In a way, Janarthanan Jayawickramarajah is like an architect. But rather than sketching plans for homes or buildings, he creates molecules designed to detect and destroy cancer cells. Continue reading “Meet a Globe-Trotting Chemist and Builder of “Smart Molecules””
As a child, Sarkis Mazmanian frequently took things apart to figure out how they worked. At the age of 12, he dismantled his family’s entire television set—to the dismay of his parents and the unsuccessful TV repairman.
“I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but maybe that was some sort of a foreshadowing that I would enjoy science,” Mazmanian says. “Scientists take biological systems apart to understand how they work.”
Mazmanian never thought he’d become a microbiologist, let alone a leading expert in the field. He began studying microbiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), because it was the major that allowed him to do the most hands-on research. But as soon as he entered the field, he fell in love with the complexities of microbial organisms and the efficiency of their functions. Continue reading “Meet Sarkis Mazmanian and the Bacteria That Keep Us Healthy”
“I really look at my job as an adventure,” says Nels Elde. “The ability to follow your nose through different fields is what motivates me.”
Elde has used that approach to weave evolutionary genetics, bacteriology, virology, genomics and cell biology into his work. While a graduate student at the University of Chicago and postdoctoral researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, he became interested in how interactions between pathogens (like viruses and bacteria) and their hosts (like humans) drive the evolution of both parties. He now works in Salt Lake City, where, as an avid outdoorsman, he draws inspiration from the wild landscape.
Outside the lab, Elde keeps diverse interests and colorful company. His best friend wrote a song about his choice of career as a cell biologist. (You can hear this song at the end of the 5-minute video in which Elde explains his work.) Continue reading “Meet Nels Elde and His Team’s Amazing, Expandable Viruses”
Karen Carlson got a surprise in her 10th grade biology class. Not only did she find out that she enjoyed science (thanks to an inspiring teacher), but, as she puts it, “I realized that I was really good at it.”
In particular, she says, “I was good at putting all the pieces [of a scientific question] together. And that’s what I had the most fun with—looking at systems: how things fit together and the flow between them.”
These are perfect interests for a budding systems biologist, which is what Carlson is on her way to becoming. She’s a senior in college on track to graduate this year with a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Alaska, Anchorage (UAA). Next, she plans to enroll in a master’s degree program at UAA, and eventually to pursue a Ph.D. in a biomedical field. Continue reading “Meet Karen Carlson”
If you’re a fan of the reality TV show Shark Tank, you tune in to watch aspiring entrepreneurs present their ideas and try to get one of the investors to help develop and market the products. Afterward, you might start to think about what you could invent.
Maureen L. Mulvihill has never watched the show, but she lives it every day. She is co-founder, president and CEO of Actuated Medical, Inc. (AMI), a Pennsylvania-based company that develops specialized medical devices. The devices include a system for unclogging feeding tubes, motors that assist MRI-related procedures and needles that gently draw blood.
AMI’s products rely on the same motion-control technologies that allow a quartz watch to keep time, a microphone to project sound and even a telescope to focus on a distant object in a sky. In general, the devices are portable, affordable and unobtrusive, making them appealing to doctors and patients.
Mulvihill, who’s trained in an area of engineering called materials science, says, “I’m really focused on how to translate technologies into ways that help people.” Continue reading “Meet Maureen L. Mulvihill”
As a kid, Alfred Atanda loved science, sports and tinkering. He dreamed of being a construction worker or an engineer. Today, he works on one of the most complex construction projects of all: the human body.
As a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, Atanda focuses on sports medicine and injuries to children. He has a special passion for young baseball pitchers who have torn the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow of their throwing arm.
This sort of injury is most often caused by overuse. Many small tears accumulate over a long period, resulting in pain and slower, less accurate pitches. Decades ago, this sort of damage occurred almost exclusively in elite athletes. Now, Atanda sees it in children as young as 12 years old. He aims not only to study and treat these injuries, but also to find ways to prevent them.
Atanda was first introduced to research on UCL injuries while working alongside team physicians for the Phillies, the professional baseball team in Philadelphia. The physicians wanted to determine whether ultrasound imaging could detect early warning signs—slight anatomical changes in the ligament—before the damage became severe enough to warrant an operation known as Tommy John surgery.
The research focused on Phillies pitchers who had no pain or other symptoms of injury. The multi-year project showed that the UCL in the throwing elbows of these players got progressively thicker and weaker compared to the same ligament in the players’ nonthrowing elbows. The scientists concluded that these physical changes are caused by prolonged exposure to professional-level pitching.
Atanda wondered whether ultrasound imaging could also detect early signs of UCL damage in young pitchers—those in Little League through high school. There has been a dramatic rise in the number of young pitchers who are experiencing the same injuries and undergoing the same surgery as the pros.
Atanda secured funding for this project from an Institutional Development Award (IDeA). The IDeA program builds research capacities in states like Delaware, where Atanda works, that historically have received low levels of funding from the National Institutes of Health.
Atanda’s project began about a year ago, and has examined 55 young athletes so far.
“We found similar results to what we found with the Phillies,” Atanda says, indicating that the UCL in the throwing elbows of young athletes was noticeably thicker than the UCL in the nonthrowing elbows. And the damage seems progressive, he says: “We saw that these ligaments got thicker as the pitchers got older and had more pitching experience.”
The immediate goal of this project, which he hopes to continue for another 3 years, is prophylaxis. “We’re trying to prevent any kind of overuse elbow injuries and the need for Tommy John surgeries later on,” Atanda says. He also hopes to establish quantitative correlations between pitching behavior and anatomical changes.
Atanda also has longer-term aspirations. “My goal is to change the culture in sports for young athletes in general,” he says. “I want to show there are downsides to pitching so much.”
In addition to championing pitch count limits recommended by the American Sports Medicine Institute, Atanda advises a focus away from excess competition and toward getting exercise, enjoying social interaction, building self-confidence and having fun.
Atanda’s research is funded by the National Institutes of Health through grant P20GM103464
Content adapted from the NIGMS Findings magazine article Game Changer
Jennifer Doudna likes to get her hands dirty. Literally. When she’s not in her laboratory, she can often be found amid glossy green leaves and brightly colored fruit in her Berkeley garden. She recently harvested her first three strawberry guavas.
Coaxing tropical fruit plants from her childhood home in Hawaii to grow in Northern California is more than just a hobby—it’s an intellectual challenge.
“I like solving puzzles, I like the process of figuring things out, and I enjoy working with my hands,” says Doudna. “Those things were what really drew me to science in the beginning.”
Since she was a graduate student, Doudna’s professional puzzle has been RNA, a type of genetic material inside our cells. Recently, there has been an explosion of discoveries about the many roles RNA molecules play in the body. Doudna’s work probes into how RNA molecules work, what 3-D shapes they form and how their structures drive their functions.
“I’ve been fascinated by understanding RNA at a mechanistic level,” Doudna says.
While teasing out answers to these fundamental questions, Doudna’s lab has played a leading role in a discovery that is upending the field of genetic engineering, with exciting implications for human health.
The discovery started with bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria, just like the common cold infects humans. About 10 years ago, researchers using high-powered computing to sift through bacterial genomes began to find mysterious repetitive gene sequences that matched those from viruses known to infect the bacteria. The researchers named these sequences “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” or CRISPRs for short.
Over the next few years, scientists came to understand that these CRISPR sequences are part of something not previously thought to exist—an adaptive bacterial immune system, which remembers viruses fought off before and raises a response to fight them when exposed again. CRISPRs were this immune system’s reference library, holding records of viral exposure.
Somehow, bacteria with a CRISPR-based immune system (there are three types now known to scientists) use these records to command certain proteins to recognize and chop up DNA from returning viruses.
Wanting to know more about this process, Doudna’s team picked one protein in a CRISPR-based defense system to study. This protein, called Cas9, had been identified by other researchers as being essential for protection against viral invasion.
To their delight, Doudna’s group had hit the jackpot. Cas9 turned out to be the system’s scalpel. Once CRISPR identifies a DNA sequence from the invading virus, Cas9 slices the sequence out of the viral genome, destroying the virus’s ability to copy itself.
Doudna’s lab and their European collaborators also identified the other key components of the CRISPR-Cas9 system—two RNA molecules that guide Cas9 to the piece of viral DNA identified by CRISPR.
Even more importantly, the researchers showed that the two guide RNAs could be manipulated in the lab to create a tool that both recognizes any specified DNA sequence and carries Cas9 there to make its cut.
“That was really where we made the connection between the basic, curiosity-driven research that we were doing and recognizing that we had in our hands something that could be a very powerful technology for genome editing,” remembers Doudna.
She was right. After publication of their 2012 paper, the field of CRISPR-guided genetic manipulation exploded. Labs around the world now use the tool Doudna’s team developed to cut target gene sequences in organisms ranging from plants to humans. The technique is already replacing more time-consuming, less-reliable methods of creating ‘knock-out’ model organisms (those missing a specific gene) for laboratory research. CRISPR-based editing even allows more than one gene to be knocked out at the same time, something that was not possible with previous genome-editing techniques.
The ability of CRISPR systems to recognize DNA sequences with extraordinary precision also holds potential for human therapeutics. For example, a paper from another laboratory published early this year showed that, in a mouse model, CRISPR-based editing could cut out and replace a defective gene responsible for a type of muscular dystrophy. Researchers are testing similar CRISPR-based techniques in models of human diseases ranging from cystic fibrosis to blood disorders.
Doudna is a co-founder of two biotechnology companies hoping to harness the potential of CRISPR-based genome editing. Although the technology holds great promise, she acknowledges that much work needs to be done before CRISPR can be considered safe for human trials. Major challenges include assuring that no off-target cuts are made in the genome and finding a safe way to deliver the editing system to living tissues.
She is also excited to continue working with her research team, advancing the basic understanding of the CRISPR-based system.
“I’m very interested in seeing what we can contribute to the whole question about how you deliver a technology like this, how you can use it therapeutically in an organism. That’s an area where we hope that our biochemical understanding of this system will be able to contribute,” she concludes.
When Scott Poethig signed up for a developmental biology course in his senior year of college, he expected to learn how organisms transition from single cells to juveniles to adults. He did not expect to learn just how much scientists still didn’t know about this process.
“It was the first course I had taken as an undergraduate where I felt that I could ask a question that there wasn’t an answer to already,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow! This is amazing.’”
Poethig already had an interest in plant biology and an independent research project studying corn viruses. He immediately saw the potential in combining his knowledge of plants with his questions about how organisms grow. “There seemed to be a lot of low hanging fruit in plant development,” he says.
Today, Poethig is the head of a plant development lab at the University of Pennsylvania. His work probes the complex molecular mechanisms that drive the transition from a young seedling to an adult plant that hasn’t yet produced seeds.
“The analogous period in human development is the interval between birth and puberty,” he explains. “People think of puberty as the major developmental transition in postnatal human development, but a lot of change happens before that point.”
Poethig discovered that for the mustard plant Arabidopsis, a model organism frequently studied by geneticists, change begins early. Before these plants begin to flower—a sign of reproductive maturity—they undergo a process of vegetative maturation. In Arabidopsis, Poethig found that juvenile plants can be distinguished from adult plants by where hairs are produced on a leaf. Juvenile plants only produce hairs on the upper surface of the leaf, whereas adult plants produce leaves with hairs on both the upper and lower surfaces.
By studying mutant Arabidopsis plants where the adult pattern of hair development is either delayed or advanced, Poethig identified microRNAs as key players in this developmental transition.
MicroRNA molecules commonly block the expression of specific genes. Poethig found that in Arabidopsis, a type of microRNA prevents development. Young plants have high levels of this microRNA and cannot fully mature. When those levels drop, plants progress to adulthood.
MicroRNAs similarly control development in the nematode C. elegans. Scientists study the genetics of this tiny worm to better understand related developmental processes in more complex organisms. Because plants also use microRNAs to regulate development, Poethig’s discoveries may contribute to our understanding of how these molecules govern development in animals, including humans.
Poethig now wants to learn what determines the timing of developmental changes. He asks: “Why do microRNA levels drop? What’s the signal that causes that? What is the plant measuring?” His current hypothesis: sugar.
In a recent study, he found that giving plants additional sugar reduced microRNA levels and sped up development. Meanwhile, mutant plants that couldn’t produce enough sugar on their own through photosynthesis had increased microRNA levels and delayed development compared to normal plants.
This research may one day advance our understanding of how nutrition and genetics interact to affect human development. “In essentially all organisms, aging and the timing of developmental processes are strongly affected by nutrition,” Poethig explains. “In humans, childhood obesity is sometimes associated with early puberty, and it is important to understand the molecular basis for this effect.”
Poethig believes that studying microRNAs in plants may also lead to discoveries in human genetics outside of developmental biology. “MicroRNAs control a wide range of gene activity in plants and animals,” Poethig explains. “In humans, these molecules control the activity of as many as 30 percent of our genes. So understanding how microRNAs work in plants could help us understand their function in humans.”
Besides studying the Arabidopsis plants in his lab, Poethig also studies the plants in his kitchen, and uses his fascination with the history, culture and politics of food to excite others about science. Watch video.
Janet Iwasa wouldn’t have described herself as an artistic child. She didn’t carry around a sketch pad, pencils or paintbrushes. But she remembers accompanying her father, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, to his lab on the weekends. She’d spend hours doodling in a drawing program on his old Macintosh computer while he worked on experiments.
“I always remember wanting to be a scientist, and that’s probably highly inspired by my dad,” says Iwasa. Her early affinity for art and technology set her on an unusual career path to become a molecular animator. A typical work day now finds her adapting computer programs originally designed to bring characters like Buzz Lightyear to life to help researchers probe complicated, dynamic interactions within cells.
Iwasa’s interest in animation was sparked when she was a graduate student in cell biology, studying a protein called actin, which helps cells to move and change shape. At the time, the only visual representations she had of actin networks were flat, two-dimensional drawings on paper. When she saw an animation of the dynamic movement of a molecule called kinesin, she thought, “Why are we relying on oversimplified, static illustrations [of molecules], when we can be doing something like this video?”
Within a year, she was taking an animation class at a local college. She quickly realized that she would need more intensive instruction to be able to animate complex biological processes. A few summers later, she flew to Hollywood for a 3-month training program in industry-standard animation technology.
The oldest student in that course—and the only woman—Iwasa immediately began thinking about how to adapt a standard animator’s toolkit to illustrate the inner life of cells. A technique used to create the effect of human hair blowing in the wind could also show the movement of an RNA molecule. A chunk of computer code used to make the facets of a soccer ball fall apart and come back together in a different order could be adapted to model virus assembly and disassembly.
Following her training, Iwasa spent 2 years as a National Science Foundation Discovery Corps fellow, producing the Exploring Life’s Origins exhibit with the Boston Museum of Science and the Szostak Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. As part of the multi-media exhibit, she created animations to illustrate how the simplest living organisms may have evolved on early Earth.
Since then, Iwasa has helped researchers model such complex actions as how cells ingest materials, how proteins are transported across a cell membrane, and how the motor protein dynein helps cells divide.
Iwasa calls her animations “visual hypotheses”: The end results may be beautiful, but the process of animation itself is what encapsulates, clarifies and communicates the science.
“It’s really building the animated model that brings insights,” she says. “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” in their theory of how a molecular process works.
Now she’s working with an NIH-funded research team at the University of Utah to develop a detailed animation of how HIV enters and exits human immune cells.
Abbreviated CHEETAH , the full name of the group is the Center for the Structural Biology of Cellular Host Elements in Egress, Trafficking, and Assembly of HIV.
“In the HIV life cycle, there are a number of events that aren’t really well understood, and people have different ideas of how things happen,” says Iwasa. She plans to animate the stages of viral infection in ways that reflect different proposals for how the process works, to give researchers a new way to visualize, communicate—and potentially harmonize—their hypotheses.
The full set of Iwasa’s HIV-related animations will be available online as they are completed, at http://scienceofhiv.org , with the first set launching in the fall of 2014.
Janet Iwasa’s TED Talk: How animations can help scientists test a hypothesis
Janet Iwasa’s 3D model of an HIV particle was a winner in the 2014 BioArt contest sponsored by Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology
NIH Director’s blog post about Iwasa and her HIV video animation
At the turn of the 21st century, Rhiju Das saw a beautiful picture that changed his life. Then a student of particle physics with a focus on cosmology, he attended a lecture unveiling an image of the ribosome—the cellular machinery that assembles proteins in every living creature. Ribosomes are enormous, complicated machines made up of many proteins and nucleic acids similar to DNA. Deciphering the structure of a ribosome—the 3-D image Das saw—was such an impressive feat that the scientists who accomplished it won the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Das, who had been looking for a way to apply his physics background to a research question he could study in a lab, had found his calling.
“It was an epiphany—it was just flabbergasting to me that a hundred thousand atoms could find their way into such a well-defined structure at atomic resolution. It was like miraculously a bunch of nuts and bolts had self-assembled into a Ferrari,” recounted Das. “That inspired me to drop everything and learn everything I could about nucleic acid structure.”
Das focuses on the nucleic acid known as RNA, which, in addition to forming part of the ribosome, plays many roles in the body. As is the case for most proteins, RNA folds into a 3-D shape that enables it to work properly.
Das is now the head of a lab at Stanford University that unravels how the structure and folding of RNA drives its function. He has taken a unique approach to uncovering the rules behind nucleic acid folding: harnessing the wisdom of the crowd.
Together with his collaborator, Adrien Treuille of Carnegie Mellon University, Das created an online, multiplayer video game called EteRNA . More than a mere game, it does far more than entertain. With its tagline “Played by Humans, Scored by Nature,” it’s upending how scientists approach RNA structure discovery and design.
Treuille and Das launched EteRNA after working on another computer game called Foldit , which lets participants play with complex protein folding questions. Like Foldit, EteRNA asks players to assemble, twist and revise structures—this time of RNA—onscreen.
But EteRNA takes things a step further. Unlike Foldit, where the rewards are only game points, the winners of each round of EteRNA actually get to have their RNA designs synthesized in a wet lab at Stanford. Das and his colleagues then post the results—which designs resulted in a successful, functional RNAs and which didn’t—back online for the players to learn from.
In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , Das and his colleagues showed how effective this approach could be. The collective effort of the EteRNA participants—which now number over 100,000—was better and faster than several established computer programs at solving RNA design problems, and even came up with successful new structural rules never before proposed by scientists or computers.
“What was surprising to me was their speed,” said Das. “I had just assumed that it would take a year or so before players were really able to analyze experimental data, make conclusions and come up with robust rules. But it was one of the really shocking moments of my life when, about 2 months in, we plotted the performance of players against computers and they were out-designing the computers.”
“As far as I can tell, none of the top players are academic scientists,” he added. “But if you talk to them, the first thing they’ll tell you is not how many points they have in the game but how many times they’ve had a design synthesized. They’re just excited about seeing whether or not their hypotheses were correct or falsified. So I think the top players truly are scientists—just not academic ones. They get a huge kick out of the scientific method, and they’re good at it.”
To capture lessons learned through the crowd-sourcing approach, Das and his colleagues incorporated successful rules and features into a new algorithm for RNA structure discovery, called EteRNABot, which has performed better than older computer algorithms.
“We thought that maybe the players would react badly [to EteRNABot], that they would think they were going to be automated out of existence,” said Das. “But, as it turned out, it was exciting for them to have their old ideas put into an algorithm so they could move on to the next problems.”
You can try EteRNA for yourself at http://eternagame.org . Das and Treuille are always looking for new players and soliciting feedback.