Quick quiz: Which organism . . .
- Can regrow a severed spinal cord?
- Is a culinary delicacy overseas but an invasive pest in the U.S.?
- Reveals insights about tissue regeneration, evolution, and cancer biology?
Quick quiz: Which organism . . .
The first known descriptions of cancer come from ancient Egypt more than 3,500 years ago. Early physicians attributed the disease to several factors, including an imbalance in the body’s humoral fluids, trauma, and parasites. Only in the past 50 years or so have we figured out that mutations in critical genes are often the trigger. The sea lamprey, a slimy, snake-like blood sucker, is proving to be an ideal tool for understanding these mutations.
The sea lamprey, often called the jawless fish, is an ancient vertebrate whose ancestor diverged from the other vertebrate lineages (fish, reptiles, birds and mammals) more than 500 million years ago. Jeramiah Smith, associate professor of biology at the University of Kentucky, has discovered that lamprey have two separate genomes: a complete genome specific to their reproductive cells, consisting of 99 chromosomes (humans have 23 pairs) and another genome in which about 20 percent of genes have been deleted after development. Using the lamprey model, Smith and his colleagues have learned that many of these deleted genes—such as those that initiate growth pathways—are similar to human oncogenes (i.e., cancer-causing genes).
One day last fall, molecular biologist Laura Landweber surveyed the Princeton University lab where she’d worked for 22 years. She and her team members had spent many hours that day laboriously affixing yellow Post-it notes to the laboratory equipment—microscopes, centrifuges, computers—they would bring with them to Columbia University, where Landweber had just been appointed full professor. Each Post-it specified the machinery’s location in the new lab. Items that would be left behind—glassware, chemical solutions, furniture, office supplies—were left unlabeled.
As Landweber viewed the lab, decorated with a field of sunny squares, her thoughts turned to another sorting process—the one used by her primary research subject, a microscopic organism, to sift through excess DNA following mating. Rather than using Post-it notes, the creature, a type of single-celled organism called a ciliate, uses small pieces of RNA to tag which bits of genetic material to keep and which to toss.
Landweber is particularly fond of Oxytricha trifallax, a ciliate with relatives that live in soil, ponds and oceans all over the world. The kidney-shaped cell is covered with hair-like projections called cilia that help it move around and devour bacteria and algae. Oxytricha is not only bizarre in appearance, it’s also genetically creative.
Unlike humans, whose cells are programmed to die rather than pass on genomic errors, Oxytricha cells appear to delight in genomic chaos. During sexual reproduction, the ciliate shatters the DNA in one of its two nuclei into hundreds of thousands of pieces, descrambles the DNA letters, throws most away, then recombines the rest to create a new genome.
Landweber has set out to understand how—and possibly why—Oxytricha performs these unusual genomic acrobatics. Ultimately, she hopes that learning how Oxytricha rearranges its genome can illuminate some of the events that go awry during cancer, a disease in which the genome often suffers significant reorganization and damage.
Oxytricha’s Unique Features
Oxytricha carries two separate nuclei—a macronucleus and a micronucleus. The macronucleus, by far the larger of the two, functions like a typical genome, the source of gene transcription for proteins. The tiny micronucleus only sees action occasionally, when Oxytricha reproduces sexually.
What really makes Oxytricha stand out is what it does with its DNA during the rare occasions that it has sex. When food is readily available, Oxytricha procreates without a partner, like a plant grown from a cutting. But when food is scarce, or the cell is stressed, it seeks a mate. When two Oxytricha cells mate, the micronuclear genomes in each cell swap DNA, then replicate. One copy of the new hybrid micronucleus remains intact, while the other breaks its DNA into hundreds of thousands of pieces, some of which are tagged, recombined, then copied another thousand-fold to form a new macronucleus. Continue reading
If you’ve ever been to the beach and walked around the rocks during low tide, you’ve probably seen a sea urchin. You may not have known that sea urchins found along the Pacific shore can live for more than 100 years. What’s even cooler is that, as they age, they don’t seem to lose their abilities to reproduce or regenerate damaged body parts. While different species of sea urchins have varying life expectancies, they all seem to share fountain-of-youth characteristics. For these and other reasons, scientists study sea urchins to investigate aging and other basic life processes. Continue reading
This Halloween, you’re not likely to see many trick-or-treaters dressed as spiders. Google Trends pegs “Spider” as the 87th most searched-for Halloween costume, right between “Hippie” and “The Renaissance.” But don’t let your guard down. Spiders are everywhere.
More than 46,000 species of spiders creepy crawl across the globe, on every continent except Antarctica. Each species produces a venom composed of an average of 500 distinct toxins, putting the conservative estimate of unique venom compounds at more than 22 million. This staggering diversity of venoms, collectively referred to as the venome, has only begun to be explored. Continue reading
The world beneath our skin is full of movement. Hemoglobin in our blood grabs oxygen and delivers it throughout the body. Molecular motors in cells chug along tiny tubes, hauling cargo with them. Biological invaders like viruses enter our bodies, hijack our cells and reproduce wildly before bursting out to infect other cells.
To make sense of the subcutaneous world, Janet Iwasa, a molecular animator at the University of Utah, creates “visual hypotheses”—detailed animations that convey the latest thinking of how biological molecules interact.
“It’s really building the animated model that brings insights,” Iwasa told Biomedical Beat in 2014. “When you’re creating an animation, you’re really grappling with a lot of issues that don’t necessarily come up by any other means. In some cases, it might raise more questions, and make people go back and do some more experiments when they realize there might be something missing.”
Iwasa has collaborated with numerous scientists to develop animations of a range of biological processes and structures . Recently, she’s undertaken an ambitious, multi-year project to animate HIV reproduction .
Like the athletes in Rio, the world’s most highly advanced microbial runners recently gathered in Charlestown, Massachusetts, to find out which ones could use chemical cues to most quickly navigate a maze-like microfluidic racecourse. The winners’ prize: credit for helping scientists learn more about how immune system cells navigate through the human body on their way to fight disease.
The finalists were a group of soil-dwelling slime molds called Dictyostelium that were genetically engineered by a pair of Dutch biochemists to detect minuscule chemical changes in the environment. The racers used their enhanced sense of “smell” to avoid getting lost on their way to the finish line.
While researchers have been racing the genetically souped-up microbes at annual events for a few years—another competition is scheduled for October 26—scientists have been studying conventional Dictyostelium for decades to investigate other important basic life processes including early development, gene function, self/non-self recognition, cell-type regulation, chemical signaling and programmed cell death. Continue reading
The planarian has a power few creatures can match. Remove its head, its tail or nearly any of its body parts, and this aquatic flatworm will simply grow it back. Humans can’t do that, of course. And yet many of the genes that help the planarian regenerate are also found in us. To learn more about this tiny marvel, we “interviewed” a representative. Continue reading
More than 70 percent of new drugs approved within the past 30 years originated from trees, sea creatures and other organisms that produce substances they need to survive. Since ancient times, people have been searching the Earth for natural products to use—from poison dart frog venom for hunting to herbs for healing wounds. Today, scientists are modifying them in the laboratory for our medicinal use. Here’s a peek at some of the products in nature’s medicine cabinet.
DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin first described an unusual form of DNA called the A-form in the early 1950s (Franklin, who died in 1958, would have turned 95 next month). New research on a heat- and acid-loving virus has revealed surprising information about this DNA form, which is one of three known forms of DNA: A, B and Z.
“Many people have felt that this A-form of DNA is only found in the laboratory under very non-biological conditions, when DNA is dehydrated or dry,” says Edward Egelman in a University of Virginia news release about the recent study. But considered with earlier studies on bacteria by other researchers, the new findings suggest that the A-form “appears to be a general mechanism in biology for protecting DNA.” Continue reading