Tag: Cells

The Extracellular Matrix, a Multitasking Marvel

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In part II of this series, we reveal how the ECM helps body cells move around, a process vital for wounds to heal and a fetus to grow. Here we introduce the extracellular matrix (ECM) and discuss how it makes our tissues stiff or squishy, solid or see-through.

When we think about how our bodies are made and what they do, we usually focus on organs, tissues and cells. These structures have well-known roles. But around, within and between them is a less understood material that also plays an essential part in making us what we are.

This gelatinous filler material is known as the extracellular matrix (ECM). Once thought to be the biological equivalent of bubble wrap, we now know that the ECM is a dynamic, physiologically active component of all our tissues. It guides cell shape, orientation and function.

The ECM is found in all of our body parts. In some tissues, it’s a thin layer separating cells, like mortar between bricks. In other tissues, it’s the major constituent.

The ECM is most prevalent in connective tissue, the material that forms our skeletons, cushions our internal organs and winds between blood vessels and around nerves. In connective tissue, the ECM is more abundant than the cells suspended within it.

The extracellular matrix meets the needs of each body part. In teeth and bones, it’s rock-hard. In corneas, it’s a transparent gel that acts like a camera lens. In tendons, it forms strong fibers that bind muscle to bone. Credit: Stock image.

What makes the ECM truly unique is its variability: Its texture, composition and functions vary by body part. That’s because the ECM’s deceptively simple recipe of water, fibrous proteins and carbohydrates has virtually endless variations.

In general, the fibrous proteins give the ECM its texture and help cells adhere properly. Carbohydrates in the ECM absorb water and swell to form a gel that acts as an excellent shock absorber. Continue reading “The Extracellular Matrix, a Multitasking Marvel”

Pigment Cells: Not Just Pretty Colors

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If you’ve ever visited an aquarium or snorkeled along a coral reef, you’ve witnessed the dazzling colors and patterns on tropical fish. The iridescent stripes and dots come from pigment cells, which also tint skin, hair and eyes in all kinds of animals, including humans. Typically, bright colors help attract mates, while dull ones provide camouflage. In humans, pigment helps protect skin from DNA-damaging UV light.

Researchers study cellular hues not only to decipher how they color our world, but also to understand skin cancers that originate from pigment cells. Some of these researchers work their way back, developmentally speaking, to focus on the type of cell, known as a neural crest cell, that is the precursor of pigment cells.

Present at the earliest stages of development, neural crest cells migrate throughout an embryo and transform into many different types of cells and tissues, including nerve cells, cartilage, bone and skin. The images here, from research on neural crest cells in fish and salamanders, showcase the beauty and versatility of pigment cells in nature’s palette.

Xanthophores
Pigment cells called xanthophores, shown here in the skin of the popular laboratory animal zebrafish, glow brightly under light. Credit: David Parichy, University of Washington.
Melanocytes
Dark pigment cells, called melanocytes, like these in pearl danio, a tropical minnow and relative of zebrafish, assemble in skin patterns that allow the animals to blend into their surroundings or attract mates. Credit: David Parichy, University of Washington.
Fin of pearl danio
Pigment cells can form all sorts of patterns, like these stripes on the fin of pearl danio. Credit: David Parichy, University of Washington.
Salamander skin
Pigment cells arise from neural crest cells. Here, pigment cells can be seen migrating in the skin of a salamander where they will form distinct color patterns. Credit: David Parichy, University of Washington.

 

A Labor Day-Themed Collection: Hard-Working Cell Structures

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Hard labor might be the very thing we try to avoid on Labor Day. But our cells and their components don’t have the luxury of taking a day off. Their non-stop work is what keeps us going and healthy.

Scientists often compare cells with small factories. Just like a factory, a cell contains specialized compartments and machines—including organelles and other structures—that each play their own roles in getting the job done. In the vignettes below, we give a shout out to some of these tireless cellular workers.

Energy Generators
Credit: Thomas Deerinck, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research
Mitochondria are the cell’s power plants. They convert energy from food into a molecule called ATP that fuels virtually every process in the cell. As shown here, mitochondria (brown) often have distinct, oblong shapes. Like most other organelles, mitochondria are encased in an outer membrane. But they also have an inner membrane that folds many times, increasing the area available for energy production. In addition, mitochondria store calcium ions, help make hemoglobin—the vital iron-containing protein that allows red blood cells to carry oxygen—and even take part in producing some hormones. Defects in mitochondria can lead to a host of rare but often incurable diseases that range from mild to devastating. Researchers are studying mitochondria to better understand their manifold jobs in the cell and to find treatments for mitochondrial diseases.

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New Views on What the Cell’s Parts Can Do

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Studying some of the most well-tread territory in science can turn up surprising new findings. Take, for example, the cell. You may have read in textbooks how the cell’s parts look and function during important biological processes like cellular movement and division. You may have even built models of the cell out of gelatin or clay. But scientists continue to learn new facts that require those textbooks to be updated, and those models to be reshaped. Here are a few examples.

Nuclear Envelope: More Than a Protective Barrier

Damaged heterochromatin represented by nucleotides GCAT
Damaged heterochromatin, a tightly packed form of DNA, travels to the inner wall of the nuclear envelope for repair. Credit: Irene Chiolo and Taehyun Ryu, University of Southern California.

Like a security guard checking IDs at the door, the nuclear envelope forms a protective barrier around the cell’s nucleus, only letting specific proteins and chemical signals pass through. Scientists recently found that this envelope may also act as a repair center for broken strands of heterochromatin, a tightly packed form of DNA.

Irene Chiolo of the University of Southern California and Gary Karpen of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory were part of a team that learned that healthy fruit fly cells mend breaks in heterochromatin by moving the damaged DNA strands to the inner wall of the nuclear envelope. There, proteins embedded in the envelope make the necessary repairs in a safe place where the broken DNA can’t accidentally get fused to the wrong chromosome. Continue reading “New Views on What the Cell’s Parts Can Do”

Cool Images: A Holiday-Themed Collection

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Here are some images from our gallery that remind us of the winter holidays—and showcase important findings and innovations in biomedical research.

Ribbons and Wreaths
Wreath
This wreath represents the molecular structure of a protein, Cas4, which is part of a system, known as CRISPR, that bacteria use to protect themselves against viral invaders. The green ribbons show the protein’s structure, and the red balls show the location of iron and sulfur molecules important for the protein’s function. Scientists have harnessed Cas9, a different protein in the bacterial CRISPR system, to create a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas9. Using this tool, researchers can study a range of cellular processes and human diseases more easily, cheaply and precisely. Last week, Science magazine recognized the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool as the “breakthrough of the year.”

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Sugar Rush in Research

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Cookies
Sugar sprinkled on cookies and other treats is often an attractive—and sweet tasting—finishing touch. But the sugar-rich coating that surrounds most cells is far more—it’s a vital ingredient for many basic cellular processes. Credit: Stock image.

Simple sugars such as sucrose (found in the sugar bowl) and fructose (in fruits and honey) provide the sweet finishing touches on many holiday treats. But did you know that versions of these molecules also serve important functions in our cells?

Cells assemble sugar molecules into chains known as glycans. These glycans, which can be linear or branching, play an astounding number of biological roles. When bound to proteins called lectins, they enable a fertilized egg to attach properly onto a woman’s uterine wall and help immune cells move out of a blood vessel to the site of an infection. When decorated with specific patterns of molecules called sulfates, glycans can help direct the growth of nerves. And it’s the glycans found on our blood cells that define blood type (A, B, AB or O). Continue reading “Sugar Rush in Research”

Cool Images: A Halloween-Inspired Cell Collection

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As Halloween approaches, we turned up some spectral images from our gallery. The collection below highlights some spooky-sounding—but really important—biological topics that researchers are actively investigating to spur advances in medicine.

Cell Skeleton
Fibroblast
The cell skeleton, or cytoskeleton, is the framework that gives a cell its shape, helps it move and keeps its contents organized for proper function. A cell that lacks a cytoskeleton becomes misshapen and immobile. This fibroblast, a cell that normally makes connective tissues and travels to the site of a wound to help it heal, is lacking a cytoskeleton. Researchers have associated faulty cytoskeletons and resulting abnormal cell movement with birth defects and weakened immune system functioning. See fibroblasts with healthy skeletons.

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How Cells Manage Chance

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We asked the heads of our scientific divisions to tell us about some of the big questions in fundamental biomedical science that researchers are investigating with NIGMS support. This article is the second in an occasional series that explores these questions and explains how pursuing the answers could advance understanding of important biological processes.

Sample slide, variability of mRNA in yeast cells
The number of copies of mRNA molecules (bright green) observed here in yeast cells (dark blue) fluctuates randomly. Credit: David Ball, Virginia Tech.

For some health conditions, the cause is clear: A single altered gene is responsible. But for many others, the path to disease is more complex. Scientists are working to understand how factors like genetics, lifestyle and environmental exposures all contribute to disease. Another important, but less well-known, area of investigation is the role of chance at the molecular level.

One team working in this field is led by John Tyson Exit icon at Virginia Tech. The group focuses on how chance events affect the cell division cycle, in which a cell duplicates its contents and splits into two. This cycle is the basis for normal growth, reproduction and the replenishment of skin, blood and other cells throughout the body. Errors in the cycle are associated with a number of conditions, including birth defects and cancer. Continue reading “How Cells Manage Chance”

Cellular ‘Cruise Control’ Systems Let Cells Sense and Adapt to Changing Demands

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Cells are the ultimate smart material. They can sense the demands being placed on them during critical life processes and then respond by strengthening, remodeling or self-repairing, for instance. To do this, cells use “mechanosensory” systems similar to the cruise control that lets a car’s engine adjust its power output when going up or down hills.

Researchers are uncovering new details on cells’ molecular cruise control systems. By learning more about the inner workings of these systems, scientists hope ultimately to devise ways to tinker with them for therapeutic purposes.

Cell Fusion

To examine how cells fine-tune their architecture and force output during the merging or fusion of cells, Elizabeth Chen and Douglas Robinson of Johns Hopkins University teamed up with Daniel Fletcher of the University of California, Berkeley. Cell fusion is critical to many developmental and physiological processes, including fertilization, placenta formation, immune response, and skeletal muscle development and regeneration.

Illustration of cell fusion

Fingerlike protrusions of one cell (pink) invade another cell prior to cell fusion. Credit: Shuo Li. Used with permission from Developmental Cell.

Using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model system, Chen’s research group Exit icon previously found that when two muscle cells merge during muscle development, fingerlike protrusions of one cell invade the territory of the other cell to promote fusion. In the new study, led by Chen, the researchers showed that cell fusion depends on the ability of the “receiving” cell to put up resistance against the invading cell Exit icon.

In fusing fruit fly cells, the scientists saw that in areas where the invading cells drilled in, the receiving cells quickly stiffened their cell skeletons, effectively pushing back. This mechanosensory response allows the outer membranes of the two cells to be pushed together and later fuse, Chen explains.

The team then explored the mechanisms underlying the stiffening response. They found that a protein called myosin II, which is part of the cell skeleton, senses the pushing force from the invading cell. Myosin II swarms to the fusion site and binds with fibers just beneath the cell membrane to put up the necessary resistance. Continue reading “Cellular ‘Cruise Control’ Systems Let Cells Sense and Adapt to Changing Demands”

Scientists Shine Light on What Triggers REM Sleep

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Illustration of a brain.

While studying how the brain controls REM sleep, researchers focused on areas abbreviated LDT and PPT in the mouse brainstem. This illustration shows where these two areas are located in the human brain. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. View larger image

Has the “spring forward” time change left you feeling drowsy? While researchers can’t give you back your lost ZZZs, they are unraveling a long-standing mystery about sleep. Their work will advance the scientific understanding of the process and could improve ways to foster natural sleep patterns in people with sleep disorders.

Working at Massachusetts General Hospital and MIT, Christa Van Dort Exit icon, Matthew Wilson Exit icon and Emery Brown Exit icon focused on the stage of sleep known as REM. Our most vivid dreams occur during this period, as do rapid eye movements, for which the state is named. Many scientists also believe REM is crucial for learning and memory.

REM occurs several times throughout the night, interspersed with other sleep states collectively called non-REM sleep. Although REM is clearly necessary—it occurs in all land mammals and birds—researchers don’t really know why. They also don’t understand how the brain turns REM on and off. Continue reading “Scientists Shine Light on What Triggers REM Sleep”