Tag: Profiles

The Science of Size: Rebecca Heald Explores Size Control in Amphibians

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Rebecca Heald
Credit: Mark Hanson.
Rebecca Heald
Grew up in: Greenville, Pennsylvania
Studied at: Hamilton College, Rice University, Harvard Medical School
Job site: University of California, Berkeley
Favorite hobby: Cycling

A 50-pound frog isn’t some freak of nature or a creepy Halloween prank. It’s a thought experiment conceived by Rebecca Heald, a cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley Exit icon, who is studying the factors that control size in animals.

Heald’s “50-pound frog project” speaks to the power of evolution and to scientists’ ability to modify the physical characteristics of an organism by altering its genome. The project also incorporates many of Heald’s fascinating discoveries studying amphibian eggs and embryos.

In amphibians, unlike in mammals, there are striking correlations among the size of the animals’ genomes (an organism’s complete set of genes) and several aspects of the animals’ size. For example, amphibians with large genomes tend to be bigger than those with smaller genomes. Larger genomes also correspond to larger cells and larger organelles (specialized cellular structures such as the nucleus). Heald has also demonstrated that these seemingly fixed parameters can be tweaked in the lab. Continue reading “The Science of Size: Rebecca Heald Explores Size Control in Amphibians”

Finding Adventure: Blake Wiedenheft’s Path to Gene Editing

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Blake Wiedenheft
Blake Wiedenheft
Grew up in: Fort Peck, Montana
Fields: Microbiology, biochemistry, structural biology
Job site: Montana State University
Secret talent: Being a generalist; enjoying many different subjects and activities
When not in the lab, he’s: Running, biking, skiing or playing scrabble with his grandmother

Scientific discoveries are often stories of adventure. This is the realization that set Blake Wiedenheft on a path toward one of the hottest areas in biology.

His story begins in Montana, where he grew up and now lives. Always exploring different interests, Wiedenheft decided in his final semester at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman to volunteer for Mark Young, a scientist who studies plant viruses. Even though he majored in biology, Wiedenheft had spent little time in a lab and hadn’t even considered research as a career option. Continue reading “Finding Adventure: Blake Wiedenheft’s Path to Gene Editing”

Meet a Globe-Trotting Chemist and Builder of “Smart Molecules”

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Janarthanan Jayawickramarajah
Jayawickramarajah taking a “selfie” with “The Bean,”
a large, highly reflective sculpture in Chicago
Credit: Janarthanan Jayawickramarajah
Janarthanan Jayawickramarajah
Born in: Kandy, Sri Lanka
Job site: Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
Alternate career choice: Anthropologist
Favorite sports teams: Sri Lanka national cricket team, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Tar Heels basketball, New Orleans Saints football
Favorite weekend activity: Strolling through parks with his wife and two kids and stopping for coffee and beignets (a New Orleans treat, a lot like a doughnut covered in powdered sugar)

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””

Meet Sarkis Mazmanian and the Bacteria That Keep Us Healthy

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Sarkis K. Mazmanian
Credit: New York Academy of Sciences
Sarkis K. Mazmanian, Ph.D.
Born in: The country of Lebanon, moved to Los Angeles when he was 1
Fields: Microbiology, immunology, neuroscience
Works at: California Institute of Technology
Awards won: Many, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant
Most proud of: The success of his trainees! “There’s nothing that comes close to the gratification and joy I feel when a student or research fellow goes on to be an independent scientist.”
When not in the lab or mentoring students, he’s: Spending time with his family, including his 1-year-old-son or going for an occasional run

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”

Meet Nels Elde and His Team’s Amazing, Expandable Viruses

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Nels Elde, Ph.D.
Credit: Kristan Jacobsen
Nels Elde, Ph.D.
Fields: Evolutionary genetics, virology, microbiology, cell biology
Works at: University of Utah, Salt Lake City
When not in the lab, he’s: Gardening, supervising pets, procuring firewood
Hobbies: Canoeing, skiing, participating in facial hair competitions

“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 Exit icon in which Elde explains his work.) Continue reading “Meet Nels Elde and His Team’s Amazing, Expandable Viruses”

Meet Karen Carlson

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Karen Carlson
Credit: Karen Carlson
Karen Carlson
Fields: Systems biology, bacterial biofilms
Born and raised in: Alaska
Undergraduate student at: The University of Alaska, Anchorage
When not in the lab, she’s: Out and about with her 3-year-old son, friends and family
Secret talent: “I make some really good cookies.”

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”

Meet Maureen L. Mulvihill

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Maureen L. Mulvihill, Ph.D.
Credit: Actuated Medical, Inc.
Maureen L. Mulvihill, Ph.D.
Fields: Materials science, logistics
Works at: Actuated Medical, Inc., a small company that develops medical devices
Second job (volunteer): Bellefonte YMCA Swim Team Parent Boost Club Treasurer
Best skill: Listening to people
Last thing she does every night: Reads to her 7- and 10-year-old children until “one of us falls asleep”

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”

Meet Alfred Atanda Jr.

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Alfred Atanda Jr.
Credit: Cynthia Brodoway, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont
Hospital for Children
Alfred Atanda Jr.
Fields: Pediatric orthopedic surgery, sports medicine
Works at: Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children
Blogs: as Philly.com’s Sports Doc at http://bit.ly/sportsdoc Exit icon
Family fact: Youngest of seven children
Musical skills: Piano and trumpet
Kitchen talent: Baking chocolate desserts for his pediatrician wife and their two young children

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.

His Findings

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.

Alfred Atanda Jr. with Joe Piergrossi
Atanda examines the elbow of a young patient. Courtesy: Cynthia Brodoway, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children

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

Meet Jennifer Doudna

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Jennifer Doudna
Credit: Jennifer Doudna
Jennifer Doudna
Fields: Biochemistry and structural biology
Studies: New genome editing tool called CRISPR
Works at: University of California, Berkeley
Raised in: Hilo, Hawaii
Studied at: Pomona College, Harvard University
Recent honors: Winner of the Lurie Prize in the Biomedical Sciences Exit icon, an annual award that recognizes outstanding achievement by promising scientists age 52 or younger
If she couldn’t be a scientist, she’d like to be: A papaya farmer or an architect

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.

Her Findings

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.

Meet Scott Poethig

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Scott Poethig
Fields: Plant biology, cell and developmental biology, genetics
Works at: University of Pennsylvania
Studied at: College of Wooster, Yale University
Favorite musicians: Nick Drake and Bruce Springsteen
High school job: Radio D.J.
Favorite book: “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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.”

His Findings

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.