually.

Oxytricha trifallax cells in the process of mating
Two Oxytricha trifallax cells in the process of mating. Credit, Robert Hammersmith.

What really makes Oxytricha stand out is what it does with its DNA during the rare occasions that it has sex. When food is readily available, Oxytricha procreates without a partner, like a plant grown from a cutting. But when food is scarce, or the cell is stressed, it seeks a mate. When two Oxytricha cells mate, the micronuclear genomes in each cell swap DNA, then replicate. One copy of the new hybrid micronucleus remains intact, while the other breaks its DNA into hundreds of thousands of pieces, some of which are tagged, recombined, then copied another thousand-fold to form a new macronucleus. Continue reading

Have Nucleus, Will Travel (in Three Dimensions)

A closeup of two human cells with the cells dyed green and the necleaus dyed red.These two human cells are nearly identical, except that the cell on the left had its nucleus (dyed red) removed. The structures dyed green are protein strands that give cells their shape and coherence. Credit: David Graham, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Both of the cells above can scoot across a microscope slide equally well. But when it comes to moving in 3D, the one without the red blob in the center (the nucleus) stalls out. That’s sort of like an Olympic speed skater who wouldn’t be able to perform even a single leap in a figure skating competition.

Scientists have known for some time that the nucleus is involved in moving cells across a flat surface—it slides to one side of the cell and “pushes” from behind. However, scientists have also shown that cells with their nuclei removed can migrate along a flat surface just as well as their brethren with intact nuclei. But they had no idea that, without a nucleus, a cell could no longer move in three dimensions.

This discovery was made by UNC-Chapel Hill biologists Keith BurridgeLink to external web site and James BearLink to external web site and their colleagues. These NIGMS-funded researchers also observed that cells whose nuclei had been disconnected from the cytoskeleton could not move through 3D matrices. The cytoskeleton is the microscopic network of actin protein filaments and tubules in the cytoplasm of many cells that provides the cell’s shape and coherence. It has also has been thought to play a major role in cell movement.

Two views of cells one on top of the other. The top animation shows a cell moving across the frame while the cells in the bottom box are static.The gray, stringy background of these videos is a 3D jello-like matrix. The cell in the top half of this video has a nucleus and can migrate through the matrix. Both cells in the bottom half have been enucleated (a fancy term for having its nucleus removed) and cannot travel through the matrix. Credit: Graham et al., Journal of Cell Biology, 2018.

The researchers speculate that the reason cells without nuclei (or those whose nuclei have been disconnected from the cytoskeleton) don’t navigate in 3D has to do with complex mechanical interactions between the cytoskeleton and the nucleoskeleton. The nucleoskeleton is a molecular scaffold within the nucleus supporting many functions such as DNA replication and transcription, chromatin remodeling, and mRNA synthesis. The interface between the cytoskeleton and nucleoskeleton consists of interlocking proteins that together provide the physical traction that cells need to push their way through 3D environments. Disrupting this interface is the equivalent of breaking the clutch in a car: the motor revs, but the wheels don’t spin, and the car goes nowhere.

A better understanding of the physical connections between the nucleus and the cytoskeleton and how they influence cell migration may provide additional insight into the role of the nucleus in diseases, such as cancer, in which the DNA-containing organelle is damaged or corrupted.

This research was funded in part by NIGMS grants 5R01GM029860-35, 5P01GM103723-05, and 5R01GM111557-04.

Carole LaBonne: Neural Crest Cells and the Rise of the Vertebrates

The stunning pigmentation of tigers, the massive jaws of sharks, and the hyper-acute vision of eagles. These and other remarkable features of higher organisms (vertebrates) derive from a small group of powerful cells, called neural crest cells, that arose more than 500 million years ago. Molecular biologist Carole LaBonne Exit icon of Northwestern University in Illinois studies how neural crest cells help give rise to these important vertebrate structures throughout development.

Very early during embryonic development, stem cells differentiate into different layers: mesoderm, endoderm, and ectoderm. Each of these layers then gives rise to different cell and tissue types. For example, the ectoderm becomes skin and nerve cells. Mesoderm turns into muscle, bone, fat, blood and the circulatory system. Endoderm forms internal structures such as lungs and digestive organs.

These three layers are present in vertebrates—animals with a backbone and well-defined heads, such as fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals—as well as animals without backbones, such as the marine-dwelling Lancelets and Tunicates (referred to as non-vertebrate chordates). Unlike cells in these layers, neural crest cells, which are found only in vertebrates, don’t specialize until much later in development. The delay gives neural crests cells the extra time and flexibility to sculpt the complex anatomical structures found only in vertebrate animals.

Scientists have long debated how neural crest cells manage to finalize their destiny so much later than all other cell types.

Using the frog Xenopus as a model system, LaBonne and her colleagues performed a series of experiments that revealed the process and identified key genes that control it.

In this video, LaBonne describes the power of neural crest cells and how they can be useful for studies of human health, including how cancer cells can metastasize, or migrate, throughout the body.

Dr. LaBonne’s research is funded in part by NIGMS grant 5R01GM116538.

Computational Geneticist Discusses Genetics of Storytelling at Sundance Film Festival

About 10 years ago, University of Utah geneticist Mark Yandell developed a software platform called VAAST (Variant Annotation, Analysis & Search Tool) to identify rare genes. VAAST, which was funded by NHGRI, was instrumental in pinpointing the genetic cause of a mystery disease that killed four boys across two generations in an Ogden, UT family.

NIGMS has been supporting Yandell’s creation of the next generation of his software, called VAAST 2, for the past few years. The new version incorporates models of how genetic sequences are conserved among different species to improve accuracy with which benign genetic sequences can be differentiated from disease-causing variations. These improvements can help identify novel disease-causing genes responsible for both rare and common diseases.

Yandell and his colleagues in the Utah Genome Project recently took part in a panel at the Sundance Film Festival called the “Genetics of Storytelling” to discuss film’s ability to convey the power of science and medicine. Yandell told the audience his story about his efforts to use VAAST to trace the Ogden boys’ genetic variation back to their great-great-great-great-great grandmother.

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What Zombie Ants Are Teaching Us About Fungal Infections: Q & A with Entomologists David Hughes and Maridel Fredericksen

 

I can still remember that giddy feeling I had seven years ago, when I first read about the “zombie ant.” The story was gruesome and fascinating, and it was everywhere. Even friends and family who aren’t so interested in science knew the basics: in a tropical forest somewhere there’s a fungus that infects an ant and somehow takes control of the ant’s brain, forcing it to leave its colony, crawl up a big leaf, bite down and wait for the sweet relief of death. A grotesque stalk then sprouts from the poor creature’s head, from which fungal spores rain down to infect a new batch of ants.

A fungal fruiting body erupts through the head of a carpenter ant infected by a parasitic fungus in Thailand. Credit: David Hughes, Penn State University.

The problem is, it doesn’t happen quite like that. David Hughes Exit icon , the Penn State University entomologist who reported his extensive field observations of the fungus/ant interactions in BMC Ecology Exit icon, which caused much excitement back in 2011, has continued to study the fungus, Ophiocordyceps unliateralis, and its carpenter ant host, Camponotus leonardi.

In late 2017, Hughes and his colleagues published an article in PNAS Exit icon in which they used sophisticated microscopy and image-processing techniques to describe in great detail how the fungus invades various parts of the ant’s body including muscles in its legs and head.

Although Hughes’s earlier BMC Ecology paper showed fungus in the head of an ant, the new study reveals that the fungus never actually enters the brain.

To me, the new finding somehow made the fungus’ control over the ant even more baffling. What exactly was going on?

To find out, I spoke with Hughes and his graduate student Maridel Fredericksen.

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Interview With a Scientist: Joel Kralj, Electromicist

Every one of our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and movements arise from changes in the flow of electricity in the brain. Disruptions to the normal flow of electricity within and between cells is a hallmark of many diseases, especially neurological and cardiac diseases.

The source of electricity within nerve cells (i.e., neurons) is the separation of charge, referred to as voltage, across neuronal membranes. In the past, scientists weren’t able to identify all the molecules that control neuronal voltage. They simply lacked the tools. Now, University of Colorado biologist Joel Kralj Exit icon has developed a way to overcome this hurdle. His new technique—combining automated imaging tools and genetic manipulation of cells—is designed to measure the electrical contribution of every protein coded by every gene in the human genome. Kralj believes this technology will usher in a new field of “electromics” that will be of enormous benefit to both scientists studying biological processes and clinicians attempting to treat disease.

In 2017, Kralj won a New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health for his work on studying voltage in neurons. He is using the grant money to develop a new type of microscope that will be capable of measuring neuronal voltage from hundreds of cells simultaneously. He and his research team will then attempt to identify the genes that encode any of the 20,000 proteins in the human body that are involved in electrical signaling. This laborious process will involve collecting hundreds of nerve cells, genetically removing a single protein from each cell, and using the new microscope to see what happens. If the voltage within a cell is changed in any way when a specific protein is removed, the researchers can conclude that the protein is essential to electrical signaling.

In this video, Kralj discusses how he plans to use his electromics platform to study electricity-generating cells throughout the body, as well as in bacterial cells (see our companion blog post “Feeling Out Bacteria’s Sense of Touch” featuring Kralj’s research for more details).

Dr. Kralj’s work is funded in part by the NIH under grant 1DP2GM123458-01.

Sepsis: The Body’s Deadly Response to Infection

Although not as well-known as other medical conditions, sepsis kills more people in the United States than AIDS, breast cancer, or prostate cancer combined. Sepsis is body-wide inflammation, usually triggered by an overwhelming immune response to infection. Though doctors and medical staff are well-aware of the condition—it is involved in 1 in 10 hospital deaths—the condition is notoriously hard to diagnose. In this video, sepsis expert Sarah Dunsmore, a program director with the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), describes what sepsis is and how to recognize it, what kinds of patients are most at risk, and what NIGMS is doing to reduce the impact of this deadly condition.

Quicker Sepsis Treatment Saves Lives: Q & A With Sepsis Researcher Christopher Seymour

Sepsis is a serious medical condition caused by an overwhelming immune response to infection. The body’s infection-fighting chemicals trigger widespread inflammation, which can lead to blood clots and leaky blood vessels. As a result, blood flow is impaired, depriving organs of nutrients and oxygen. In severe cases, one or more organs fail. In the worst cases, blood pressure drops, the heart weakens, and the patient spirals toward septic shock. Once this happens, multiple organs—lungs, kidneys, liver—may quickly fail, and the patient can die.

Because sepsis is traditionally hard to diagnose, doctors do not always recognize the condition in its early stages. In the past, it has been unclear how quickly sepsis needs to be diagnosed and treated to provide patients with the best chance of surviving.

Credit: University of Pittsburgh.

Now we may have an answer: A large-scale clinical study, published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine Exit icon, found that for every hour treatment is delayed, the odds of a patient’s survival are reduced by 4 percent. Christopher Seymour Exit icon, assistant professor of critical care and emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, and his team analyzed the medical records of nearly 50,000 sepsis patients at 149 clinical centers to determine whether administering the standard sepsis treatment—antibiotics and intravenously administered fluids—sooner would save more lives.

I spoke with Seymour about his experience treating sepsis patients and his research on the condition, including the new study.

CP: How big a public health problem is sepsis?

CS: Our recent work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests there might be as many as 2 million sepsis cases in the United States each year. I can share personally that sepsis, or septic shock, is far and away the most common life-threatening condition that I treat in the ICU (intensive care unit). It’s quite devastating, particularly among our elders, and it requires prompt care. Although the mortality rate may be decreasing, it’s still quite high. About 1 in 10 patients with sepsis don’t survive their hospital stay. Even young, healthy people can succumb from sepsis. And if you’re fortunate to survive, you can have significant problems with cognitive and physical function for many months to years down the line.

Unfortunately, the incidence of sepsis may even be increasing. More patients are surviving serious illnesses that used to be fatal. They’re alive, but their health is compromised, so they are at higher risk for sepsis. Also—and this is a positive—we are seeing greater recognition and increased reporting of sepsis. Both factors probably contribute to the higher numbers of reported sepsis cases.

CP: What are some of the biggest challenges in fighting sepsis?

CS: The first challenge is public awareness. It’s important that the public knows the word sepsis, that they’re familiar with sepsis being a life-threatening condition that results from an infection, and that they know it can strike anyone—young, old, healthy, or sick. But it’s also important to know that not every infection is septic, nor will every cut or abrasion lead to life-threatening organ dysfunction.

Another part of the problem is that sepsis is not as easy for patients to recognize as, say, myocardial infarction (heart attack). When patients clutch their chest in pain, they intuitively recognize what’s happening. Patients frequently don’t recognize that they’re septic. People should know that when they have an infection or take antibiotics as an outpatient, and they’re starting to feel worse or having other new symptoms Exit icon [PDF, 147KB], they may be at risk of sepsis. They should go to the emergency department or seek medical help.

The second challenge in fighting sepsis is that it’s just hard to diagnose, even for well-trained clinicians. Both issues can lead to delays in care, the most important of which is the delay in treatment with antibiotics.

CP: Tell me about your recent clinical trial. What question did you set out to answer?

CS: There’s been a lot of interest in the early recognition and treatment of sepsis over the past decade. Recently, the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences funded a large, multicenter trial called ProCESS, which tested various strategies for treating sepsis. This trial told us that a standardized sepsis protocol among people who had already received antibiotics didn’t necessarily change survival rates. But what it left unanswered was the very important question of when the patient first arrives at the emergency department, how fast do we need to provide antibiotics and fluids for the best possible outcome? Continue reading