Cool Image: Visualizing Viral Activity

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Viral RNA (red) in an RSV-infected cell. Credit: Eric Alonas and Philip Santangelo, Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University.

Viral RNA (red) in an RSV-infected cell. Credit: Eric Alonas and Philip Santangelo, Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University.

What looks like a colorful pattern produced as light enters a kaleidoscope is an image of a cell infected with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) illuminated by a new imaging technology. Although relatively harmless in most children, RSV can lead to bronchitis and pneumonia in others. Philip Santangelo Exit icon of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, along with colleagues nationwide, used multiply-labeled tetravalent RNA imaging probes (MTRIPS) to observe the entry, assembly and replication of RSV inside a living cell. Once introduced into RSV-plagued cells, the MTRIPS latched onto the viral RNA (in the image, red) without altering the level of infectivity. This led to fluorescent RSV viral particles that let the researchers track the viral RNA in host cells and better understand what the virus was doing. The knowledge gained from this new technique might aid in the development of RSV antiviral drugs and possibly a vaccine. Scientists could also one day use the imaging approach to study other RNA viruses, such as the flu and Ebola.

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Transporter Protein Dance Moves

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Animation depicts the changes that allow a protein transporter to do its job.

In this video, Emad Tajkhorshid of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign explains the molecular dance of transporter proteins, molecules that move substances across the cell membrane.

In this video, Emad Tajkhorshid of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign explains the molecular dance of ABC transporters, a family of molecular machines that utilize ATP to move substances across the cell membrane. Tajkhorshid and his team recently used computational methods to map the movements between two known structural models of MsbA, a bacterial version of a transporter in human cells that helps to export anti-cancer drugs. They then described the individual steps of the molecular motions during the transport cycle. Understanding the process at such a detailed level could suggest new targets for treating a range of diseases, including some drug-resistant cancers that often make more transporter proteins to kick out medications meant to kill them.

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An Experimental Contact Lens to Prevent Glaucoma-Induced Blindness

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Contact lens. Credit: Peter Mallen, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Laboratory/Kohane Laboratory, Boston Children's Hospital.
An experimental contact lens design releases a glaucoma medicine at a steady rate for up to a month. Credit: Peter Mallen, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Laboratory/Kohane Laboratory, Boston Children’s Hospital.

Like a miniature donut stuffed inside a tiny pita pocket, a common glaucoma medicine held within a biomaterial ring is sandwiched inside this contact lens. In laboratory experiments, the lens, which can also correct vision, releases the eyesight-saving medication at a steady rate for up to a month. Its construction offers numerous potential clinical advantages over the standard glaucoma treatment and may have additional applications, such as delivering anti-inflammatory drugs or antibiotics to the eye. Led by Daniel Kohane and Joseph Ciolino at Harvard Medical School, the researchers who developed the lens are now gearing up to test its effectiveness in additional laboratory studies. They hope a Phase I clinical trial to evaluate the safety and ability of the lens to reduce pressure in the human eye could begin in about a year.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Eye Institute.

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Targeting Toxic RNA Molecules in Muscular Dystrophy

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Genetic defect that causes myotonic dystrophy type 2 and used that information to design drug candidates to counteract the disease. Credit: Ilyas Yildirim, Northwestern University.
Scientists revealed a detailed image of the genetic defect that causes myotonic dystrophy type 2 and used that information to design drug candidates to counteract the disease. Credit: Ilyas Yildirim, Northwestern University. View larger image

Myotonic dystrophy type 2 (DM2) is a relatively rare, inherited form of adult-onset muscular dystrophy that has no cure. It’s caused by a genetic defect in which a short series of nucleotides—the chemical units that spell out our genetic code—is repeated more times than normal. When the defective gene is transcribed, the resulting RNA repeat forms a hairpin-like structure that binds to and disables a protein called MBNL1.

Now, research led by Matthew Disney of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), Florida Campus, has revealed the detailed, three-dimensional structure of the RNA defect in DM2 and used this information to design small molecules that bind to the aberrant RNA. These designer molecules, even in small amounts, significantly improved disease-associated defects in a cellular model of DM2, and thus hold potential for reversing the disorder.

Drugs that target toxic RNA molecules associated with diseases such as DM2 are few and far between, as developing such compounds is technically challenging. The “bottom-up” approach that the scientists used to design potent new drug candidates, by first studying in detail how the RNA structure interacts with small molecules, is unconventional, noted Jessica Childs-Disney of TSRI, who was lead author of the paper with Ilyas Yildirim of Northwestern University. But it may serve as an effective strategy for pioneering the use of small molecules to manipulate disease-causing RNAs—a central focus of the Disney lab.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Cancer Institute.

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Meet Dave Cummings

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Dave Cummings. Credit: Marcus Emerson, PLNU.
Dave Cummings
Field: Environmental microbiology
Works at: Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, Calif.
Hobbies: Hiking, backpacking, fly-fishing
Dream home: One that doesn’t need a lot of work
Credit: Marcus Emerson, PLNU

In college, as a pre-med student majoring in biology and chemistry, Dave Cummings grew frustrated with the traditional “cookbook” approach to doing labs in his science classes. Turned off by having to follow step-by-step lab procedures that had little to do with scientific discovery, Cummings changed his major to English literature. Studying literature, he says, “helped me find myself” and taught him to think critically.

Ultimately, Cummings says, “I came to realize that it wasn’t the practice of medicine that got me excited, but the science behind it all.” He decided to pursue a graduate degree in biology and—after “knocking on a lot of doors”—was accepted at the University of Idaho, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees and discovered his passion for microbiology.

Today, Cummings applies his critical thinking skills to his work as professor of biology back at his alma mater, Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), a small university focused on undergraduate education. There he studies the role of urban storm water in spreading genes for antibiotic resistance in natural environments, and pursues his enthusiasm for training the next generation of scientists. He enlists his students in his research, giving them what he calls “real, live, on-the-ground” research experience that relatively few undergraduate students at larger universities receive.

Cummings’ Findings

Antibiotic resistance, which can transform once-tractable bacterial infections into diseases that are difficult or impossible to treat, is a major public health challenge of the 21st century. The most common way that bacteria become drug resistant is by acquiring genes that confer antibiotic resistance from other bacteria. Often, such drug resistance genes are found on small, circular pieces of DNA called plasmids that are readily passed from one species of bacteria to another.

Urban wetlands provide ideal conditions for bacteria to mingle, swap genes and spread antibiotic resistance, notes Cummings. He focuses on the wetlands around San Diego, which act as a giant mixing bowl for storm runoff, human sewage, animal waste, naturally occurring plant and soil microorganisms, and plasmids indigenous to the wetlands.

Cummings and his students examine sediment samples from these wetlands in search of plasmids that carry resistance genes. They’ve found that during winter rains, the San Diego wetlands receive runoff containing antibiotic-resistant bacteria and plasmids, which can persist at low, but detectable, levels into the dry summer months.

“We know that urban storm water carries with it a lot of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and along with that the DNA instructions [or genes] that code for the resistance,” says Cummings. “We have solid evidence of genes encoding resistance to clinically important antibiotics washing … into coastal wetlands in San Diego.”

“We’re trying to understand the scope of the problem, and ultimately what threat that poses to human health,” he says. His concern is that the drug-defying bacterial genes will accumulate in the wetlands, and then “[find] their way back to us, where they will augment and amplify the problem of resistance.”

Precisely how resistance genes might move from the environment into people is not yet known. One way this could occur is through direct contact with contaminated water or sediment by anglers, swimmers, surfers and other recreational users. Fish, birds and insects could also transmit resistance genes from contaminated wetlands to humans.

“There is good evidence elsewhere that birds are important vectors of drug-resistant pathogens, and this is my favorite possibility,” says Cummings. “Hopefully someday we can test that hypothesis.”

Cummings’ studies, done in collaboration with Ryan Botts at PLNU and Eva Top at the University of Idaho, could reveal antibiotic resistance genes with the potential to move into new species of disease-causing bacteria and back into human populations. By identifying these genes and raising awareness of the problem, he hopes to aid future efforts to mitigate the spread of antibiotic resistance.

Local Flu Forecasts Posted on New Web Site

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Incidence of influenza during the week starting 12/29/2013 (top); influenza incidence forecasts for selected cities (bottom). Credit: Columbia Prediction of Infectious Diseases.
Incidence of influenza during the week starting 12/29/2013 (top); influenza incidence forecasts for selected cities (bottom). Credit: Columbia Prediction of Infectious Diseases Exit icon.

News articles this weekend reported an uptick in flu cases in many parts of the country. When will your area be hardest hit? Infectious disease experts at Columbia University have launched an influenza forecast Web site Exit icon that gives weekly predictions for rates of flu infection in 94 U.S. cities. The predictions indicate the number of cases in Chicago; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles will peak this week, with New York City, Boston, Miami and Providence peaking in following weeks. The forecasts are updated every Friday afternoon, so check back then for any changes.

The forecasting approach, which adapts techniques used in modern weather prediction, relies on real-time observational data of people with influenza-like illness, including those who actually tested positive for flu. The researchers have spent the last couple of years developing the forecasting system and testing it—first retrospectively predicting flu cases from 2003-2008 in New York City and then in real time during the 2012-2013 influenza season in 108 cities.

“People have become acclimated to understanding the capabilities and limitations of weather forecasts,” said Jeffrey Shaman Exit icon, who’s led the flu forecasting project. “Making our forecasts available on the Web site will help people develop a similar familiarity and comfort.” Shaman and his team are hoping that, just as rainy forecasts prompt more people to carry umbrellas, an outlook for high influenza activity may motivate them to get vaccinated and practice other flu-prevention measures.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

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Cool Images: Holiday Season Cells

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Yeast cells deficient in zinc and the Tsa1 protein have protein tangles. Credit: Colin MacDiarmid and David Eide, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Yeast cells deficient in zinc and the Tsa1 protein have protein tangles. Credit: Colin MacDiarmid and David Eide, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Just in time for the holidays, we’ve wrapped up a few red and green cellular images from basic research studies. In this snapshot, we see a group of yeast cells that are deficient in zinc, a metal that plays a key role in creating and maintaining protein shape. The cells also lack a protein called Tsa1, which normally keeps proteins from sticking together. Green areas highlight protein tangles caused by the double deficiency. Red outlines the cells. Protein clumping plays a role in many human diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, so knowledge of why it happens—and what prevents it in healthy cells—could aid the development of treatments.

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One Mutation Leads to Another—At Least in Yeast

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DNA mutation. Credit: Stock image.
Newly discovered genetic effect in yeast could shed light on carcinogenesis. Credit: Stock image.

Cancer cells typically include many gene mutations, extra or missing genes, or even the wrong number of chromosomes. Scientists know that certain genetic changes lead to ones elsewhere. But they’ve had a chicken-and-egg problem trying to figure out which changes trigger which others—or whether mutations accumulate randomly in tumors.

New research led by J. Marie Hardwick Exit icon of Johns Hopkins University sheds light on the issue. She found that incapacitating a single gene in yeast cells—regardless of which gene it was—spurred mutations in one or two other genes. The process was anything but random: If, say, gene X was knocked out, yeast cells almost always developed a secondary mutation in gene Y. It’s as if knocking out one gene disrupts the genomic balance enough that the cell must alter a different gene to compensate.

Significantly, the secondary mutations—but not the original ones—caused altered yeast cell characteristics, including traits linked to cancer. Also, many of the secondary mutations occurred in genes associated with cancer in humans, further suggesting that these secondary changes might play a role in carcinogenesis.

This new information will help researchers better understand the chain of genetic events that lead to cancer. It might also prompt scientists to reevaluate years of research that attributed changes in cell behavior or appearance to a given gene knockout.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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Abnormal Mitochondria Might Cause Resistance to Radiation Therapy

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Mitochondria. Credit: Judith Stoffer.
Bean-shaped mitochondria are cells’ power plants. The highly folded inner membranes are the site of energy generation. Credit: Judith Stoffer. View larger image

Why some cancers are resistant to radiation therapy has baffled scientists, but research on abnormalities in mitochondria, often described as cells’ power plants, could offer new details. A research team led by Maxim Frolov Exit icon of the University of Illinois at Chicago learned that the E2F gene, which plays a role in the natural process of cell death, contributes to the function of mitochondria. Fruit flies with a mutant version of the E2F gene had misshapen mitochondria that produced less energy than normal ones. Flies with severely damaged mitochondria were more resistant to radiation-induced cell death. Studies using human cells revealed similar effects. The work could help explain why people with cancer respond differently to radiation therapy and might aid the development of drugs that enhance mitochondrial function, thereby improving the effectiveness of radiation therapy.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Cancer Institute.

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New Models Predict Where E. coli Strains Will Thrive

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Illustration of E. coli. Credit: Janet Iwasa, University of Utah.
Illustration of E. coli. Credit: Janet Iwasa, University of Utah (image available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license Exit icon). View larger image

Like plants and animals, different types of E. coli thrive in different environments. Now, scientists can even predict which environments—such as the bladder, stomach or blood—are most amenable to the growth of various strains, including pathogenic ones. A research team led by Bernhard Palsson Exit icon of the University of California, San Diego, accomplished this by using genome data to reconstruct the metabolic networks of 55 E. coli strains. The metabolic models, which identify differences in the ability to manufacture certain compounds and break down various nutrients, shed light on how certain E. coli strains become pathogenic and how to potentially control them. One approach could be depriving the deadly strains of the nutrients they need to survive in their niches. The researchers plan to use their new method to study other bacteria, such as those that cause staph infections.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Cancer Institute.

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