Science Snippet: Learn About the Cytoskeleton

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A treelike structure made up of red and green fibers.
A cow cell showing actin filaments (red) and microtubules (green). Credit: Tina Carvalho, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The cytoskeleton is a collection of fibers that gives shape and support to cells, like the skeleton does for our bodies. It also allows movement within the cell and, in some cases, by the entire cell. Three different types of fibers make up the cytoskeleton: actin filaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules.

Powering Muscles

Actin filaments contract or lengthen to give cells the flexibility to move and change shape. Along with the protein myosin, they’re responsible for muscle contraction, including voluntary movement and involuntary muscle contractions, such as our heartbeats. Actin filaments are the thinnest and most brittle of the cytoskeletal fibers, but they’re also the most versatile in terms of shape.

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Pumping Iron: The Heavy Lifting Iron Does in Our Bodies

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Our blood appears red for the same reason the planet Mars does: iron. The element may bring to mind cast-iron pans, wrought-iron fences, or ancient iron tools, but it’s also essential to life on Earth. All living organisms, from humans to bacteria, need iron. It’s crucial for many processes in the human body, including oxygen transport, muscle function, proper growth, cell health, and the production of several hormones.

A graphic showing iron’s abbreviation, atomic number, and atomic weight connected by lines to illustrations of a vial of blood, Mars, and Earth. Iron is the reason both our blood and the planet Mars appear red. The element also makes up the majority of Earth’s core and generates the planet’s magnetic field. Credit: Compound Interest. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge
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Gone Fishing: Teaching Bioinformatics With Skate DNA

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As computers have advanced over the past few decades, researchers have been able to work with larger and more complex datasets than ever before. The science of using computers to investigate biological data is called bioinformatics, and it’s helping scientists make important discoveries, such as finding versions of genes that affect a person’s risk for developing various types of cancer. Many scientists believe that almost all biologists will use bioinformatics to some degree in the future.

A cluster of various-sized dots connected by glowing lines.
Bioinformatics software was used to create this representation of a biological network. Credit: Benjamin King, University of Maine.

However, bioinformatics isn’t always included in college biology programs, and many of today’s researchers received their training before bioinformatics was widely taught. To address these gaps, the bioinformatics cores of the five Northeast IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBREs)—located in Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, Vermont, and New Hampshire—have worked together to offer basic bioinformatics training to students and researchers. The collaboration started in 2009 with a project where researchers sequenced the genome of a fish called the little skate (Leucoraja erinacea) and used the data to develop trainings.

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Making a MARC at Vanderbilt

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“What we’re trying to do is support the students’ attachment to being a scientist, to becoming part of the community,” says Douglas McMahon, Ph.D., the Stevenson Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a co-director of Vanderbilt’s Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. MARC focuses on undergraduates from diverse backgrounds who are in the biomedical sciences and plan to pursue a Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. degree after graduation.

Sim Plotkin in front of a brick building.
Sim Plotkin.
Credit: Allyson Arserio.

For years, NIGMS has funded MARC programs throughout the United States and its territories; Vanderbilt joined their ranks in 2020. In June of that year, Dr. McMahon and Katherine Friedman, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt and co-director of its MARC program, welcomed the initial cohort of six rising juniors. “MARC is a great opportunity because it focuses on helping people reach their Ph.D. goals who don’t really have others around them who know how to get there,” says Sim Plotkin, a molecular and cellular biology major. “For me, that’s really helpful because I’ll be the first in my family to graduate from college.”

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Accelerating the Development of Tests for Endometriosis and Cancer

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NIGMS’ Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program works toward more effective methods for patient screening, diagnosis, and treatment.

Translating lab discoveries into health care products requires large investments of time and resources. Through the STTR Regional Technology Transfer Accelerator Hubs for IDeA States program, NIGMS helps researchers interested in transitioning their discoveries and/or inventions into products. Here are the stories of three researchers working with the XLerator Hub, which funds projects in the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico.

Ending Diagnostic Delays for Endometriosis

A headshot of Dr. Idhaliz Flores-Caldera. Dr. Idhaliz Flores-Caldera.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Flores-Caldera.

Idhaliz Flores-Caldera, Ph.D., a professor of basic sciences and OB-GYN at Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico, has studied endometriosis for nearly 20 years. Endometriosis occurs when endometrial tissue, which typically lines the uterus, grows elsewhere in the body. Dr. Flores-Caldera first had the idea for a noninvasive diagnostic test for the disorder about 10 years ago. But it was only when she learned about funding opportunities from the XLerator Hub that she saw a path to validating her preliminary research findings and eventually commercializing her test.

Dr. Flores-Caldera applied for and was accepted into the hub’s proof-of-concept program, Ideas to Products, which funds researchers to flesh out ideas they want to commercialize. “I am very appreciative of how the program has provided me with tools and knowledge about commercializing a product and the process of patenting a product,” she says. “In general, scientists aren’t educated on this important topic.”

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Cool Images: Wondrous Worms

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The tiny roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans is one of the most common research organisms—creatures scientists use to study life. While C. elegans may seem drastically different from humans, it shares many genes and molecular pathways with us. Viewed with a microscope, the worm can also be surprisingly beautiful. Aside from the stunning imagery, these examples from our Image and Video Gallery show how C. elegans helps scientists advance our understanding of living systems and find new ways to improve our health.

Round yellow shapes with smaller blue spots. Three of the yellow shapes are connected by a purple line. Credit: Keir Balla and Emily Troemel, University of California San Diego.

This C. elegans has been infected with microsporidia (purple), parasites closely related to fungi. The yellow shapes are the worm’s gut cells, and the blue dots are nuclei. Some microsporidia can infect people, so studying the parasites in worms could help researchers devise strategies to prevent or treat infections.

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Engage Learners in Science and Health With Our Kahoots!

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NIGMS, in collaboration with Scholastic, has developed a collection of free biology and health activities on the educational app Kahoot! You can play them alone, with friends, or with a class of students. Four Kahoots! are currently available:

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Take a Tour of Your Cells’ Organelles!

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An illustration of a cell cut in half, showing many different structures. A cross-section of a cell showing organelles. Credit: Judith Stoffer.

Welcome to our tour of the cell! Imagine you’ve shrunk down to about 3 millionths of your normal size. You are now about 0.5 micrometers tall (a micrometer is 1/1,000th of a millimeter). At this scale, a medium-sized human cell looks as long, high, and wide as a football field. But you can’t see nearly that far. Clogging your view is a rich stew of molecules, fibers, and various cell structures called organelles. Like the internal organs in your body, organelles in the cell each have a unique biological role to play.

The Nucleus and Its Closest Neighbor

Our first stop is the somewhat spherical structure about 50 feet in diameter. It’s the nucleus—basically the cell’s brain. The nucleus is the most prominent organelle and can occupy up to 10 percent of the space inside a cell. It contains the equivalent of the cell’s genetic material, or DNA.

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Quiz: Prove Your Knowledge of Proteins!

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Proteins play a role in virtually every activity in the body. They make up hair and nails, help muscles move, protect against infection, and more. Many NIGMS-funded researchers study the rich variety of proteins in humans and other organisms to shed light on their roles in health and disease.

Take our quiz to test how much you know about proteins. Afterward, find more quizzes and other fun learning tools on our activities and multimedia webpage, which includes an interactive protein alphabet.

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Pathways: The Imaging Issue

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Cover of Pathways student magazine showing geometric shapes, pom-pom-like structures, and text that reads, Dive into the microscopic world. What do you think this image shows? Hint: It’s NOT an underwater scene! (Answer inside). Cover of Pathways student magazine.

NIGMS and Scholastic bring you our latest issue of Pathways, which focuses on imaging tools that help scientists unlock the mysteries of our cells and molecules. A better understanding of this tiny world can help researchers learn about the body’s normal and abnormal processes and lead to more effective, targeted treatments for illnesses.

Pathways is designed for students in grades 6 through 12. This collection of free resources teaches students about basic science and its importance to health, as well as exciting research careers.

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