Over the past 2 years, you’ve probably heard a lot about the spread of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—and the emergence of variants. The discovery and tracking of these variants is possible thanks to genomic surveillance, a technique that involves sequencing and analyzing the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles from many COVID-19 patients. Genomic surveillance has not only shed light on how SARS-CoV-2 has evolved and spread, but it has also helped public health officials decide when to introduce measures to help protect people.
In December 2021, the NIGMS-supported SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance program at the University of New Mexico Health Science Center (UNM HSC) in Albuquerque detected the first known case of the Omicron variant in the state, which enabled a rapid public health response. The program’s co-leaders, assistant professors Darrell Dinwiddie, Ph.D., and Daryl Domman, Ph.D., were watching on high alert for it to enter New Mexico, and when it did, they were poised to quickly identify it:
“I study the dance between a bacterium and its host. If we can decode the secrets of that dance—how the pathogen causes disease, and how the host fights back—we might be able to take advantage of vulnerabilities to improve our ability to combat infections,” says Víctor J. Torres, Ph.D., the C. V. Starr Professor of Microbiology at the New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.
Discovering and Pursuing a Passion for Science
Growing up, Dr. Torres never would have imagined his highly successful scientific career, especially since he didn’t have a strong interest in science. He entered the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, in 1995, planning to participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and join the Air Force after graduation. He struggled during his first year of college and had to repeat several courses. In one of those courses, he met a fellow student who was planning to pursue a career in science—his now wife, Carmen A. Perez, M.D., Ph.D., who’s a radiation oncologist at NYU Langone. She shared with Dr. Torres some of the opportunities in science available to him, including the NIGMS-funded Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program at their university.
“My parents told me that I already wanted to be a scientist when I was 7 or 8 years old. I don’t remember ever considering anything else,” says Ry Young, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry, biophysics, and biology at Texas A&M University, College Station.
Dr. Young has been a researcher for more than 45 years and is a leading expert on bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria. He and other scientists have shown that phages, as bacteriophages are often called, could help us fight bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics. Antibiotic-resistant infections cause more than 35,000 deaths per year in the U.S., and new, effective treatments for them are urgently needed.
NIGMS is pleased to bring you Pathways: The Vaccine Science Issue [PDF], which explains how the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for COVID-19 work and how they were developed. Building on years of research, scientists were able to create these vaccines, thoroughly test them, and get them to the public as quickly as possible—while still making sure they were safe and effective.
Pathways, designed for students in grades 6 through 12, aims to build awareness of basic biomedical science and its importance to health while inspiring careers in research. All materials in the collection are available online for free.
Your immune system is on patrol every day. It protects your body from bacteria, viruses, and other germs. But if something goes wrong, it can also cause big problems.
Sepsis happens when your body’s response to an infection spirals out of control. Your body releases molecules into the blood called cytokines to fight the infection. But those molecules then trigger a chain reaction.
“Sepsis is basically a life-threatening infection that leads to organ dysfunction,” says Richard Hotchkiss, M.D., who studies sepsis at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The most dangerous stage of sepsis is called septic shock. It can cause multiple organs to fail, including the liver, lungs, and kidneys.
Septic shock begins when the body’s response to an infection damages blood vessels. When blood vessels are damaged, your blood pressure can drop very low. Without normal blood flow, your body can’t get enough oxygen.
Dr. Ramos-Benítez researches interactions between pathogens—such as the viruses that cause Ebola and COVID-19—and their hosts. He’s also the founder and president of Ciencia en tus Manos (“Science in Your Hands”), a nonprofit organization that presents scientific information in Spanish and aims to provide a community to support the next generation of scientists.
NIGMS, in collaboration with Scholastic, has developed a collection of free biology and health activities on the educational app Kahoot! You can play them alone, with friends, or with a class of students. Four Kahoots! are currently available:
ACTIV clinical trials will evaluate the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Credit: iStock.
Since the virus that causes COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2, was first reported in late 2019, scientists have launched hundreds of studies on strategies for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. To prioritize the most promising vaccine and therapeutics candidates, streamline clinical trials, and coordinate regulatory processes, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Foundation for the NIH have established the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) partnership. ACTIV brings together eight government entities, 20 biopharmaceutical companies, and four nonprofit organizations.
Some bacteria benefit us as part of our microbiome—the vast collection of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies—while others can make us sick. Whether helpful or dangerous, bacteria can appear colorful and striking under a microscope. These photos provide just a small peek into the incredible diversity of these microbes.
Credit: Liyang Xiong and Lev Tsimring, BioCircuits Institute, UCSD.
This floral pattern emerged when a researcher grew two strains of bacteria—Acinetobacter baylyi (red) and Escherichia coli (green)—together for 2 days in a petri dish. A. baylyi are found in soil and typically don’t pose a threat to humans, although some strains can cause infections. E. coli normally live in the intestines of people and animals. Most strains are harmless, but some can cause food poisoning or other illnesses.
Spike proteins on the surface of a coronavirus. Credit: David Veesler, University of Washington.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from many areas of biomedical science have worked together to learn how this new disease affects the human body, how to prevent its spread, and how to treat it. Severe cases of COVID-19 and cases of sepsis share many symptoms. Sepsis is the body’s overactive and extreme response to an infection. It’s unpredictable and can progress rapidly. Without prompt treatment, it can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.
Sepsis has similarities with some cases of COVID-19, most likely because the two conditions trigger the same reactions at the cellular level. Researchers have studied these reactions in sepsis for many years.
“When we look back on 2020 and the speed with which progress was made against COVID-19, two features will stand out,” says John Younger, M.D., a member of the NIGMS Advisory Council who recently co-chaired a working group on advancing sepsis research. “The first is how quickly the biotechnology community came together to develop vaccine candidates. The second, and arguably the most immediately impactful, is how caregivers and clinical researchers were able to rapidly refine the care of COVID-19 patients based on decades of experience with sepsis.”
This post highlights a few of the many sepsis researchers supported by NIGMS who are applying their expertise to COVID-19.