Interview With a Scientist – Rommie Amaro: Computational and Theoretical Model Builder

Many researchers who search for anti-cancer drugs have labs filled with chemicals and tissue samples. Not Rommie Amaro Link to external web site. Her work uses computers to analyze the shape and behavior of a protein called p53. Defective versions of p53 are associated with more human cancers than any other malfunctioning protein.

The goal of Amaro’s work is to find ways to restore the function of defective p53 protein in cancer cells. Her research team at the University of California, San Diego, discovered how to do just    that—according to their computer models, at least—by fitting small molecules into a pocket in malfunctioning p53 proteins. Amaro founded a biotechnology company to bring this computational work closer to a real cure for cancer.

She also explained her research in the 2017 DeWitt Stetten Jr. Lecture titled Computing Cures: Discovery Through the Lens of a Computational Microscope.

NIGMS has supported Amaro’s work since 2006 under P41GM103426, U01GM111528, R25GM114821, and F32GM077729.

Interview with a Scientist: Julius Lucks, Shape Seeker

While DNA acts as the hard drive of the cell, storing the instructions to make all of the proteins the cell needs to carry out its various duties, another type of genetic material, RNA, takes on a wide variety of tasks, including gene regulation, protein synthesis, and sensing of metals and metabolites. Each of these jobs is handled by a slightly different molecule of RNA. But what determines which job a certain RNA molecule is tasked with? Primarily its shape. Julius LucksLink to external web site, a biological and chemical engineer at Northwestern University, and his team study the many ways in which RNA can bend itself into new shapes and how those shapes dictate the jobs the RNA molecule can take on.

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Interview with a Scientist: Elhanan Borenstein, Metagenomics Systems Biology


Cataloging the human microbiome—the complete collection of bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists, and viruses that live in and on our bodies—is an enormous task. Most estimates put the number of organisms who call us home on par with the number of our own cells. Imagine trying to figure out how the billions of critters influence each other and, ultimately, impact our health. Elhanan Borenstein,Link to external web site a computer scientist-cum-genomicist at the University of Washington, and his team are not only tackling this difficult challenge, they are also trying to obtain a systems-level understanding of the collective effect of all of the genes, proteins, and metabolites produced by the numerous species within the microbiome.

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Interview With a Scientist: Andrew Goodman, Separating Causation and Correlation in the Microbiome

You’ve likely heard some variation of the statistic that there are at least as many microbial cells in our body as human cells. You may have also heard that the microscopic bugs that live in our guts, on our skins, and every crevice they can find, collectively referred to as the human microbiome, are implicated in human health. But do these bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists, and viruses cause disease, or are the specific populations of microbes inside us a result of our state of health? That’s the question that drives the research in the lab of Andrew Goodman Link to external web site, associate professor of microbial pathogenesis at Yale University.

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Interview with a Scientist: Michael Summers, Using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance to Study HIV

For more than 30 years, NIGMS has supported the structural characterization of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) enzymes and viral proteins. This support has been instrumental in the development of crucial drugs for antiretroviral therapy such as protease inhibitors. NIGMS continues to support further characterization of viral proteins as well as cellular and viral complexes. These complexes represent the fundamental interactions between the virus and its host target cell and, as such, represent potential new targets for therapeutic development.

In this third in a series of three video interviews with NIGMS-funded researchers probing the structure of HIV, Michael Summers,Link to external web site professor of biochemistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, discusses his use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology to study HIV. Of recent interest to Summers has been using NMR to investigate how HIV’s RNA enables the virus to reproduce. His goals for this line of research are to develop treatments against HIV as well as learning how to best engineer viruses to deliver helpful therapies to individuals with a variety of diseases.

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Interview with a Scientist: Wes Sundquist, How the Host Immune System Fights HIV

For more than 30 years, NIGMS has supported the structural characterization of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) enzymes and viral proteins. This support has been instrumental in the development of crucial drugs for antiretroviral therapy such as protease inhibitors. NIGMS continues to support further characterization of viral proteins as well as cellular and viral complexes. These complexes represent the fundamental interactions between the virus and its host target cell and, as such, represent potential new targets for therapeutic development.

In this second in a series of three video interviews with NIGMS-funded researchers probing the structure of HIV, Wes Sundquist,Link to external web site professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah, discusses his lab’s studies of how HIV uses factors in host cells to replicate itself. In particular, Sundquist focuses on the ESCORT pathway that enables HIV to leave infected cells and spread infection elsewhere.

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Interview With a Scientist: Irwin Chaiken, Rendering HIV Inert

For more than 30 years, NIGMS has supported the structural characterization of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) enzymes and viral proteins. This support has been instrumental in the development of crucial drugs for antiretroviral therapy such as protease inhibitors. NIGMS continues to support further characterization of viral proteins as well as cellular and viral complexes. These complexes represent the fundamental interactions between the virus and its host target cell and, as such, represent potential new targets for therapeutic development.

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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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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

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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