Pathways: The Circadian Rhythms Issue

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Cover of Pathways student magazine showing a microscopy image of a fruit fly’s head with bright blue eyes and the featured questions: What is this? And what does it have to do with how you sleep? Cover of Pathways student magazine.

NIGMS and Scholastic, Inc., bring you the third edition of Pathways, a collection of free resources that teaches students about basic science and its importance to health, and exciting research careers.

Pathways is designed for grades 6 through 12. The topic of this unit is circadian rhythms, the “schedules” our bodies follow over the course of a day. These rhythms influence processes like hunger and the sleep-wake cycle.

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PECASE Honoree Sohini Ramachandran Studies the Genetic Foundations of Traits in Diverse Populations

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Headshot of Sohini Ramachandran. Sohini Ramachandran, Brown University.
Credit: Danish Saroee/Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study.

Recent advances in computing enable researchers to explore the life sciences in ways that would have been impossible a few decades ago. One new tool is the ability to sequence genomes, revealing people’s full DNA blueprints. The collection of more and more genetic data allows researchers to compare the DNA of many people and observe variations, including those shared by people with a common ancestry.

Sohini Ramachandran Link to external web site, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Computational Molecular Biology and associate professor of biology and computer science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. She is also a recent recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Dr. Ramachandran researches the causes and consequences of human genetic variations using computer models. Starting with genomic data from living people, her lab applies statistical methods, mathematical modeling, and computer simulations to discover how human populations moved and changed genetically over time.

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Sepsis: Using Big Data to Cut a Killer Down to Size

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A geographical outline of the U.S. with the text More than 1.7 million people get sepsis each year in the United States. View the full infographic for more facts about sepsis.

Sepsis is a serious medical condition caused by an overwhelming response to infection that damages tissues and organs. It’s unpredictable, progresses quickly, can strike anyone, and is a leading cause of hospital-related deaths. In the U.S. alone, nearly 270,000 people die each year from sepsis. Those who survive sepsis often end up in the hospital again, and some have long-term health complications. Early treatment is key for many patients to survive sepsis, yet doctors can’t easily diagnose it because it’s so complex and each patient is different.

Despite decades of research, sepsis remains a poorly understood condition with limited diagnostic tools and treatment. To tackle these obstacles, scientists Vincent Liu, Christopher Seymour, and Hallie Prescott have started using a “big data” approach, which relies on complex computer programs to sift through huge amounts of information. In this case, the computers analyze data such as demographic information, vital signs, and routine blood tests in the electronic health records of sepsis patients. The goal is to find patterns in the data that might help doctors understand, predict, and treat sepsis more effectively.

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The Chemistry of Chocolate

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Chocolate is a Valentine’s Day must-have and popular among people with a sweet tooth. Many also claim it lifts mood or even acts as an aphrodisiac, and we’ve all heard someone say it’s habit forming.

The compounds in chocolate that allegedly have positive effects come from the cacao bean, so the darker the chocolate, the more of these compounds it contains. Milk chocolate has less than dark chocolate, and white chocolate has nearly none because it includes no cocoa solids, only cocoa butter.

An infographic showing dark chocolate paired with the chemical structures of theobromine and phenethylamine, milk chocolate paired with vanillin and butyric acid, and white chocolate paired with stearic acid and palmitic acid. Chocolate contains upwards of 800 chemical compounds, just a handful of which are explored in this infographic. See more chemistry infographics like this one in C&EN’s Periodic Graphics collection Link to external web site. Click to enlarge

Does science back up the common claims about chocolate? To find the answers, we’re taking a look at the chemistry behind this treat.

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Crowdsourcing Science: Using Competition to Drive Creativity

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Six student researchers sitting around a table and collaborating on a project. Credit: iStock.

Historically, crowdsourcing has played an important role in certain fields of scientific research. Wildlife biologists often rely on members of the public to monitor animal populations. Using backyard telescopes, amateur astronomers provide images and measurements that lead to important discoveries about the universe. And many meteorologists use data collected by citizen scientists to study weather conditions and patterns.

Now, thanks largely to advances in computing, researchers in computational biology and data science are harnessing the power of the masses and making discoveries that provide valuable insights into human health.

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Quiz Yourself to Grow What You Know About Regeneration

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Regeneration is the natural process of replacing or restoring cells that have been lost or damaged due to injury or disease. A few animals can regrow entire organs or other body parts, but most have limited abilities to regenerate.

Scientists in the field of regenerative medicine study how some animals are able to rebuild lost body parts. By better understanding these processes and learning how to control them, researchers hope to develop new methods to treat injuries and diseases in people.

Take this quiz to test what you know about regeneration and regenerative medicine. Then check out our Regeneration fact sheet and the regeneration issue of Pathways Link to external web site, a teaching resource produced in collaboration with Scholastic.

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PECASE Honoree Michael Boyce on Sugar’s Role in Cell Signaling and on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Scientific Workforce

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Headshot of Michael Boyce. Michael Boyce, associate professor of biochemistry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Credit: Michael Boyce.

Sugars aren’t merely energy sources for our cells. They also play important signaling roles through a process called glycosylation, where they attach to proteins and lipids as tags. Although these sugar tags, called glycans, impact many cellular processes, they have long been understudied due to technical challenges. Now, advances in analytical tools like mass spectrometry are enabling scientists to examine the enormous complexity of glycans. Other advances also allow researchers to synthesize complex sugars, providing them with standards for analytical experiments.

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Looking Back at the Top Three Posts of 2019

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Over the past 12 months, we’ve explored a variety of topics in genetics, cell biology, chemistry, and careers in the biomedical sciences. As we ring in the new year, we bring you our top three posts of 2019. If your favorite is missing, let us know what it is in the comments section below!

Amazing Organisms and the Lessons They Can Teach Us

Two Hawaiian bobtail squid with yellow skin, brown spots, and black eyes catching a neon green reflection. Hawaiian bobtail squid. Credit: Dr. Satoshi Shibata.

Studying research organisms, such as those featured in this post, teaches us about ourselves. These amazing creatures, which have some traits similar to our own, may hold the key to preventing and treating an array of complex diseases.

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The Meat of the Matter: Learning How Gut Microbiota Might Reduce Harm from Red Meat

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Drawing of intestines with a magnifying glass showing bacteria within the intestine.Microbiota in the intestines. Credit: iStock.

Research on how diet impacts the gut microbiota has rapidly expanded in the last several years. Studies show that diets rich in red meat are linked to diseases such as colon cancer and heart disease. In both mice and humans, researchers have recently discovered differences in the gut microbiota of those who eat diets rich in red meat compared with those who don’t. This is likely because of a sugar molecule in the red meat, called N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), that our bodies can’t break down. Researchers believe the human immune system sees Neu5Gc as foreign. This triggers the immune system, causing inflammation in the body, and possibly leads to disease over time.

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Block an Enzyme, Save a Life

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Vern Schramm in his lab, dressed in a white lab coat, standing with his arms folded across his chest. Vern Schramm, professor of biochemistry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York. Credit: Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Enzymes drive life. Without them, we couldn’t properly digest food, make brain chemicals, move—or complete myriad other vital tasks. Unfortunately, in certain cases, enzymes also can trigger a host of health problems, including cancer, bacterial infections, and hypertension (high blood pressure).

Understanding how enzymes work has been the research focus of Vern Schramm for more than 4 decades.

“When we started our work, we were driven not by the desire to find drugs, but to understand the nature of enzymes, which are critical to human life,” Schramm says. But his research already led to one drug, and promises many more.

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