Field Focus: High-Quality Genome Sequences Inform the Study of Human Evolution

Leafing through my favorite biology textbook from a handful of years ago, I was struck by the relative brevity of the chapter on human evolution. While other fields of biological research have enjoyed a steady gallop of productivity over the last few decades due in part to advances in computing power, imaging technology and experimental methods, the study of human evolution can be seen as having lagged behind until recently due to an almost complete dependence on fossil evidence.

Fortunately, contemporary biology textbook chapters on human evolution are being primed for a serious upgrade thanks to the recent availability of high-quality genome sequences from diverse modern human populations as well as from ancient humans and other non-human hominids, including the Neanderthals and Denisovans (but, for purposes of this story, not the Great Apes).

Modern human skull (left) and Neanderthal skull (right), shown to scale. There are not enough Denisovan bone fragments to reconstruct its skull. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, hairymuseummatt.

What are the new resources for studying human evolution?

The cost of DNA sequencing has dropped precipitously in the last decade. As a result, more complete human genome sequences become available for analysis with each passing year.

For example, the 1000 Genomes Project Exit icon includes more than 1,000 full human genome sequences of individuals from European, Asian, American and Sub-Saharan African populations. Earlier this year, the Simons Genome Diversity Project Exit icon further increased the number of available human genomes by adding 300 individuals representing 142 populations around the globe. Continue reading

Field Focus: Progress in RNA Interference Research

Scientists first noticed what would later prove to be RNA interference when puzzling over an unexpected loss of color in petunia petals. Subsequent studies in roundworms revealed that double-stranded RNA can inactivate specific genes. Credit: Alisa Z. Machalek.

In less than two decades, RNA interference (RNAi)—a natural process cells use to inactivate, or silence, specific genes—has progressed from a fundamental finding to a powerful research tool and a potential therapeutic approach. To check in on this fast-moving field, I spoke to geneticists Craig Mello Exit icon of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Michael Bender of NIGMS. Mello shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Andrew Fire Exit icon of Stanford University School of Medicine for the discovery of RNAi. Bender manages NIGMS grants in areas that include RNAi research.

How have researchers built on the initial discovery of RNAi?

A scientific floodgate opened after the 1998 discovery that it was possible to switch off specific genes by feeding microscopic worms called C. elegans double-stranded RNA that had the same sequence of genetic building blocks as a target gene. (Double-stranded RNA is a type of RNA molecule often found in, or produced by, viruses.) Scientists investigating gene function quickly began to test RNAi as a gene-silencing technique in other organisms and found that they could use it to manipulate gene activity in many different model systems. Additional studies led the way toward getting the technique to work in cells from mammals, which scientists first demonstrated in 2001. Soon, researchers were exploring the potential of RNAi to treat human disease. Continue reading

Our Microbial Menagerie

Trillions of microorganisms inhabit us—inside and out. Scientists are surveying these microbial metropolises to learn more about their role in health. Microbiologists Darren Sledjeski of NIGMS and Andrew Goodman Exit icon of Yale University share a few details of what researchers have learned so far.

Vitruvian man filled with bacteria.
Researchers are surveying the microbes that inhabit us to learn more about their role in health. Credit: Andrew Goodman, Yale University.
  1. The majority of the microbes that inhabit us are bacteria. The rest of the microbial menagerie is fungi and viruses, including ones that infect the bacteria! Collectively, our resident microorganisms are referred to as the human microbiota, and their genomes are called the human microbiome.
  2. Our bodies harbor more bacterial cells than human ones. Even so, the microbiota accounts for less than 3 percent of a person’s body mass. That’s because our cells are up to 10,000 times bigger in volume than bacterial cells.
  3. Your collection of bacteria has more genes than you do. Scientists estimate that the genomes of gut bacteria contain 100-fold or more genes than our own genomes. For this reason, the human microbiome is sometimes called our second genome.
  4. Most of our microbes are harmless, and some are helpful. For example, harmless microbes on the skin keep infectious microbes from occupying that space. Microbes in the colon break down lactose and other complex carbohydrates that our bodies can’t naturally digest.
  5. Different microbes occupy different parts of the body. Some skin bacteria prefer the oily nooks near the nose, while others like the dry terrain of the forearm. Bacteria don’t all fare well in the same environment and have adapted to live in certain niches. The NIGMS Findings Magazine article Body Bacteria: Exploring the Skin’s Microbial Metropolis shows what types of bacteria colonize where.
  6. Screenshot from the iBiology video.
    Are we more microbial than human? Richard Losick, a microbiologist at Harvard University, explores that question in this video lecture produced by iBiology Exit icon.
  7. Each person’s microbiota is unique. The demographics of microbiota differ among individuals. Diet is one reason. Also, while a type of microbe might be part of one person’s normal microbial flora, it might not be part of another’s, and could potentially make that person sick.
  8. Host-microbial interactions are universal. Microbial communities may vary from person to person, but everyone’s got them, including other creatures. For this reason, researchers can use model organisms to tease apart the complexities of host-microbial interactions and develop broad principles for understanding them. The mouse is the most widely used animal model for microbiome studies.
  9. The role of microbiota in our health isn’t entirely clear. While it’s now well accepted that the microbial communities that inhabit us are actively involved in a range of conditions—from asthma to obesity—research studies have not yet pinpointed why or how. In other words, the results may suggest that the presence of a bacterial community is associated with a disease, but they don’t show cause and effect.
  10. Most of our microbes have not been grown in the lab. Microbes require a certain mix of nutrients and other microbes to survive, making it challenging to replicate their natural environments in a petri dish. New culturing techniques are enabling scientists to study previously uncultivated microbes.
  11. The impact of probiotic and prebiotic products isn’t clear. Fundamental knowledge gaps remain regarding how these products may work and what effects they might have on host-microbial interactions. A new NIH effort to stimulate research in this area is under way.
  12. There’s even more we don’t know! Additional areas of research include studying the functions of microbial genes and the effects of gut microbes on medicines. The more we learn from these and other studies, the more we’ll understand how our normal microbiota interacts with us and how to apply that knowledge to promote our health.

Field Focus: Making Chemistry Greener

Bob Lees
NIGMS’ Bob Lees answers questions about green chemistry. Credit: National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Chemists funded by NIGMS are working to develop “greener” processes for discovering, developing and manufacturing medicines and other molecules with therapeutic potential, as well as compounds used in biomedical research. One of our scientific experts, organic chemist Bob Lees, recently spoke to me about some of these efforts.

What is green chemistry?

Green chemistry is the design of chemical processes and products that are more environmentally friendly. Among the 12 guiding principles of green chemistry Exit icon are producing less waste, including fewer toxic byproducts; using more sustainable (renewable) or biodegradable materials; and saving energy. Continue reading

Field Focus: Bringing Biology Into Sharper View with New Microscopy Techniques

Composite image of mitochondria in a cell
In this composite image of mitochondria in a cell, the left panel shows a conventional optical microscopy image, the middle panel shows a three-dimensional (3-D) STORM image with color indicating depth, and the right panel shows a cross-section of the 3-D STORM image. Credit: Xiaowei Zhuang laboratory, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard University. View larger image.

Much as a photographer brings distant objects into focus with a telephoto lens, scientists can now see previously indistinct cellular components as small as a few billionths of a meter (nanometers). By overcoming some of the limitations of conventional optical microscopy, a set of techniques known as super-resolution fluorescence microscopy has changed once-blurry images of the nanoworld into well-resolved portraits of cellular architecture, with details never seen before in biology. Reflecting its importance, super-resolution microscopy was recognized with the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Using the new techniques, scientists can observe processes in living cells across space and time and study the movements, interactions and roles of individual molecules. For instance, they can identify and track the proteins that allow a virus to invade a cell or those that enable tumor cells to migrate to distant parts of the body in metastatic cancer. The ability to analyze individual molecules, rather than collections of molecules, allows scientists to answer longstanding questions about cellular mechanisms and behavior, such as how cells move along a surface or how certain proteins interact with DNA to regulate gene activity. Continue reading

Asking Our Expert About Modeling Ebola

Irene Eckstrand
NIGMS’ Irene Eckstrand answers questions about modeling Ebola. Credit: National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Ebola is the focus of many NIH-supported research efforts, from analyzing the genetics of virus samples to evaluating the safety and effectiveness of treatments and vaccines. Researchers involved in our Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study, or MIDAS, have been using computational methods to forecast the potential course of the outbreak and the impact of various intervention strategies.

Wondering how their work is going, I recently asked our modeling expert Irene Eckstrand a few questions.

How useful are the forecasts?

Forecasts give us a range of possible outcomes. In addition to being a useful public health tool to prepare for an outbreak, they’re an important research tool to test assumptions about how a disease may spread. When we compare the predicted and actual outcomes, we can confirm assumptions, such as the groups of individuals who are more likely to spread the infection to others. Continually doing this helps refine the models and ensure that their forecasts are as accurate as possible.

What are some of the challenges the modelers face?

Ebola virus
Ebola virus particles (green) attached to and budding from a cell (blue). Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

We need data to build and test models. The data available from this outbreak have been more limited than in most previous outbreaks of Ebola simply because the public health systems are overwhelmed with sick people, and recording information is a secondary priority.

Another issue with forecasting future trends is incorporating information about the deployment of resources and the implementation of interventions that actually slowed the outbreak. We also need to incorporate changes in people’s behavior. If people think an outbreak is leveling off, they may relax the precautions they’ve been taking—and that could lead to another spike in the disease.

What other Ebola-related projects are the MIDAS modelers working on?

The MIDAS researchers are:

  • Modeling logistical factors such as the number and placement of treatment beds and staffing needs.
  • Tracking potential transmission within and between communities and at hospitals and funerals.
  • Developing a method to estimate the amount of underreporting of case data.
  • Applying models of “tipping points” to look for evidence that the disease curve is slowing.
  • Estimating the number of people who are infected but not symptomatic.
  • Creating new resources for Ebola modelers, including standards for using infectious disease data.
  • Calculating the risk of importation of cases for a wide variety of countries based on travel networks.

How are the modelers working together?

The MIDAS modelers conference call 1-2 times a week to discuss results, modeling strategies, data sources and questions amenable to modeling. They also participate in discussions with government and other academic groups, so there’s a sizable number of modelers working on a wide variety of public health, logistical and basic research questions.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ebola, Irene recommends a video overview of the 2014 outbreak from Penn State University Exit icon and a slide presentation on the myths and realities of the disease from Nigeria’s Kaduna State University Exit icon.

Field Focus: Precision Gene Editing with CRISPR

Bacterial cells infected by viruses.
Bacterial cells can be infected by viruses (shown in red and purple) and have evolved ways to defend themselves. Credit: Stock image.

Like humans, bacteria can be infected by viruses and have evolved ways to defend themselves. Researchers are now adapting this bacterial “immune system” to precisely and efficiently edit genes in cells from humans and a wide range of other organisms. Scientists are excited about the tremendous potential of this powerful tool for advancing biomedical research and treating diseases.

The bacterial defense system is called CRISPR, for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. A breakthrough in understanding CRISPR came from examining bacteria used by the dairy industry for the production of yogurt and cheese. In a study published in 2007, researchers showed that these bacteria insert viral DNA sequences into their own genomes and use that information to disarm the virus when it attacks again. Subsequent research has shown that the CRISPR system consists of small RNA molecules that target specific viral DNA sequences and proteins that cut the DNA, thus destroying the virus.

Researchers have already adapted CRISPR into a gene-editing tool that’s quicker, cheaper and more precise than existing methods. Researchers can use CRISPR to add, delete, rev up or tone down certain genes as well as create animal models for studying human diseases. The ability to precisely target genes in human cells is expected to speed progress in the development of gene-based therapies.

Although much is known about CRISPR, we still have a lot to learn. For example, how do bacterial cells obtain and insert the viral DNA into their genome? What triggers production of the CRISPR RNA molecules? How are invading viral DNAs targeted for destruction? This last question is answered in part by a pair of findings described in an earlier post, A Crisper View of the CRISPR Gene-Editing Mechanism. We also want to figure out how we can make the CRISPR gene-editing tool even more versatile and precise.

The CRISPR story offers a good example of how studying basic biological processes leads to new—and sometimes unexpected—insights and applications.

Emily Carlson also contributed to this blog post.

Related advances:
CRISPR/Cas9 Protein Complex Can Be Programmed to Recognize and Cleave RNA Exit icon
CRISPR System Adapted to Reversibly Regulate Gene Expression Exit icon