Quick quiz: Which organism . . .
- Can regrow a severed spinal cord?
- Is a culinary delicacy overseas but an invasive pest in the U.S.?
- Reveals insights about tissue regeneration, evolution, and cancer biology?
Quick quiz: Which organism . . .
You’ve probably heard news stories and other talk about CRISPR. If you’re not a scientist—well, even if you are—it can seem a bit complex. Here’s a brief recap of what it’s all about.
In 1987, scientists noticed weird, repeating sequences of DNA in bacteria. In 2002, the abbreviation CRISPR was coined to describe the genetic oddity. By 2006, it was clear that bacteria use CRISPR to defend themselves against viruses. By 2012, scientists realized that they could modify the bacterial strategy to create a gene-editing tool. Since then, CRISPR has been used in countless laboratory studies to understand basic biology and to study whether it’s possible to correct faulty genes that cause disease. Here’s an illustration of how the technique works.
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 Lucks, 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.
Suppose you were a police detective investigating a robbery. You’d appreciate having a stack of photographs of the crime in progress, but you’d be even happier if you had a detailed movie of the robbery. Then, you could see what happened and when. Research on cells is somewhat like this. Until recently, scientists could take snapshots of cells in action, but they had trouble recording what cells were doing over time. They were getting an incomplete picture of the events occurring in cells.
Researchers have started solving this problem by combining some old knowledge—that DNA is spectacularly good at storing information—with a popular new research tool called CRISPR. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is an immune system feature in bacteria that helps them to remember and destroy viruses that infect them. CRISPR can change DNA sequences in precise ways; and it’s programmable, meaning that researchers can tell CRISPR where to make a change on a DNA strand, and even what kind of change to make. By linking cellular events to CRISPR, researchers can make something like a movie that captures many pieces of information in the form of DNA changes that researchers can read back later. These pieces of information include timing, duration, and intensity of events, such as the turning on of a specific protein pathway or the exposure of the cell to pathogens (i.e. germs). Here, we look at some of the ways NIGMS-funded research teams and others are using CRISPR to capture these kinds of data within DNA sequences.
Round and Round: mSCRIBE Creates a Continuous Recording Loop
CRISPR uses an enzyme called Cas9 like a surgical knife, to slice both strands of a cell’s DNA at precise points. A cut like this sends the cell scrambling to repair the damage. Often, the repair effort results in changes, or errors, in the repaired strand that pile up at a known rate. Timothy Lu and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided to turn this cut-repair-error system into a way to record certain events inside a cell. They call their method mSCRIBE (mammalian synthetic cellular recorder integrating biological events).
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, 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).
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):
One day last fall, molecular biologist Laura Landweber 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.
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
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 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.
Apart from the tell-tale stripes that give me my nickname, zebrafish, I look a lot like your standard minnow swimming in the shallows of any pond, lake, or river. But I like to think I’m more important than that. In fact, researchers around the world have turned to me and my extended family to understand some of the most basic mysteries of life. From studying us, they’re learning about how embryos develop, how cancer works, and whether someday humans might be able to rebuild a heart, repair a spinal cord injury, or regrow a severed limb.
Why us? Because zebrafish are pretty special and researchers think we’re easy to work with. First, unlike your standard lab mouse or rat, we lay lots of eggs, producing baby fish that grow up fast. We develop outside our mothers and go from egg to embryo to free-swimming larva in just 3 days (check out this video of how we grow, cell by cell, during the first 24 hours). Within 3 months, we’re fully mature.
Not only do zebrafish moms have many babies at the same time, and not only do these babies grow up quickly, but our eggs and embryos are see-through, so scientists can literally watch us grow one cell at a time. We stay mostly transparent for a few weeks after hatching. That makes it super easy for scientists to monitor us for both normal and abnormal development. In fact, scientists have learned how to turn off the genes that give our skin its color. These zebrafish, named casper, after the “friendly ghost” of cartoon fame, stay semi-transparent, or translucent, through adulthood.
And last, but certainly not least, did I mention that we can regenerate? If parts of my body are damaged, even to a significant degree, they can regrow. This holds true for my heart, fins, spinal cord, and even brain tissue. Our regenerative capacity is seemingly unlimited; my caudal fin, for example, can grow back dozens of times. Continue reading
There’s an old saying that rules are meant to be broken. In the 1860s, Gregor Mendel found that each copy of a gene in an organism has an equal chance of being passed to the next generation. According to this simple rule, each version of a gene gets passed to offspring with the same frequency. The natural selection process can then operate efficiently, favoring the genes that produce an advantage for an organism’s survival or reproductive success and, over successive generations, eliminating genes from the gene pool that bring a disadvantage.
Of course, the way organisms inherit genes is not as straightforward as Mendel’s work predicted. In natural systems, inheritance often fails to follow the rules. One culprit scientists are identifying again and again are what are called “selfish genes”: one or more genes that have evolved a method of skewing inheritance in their favor.
Scientists refer to these selfish genes—which are often complexes of multiple genes working together—as “selfish” because they enhance their own transmission to the next generation, sometimes by killing off any of the organism’s reproductive cells that lack copies of those genes. Using a variety of techniques, the genes are effective at passing themselves on to future generations. However, their methods set up a conflict within the organism by damaging its fertility; overall, fewer reproductive cells or offspring survive to produce a new generation.
Selfish genes are a challenge for scientists to identify, but researchers say that knowing more about these genes could help explain a range of genetic mysteries, from causes of infertility to details on how species evolve. The methods these genes use could also be harnessed to help control the reproduction of certain populations such as mosquitos that spread disease.
One recently described selfish gene system is found in the yeast cells pictured above. Sarah Zanders and her colleagues at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, study selfish gene systems in yeast to understand how common they are and how they affect a species’ fertility and evolution. “Usually we think about infertility stemming from the good guys failing. For example, a gene that normally promotes fertility could be mutated so that it can no longer do its job,” says Zanders. “But selfish genes are another potential source of infertility. Learning general principles about selfish genes in simple models will guide future searches for selfish genes that could be contributing to human infertility.”
Recently, the scientists discovered a single selfish gene, wtf4, that encodes both a toxin and an antitoxin protein. When yeast produce their reproductive cells, called spores, the wtf4 toxin protein is released into the immediate vicinity, but the antitoxin remains inside spores that contain a copy of wtf4. The toxin destroys all the spores that don’t have the antitoxin protein. Although the yeast has fewer spores—and therefore reduced fertility—each spore carries wtf4, ensuring that the gene will be passed to the next generation of yeast. Continue reading