State of the Art: New Crystallography Equipment Aids Science and the Study of Artifacts

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Upgrading X-ray crystallography equipment at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville has had an unexpected benefit: enabling analyses that could help art museums authenticate, restore, and learn more about their pieces.

Intertwined curled ribbons.
Two copies of a protein (pink and purple) produced by the hepatitis C virus interacting with the same strand of DNA (green). This structure was solved using equipment at the University of Arkansas X-ray crystallography center. Credit: PDB 2F55.

Scientists use X-ray crystallography to determine the detailed 3D structures of molecules. In biomedical contexts, researchers often apply X-ray crystallography to map the structures of proteins and other biomolecules like DNA and RNA. A molecule’s structure can shed light on its function and help answer scientific questions. For example, knowing the structures of proteins involved in antibiotic resistance can help researchers determine how those molecules work and how to combat bacteria that produce them.

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Catching Up With ReMARCable Vanderbilt Graduates

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Four students standing in front of a campus building staircase.
Four of the first-cohort MARC scholars in April 2022. From left to right: Cassidy Johnson, Lucy Britto, Hannah Craft, and Sim Plotkin. Credit: Dr. Katherine Friedman.

In 2021, we shared the perspectives of third-year undergraduates who had recently joined the first cohort of the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt’s MARC program provides mentorship and professional development opportunities to third- and fourth-year undergraduates who plan to pursue advanced degrees and are from groups that are underrepresented in the biomedical sciences. In spring 2022, as the cohort prepared for graduation, we followed up on their progress and postgraduation plans.

“I feel really pleased with how well our students have done despite entering the program in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Katherine Friedman, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt and a co-director of its MARC program. Four of the six first-cohort students are entering doctoral programs in fall 2022, and the other two have made preparations to pursue higher degrees at a later date.

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All About Anesthesia

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If you’ve ever had a surgery or even a minor procedure, you’ve probably benefited from the medical marvel of anesthesia—the treatment that doctors, called anesthesiologists, give to keep you from feeling pain. And it’s come a long way since the discovery of diethyl ether. Here we dive into the different types, its history, and the way it works.

An infographic titled “The Chemistry of Anesthetics.” Under “A Brief History of Anesthesia” are the chemical structures and dates of first clinical use of diethyl ether (1842), nitrous oxide (1844), cocaine (1884), lidocaine (1948), propofol (1989), and sevoflurane (1990). Under “Types of Anesthesia” are graphics describing general, regional, local anesthesia, and sedation. Under “How Anesthetics Work” is a diagram of a local anesthetic blocking a sodium ion channel in a cell membrane. The chemistry of anesthetics has advanced since the 1840s, producing different types of anesthesia depending on the compounds involved. See more chemistry infographics like this one in C&EN’s Periodic Graphics collection. Click to enlarge.

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Hunting Disease-Causing Genetic Variants

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A headshot of Dr. Meisler.
Dr. Miriam Meisler. Credit: University of Michigan Medical School.

“In my lab, we’ve been gene hunters—starting with visible phenotypes, or characteristics, and searching for the responsible genes,” says Miriam Meisler, Ph.D., the Myron Levine Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. During her career, Dr. Meisler has identified the functions of multiple genes and has shown how genetic variants, or mutations, can impact human health.

Becoming a Scientist

Dr. Meisler had a strong interest in science as a child, which she credits to “growing up at the time of Sputnik” and receiving encouragement from her father and excellent science teachers in high school and college. However, when she started her undergraduate studies at Antioch College in Yellow Spring, Ohio, she decided to explore the humanities and social sciences. After 2 years of sociology and anthropology classes, she returned to biomedical science and, at a student swap, symbolically traded her dictionary for a slide rule—a mechanical device used to do calculations that was eventually replaced by the electric calculator.

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Career Conversations: Q&A with Medicinal Inorganic Chemist Eszter Boros

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Dr. Boros wearing a lab coat and gloves and holding a flask.
Dr. Eszter Boros. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Eszter Boros.

“As a researcher, you get to learn something new every day, and that knowledge feeds more questions. It’s this eternal learning process, and I find that really enticing about being in science,” says Eszter Boros, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. Our interview with Dr. Boros highlights her journey of becoming a scientist and her research on biomedical applications of metals.

Q: What drew you to science?

A: I was born and raised in Switzerland, and I went to a linguistics-focused high school there, but I gravitated to chemistry because I loved that we could understand the world at a molecular level and see the macroscopic consequences of microscopic processes.

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In Other Words: How Cells Express Themselves

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When you encounter the word expression, you may think of a smile, a grimace, or another look on someone’s face. But when biologists talk about expression, they typically mean the process of gene expression—when the information in a gene directs protein synthesis. Proteins are essential for virtually every process in the human body.

Below the title “Expression: In Other Words,” two images are separated by a jagged line. On the left are several cartoon representations of a man with different facial expressions. On the right is a cartoon depiction of DNA and an arrow pointing to a folded protein. Under the images, text reads: Did you know? When biologists talk about expression, they’re typically referring to gene expression, where the information in a gene directs the building of a protein.
Credit: NIGMS.
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The League of VetaHumanz: Encouraging Kids to Use Their Powers for Good!

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Dr. San Miguel standing in front of a van full of boxes wearing a mask and a cape.
Pink Phoenix, alter ego of Dr. Sandra San Miguel, preparing to pass out Vaccine SuperPower Packs described later in this post. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Sandra San Miguel.

“I’m Pink Phoenix, leader of the Vetahumanz League of superheroes, and it’s the best job in the world.” The League of VetaHumanz is a superhero league for veterinarians, founded and led by Pink Phoenix, the alter ego of Sandra San Miguel, D.V.M., Ph.D. Through support from the NIGMS Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program, the league seeks to diversify the veterinary profession.

Members of the league work with elementary students across the country to give them a sense of belonging to the veterinary profession. “I’m most proud of bringing people together who share the mission and vision with all their heart,” Pink Phoenix remarks. “Nobody can just be a member of the league. You have to earn the cape.” The league has over 400 certified role models throughout the country who are either veterinarians—VetaHumanz—or veterinary school students—VetaHumanz in training.

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Public Alerted to Omicron in New Mexico Through Quick Detection

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A sphere with spikes on the outside cut open to reveal a long strand.
Genetic material inside a virus. Credit: iStock.

Over the past 2 years, you’ve probably heard a lot about the spread of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—and the emergence of variants. The discovery and tracking of these variants is possible thanks to genomic surveillance, a technique that involves sequencing and analyzing the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles from many COVID-19 patients. Genomic surveillance has not only shed light on how SARS-CoV-2 has evolved and spread, but it has also helped public health officials decide when to introduce measures to help protect people.

In December 2021, the NIGMS-supported SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance program at the University of New Mexico Health Science Center (UNM HSC) in Albuquerque detected the first known case of the Omicron variant in the state, which enabled a rapid public health response. The program’s co-leaders, assistant professors Darrell Dinwiddie, Ph.D., and Daryl Domman, Ph.D., were watching on high alert for it to enter New Mexico, and when it did, they were poised to quickly identify it:

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From MARC Student to MacArthur Fellow

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Dr. Torres standing in a lab holding a Petri dish.
Dr. Víctor J. Torres. Credit: Keenan Lacey, Ph.D.

“I study the dance between a bacterium and its host. If we can decode the secrets of that dance—how the pathogen causes disease, and how the host fights back—we might be able to take advantage of vulnerabilities to improve our ability to combat infections,” says Víctor J. Torres, Ph.D., the C. V. Starr Professor of Microbiology at the New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.

Discovering and Pursuing a Passion for Science

Growing up, Dr. Torres never would have imagined his highly successful scientific career, especially since he didn’t have a strong interest in science. He entered the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, in 1995, planning to participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and join the Air Force after graduation. He struggled during his first year of college and had to repeat several courses. In one of those courses, he met a fellow student who was planning to pursue a career in science—his now wife, Carmen A. Perez, M.D., Ph.D., who’s a radiation oncologist at NYU Langone. She shared with Dr. Torres some of the opportunities in science available to him, including the NIGMS-funded Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program at their university.

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Science Snippet: RNA’s Remarkable Roles

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RNA, though less well known than its cousin DNA, is equally integral to our bodies. RNA molecules are long, usually single-stranded chains of nucleotides. (DNA molecules are also made up of nucleotides but are typically double-stranded.) There are three major types of RNA, which are all involved in protein synthesis:

  • Messenger RNA (mRNA) is complementary to one of the DNA strands of a gene and carries genetic information for protein synthesis to the ribosome—the molecular complex in which proteins are made.
  • Transfer RNA (tRNA) works with mRNA to make sure the right amino acids are inserted into the forming protein.
  • Ribosomal RNA (rRNA), together with proteins, makes up ribosomes and functions to recognize the mRNA and tRNA that are presented to the ribosomal complex.
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