The ECM: A Dynamic System for Moving Our Cells

In part I of this series, we mentioned that the extracellular matrix (ECM) makes our tissues stiff or squishy, solid or see-through. Here, we reveal how the ECM helps body cells move around, a process vital for wounds to heal and a fetus to grow.

Sealing and Healing Wounds

MMPs are essential for closing wounds. Credit: Stock image.

When we get injured, the first thing our body does is to form a blood clot to stop the bleeding. Skin cells then start migrating into the wound to close the cut. The ECM is essential for this step, creating a physical support structure—like a road or train track—over which skin cells travel to seal the injured spot.

The ECM is made up of a host of proteins produced before and after injury. Some other proteins called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) also crowd into wounds. Because humans have so many different MMPs—a full 24 of them!—it’s been difficult for scientists to figure out what roles, if any, the proteins play in healing scrapes and cuts. Continue reading

Interview With a Scientist: Janet Iwasa, Molecular Animator

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 Exit icon. Recently, she’s undertaken an ambitious, multi-year project to animate HIV reproduction Exit icon.

Interview With a Slime Mold: Racing for New Knowledge

Dictyostelium discoideum
Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Usman Bashir.
Dictyostelium discoideum
Natural habitat: Deciduous forest soil and moist leaf litter
Favorite food: Bacteria
Top speed: 8 micrometers per minute

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.

Credit: Daniel Irimia of Massachusetts General Hospital, and Monica Skoge and Albert Bae of the University of California, San Diego.

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 Exit icon 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

Visualizing Skin Regeneration in Real Time

Top: Colorful skin cells on a zebrafish . Bottom: Cells from the outer surface of the scale.
More than 70 Skinbow colors distinguish hundreds of live cells from a tiny bit (0.0003348 square inches) of skin on the tail fin of an adult zebrafish. The bottom image shows the cells on the outer surface of a scale. Credit: Chen-Hui Chen, Duke University.

Zebrafish, blue-and-white-striped fish that are about 1.5 inches long, can regrow injured or lost fins. This feature makes the small fish a useful model organism for scientists who study tissue regeneration.

To better understand how zebrafish skin recovers after a scrape or amputation, researchers led by Kenneth Poss of Duke University tracked thousands of skin cells in real time. They found that lifespans of individual skin cells on the surface were 8 to 9 days on average and that the entire skin surface turned over in 20 days.

The scientists used an imaging technique they developed called “Skinbow,” which essentially shows the fish’s outer layer of skin cells in a spectrum of colors when viewed under a microscope. Skinbow is based on a technique created to study nerve cells in mice, another model organism.

The research team’s color-coded experiments revealed several unexpected cellular responses during tissue repair and replacement. The scientists plan to incorporate additional imaging techniques to generate an even more detailed picture of the tissue regeneration process.

The NIH director showcased the Skinbow technique and these images on his blog, writing: “You can see more than 70 detectable Skinbow colors that make individual cells as visually distinct from one another as jellybeans in a jar.”

This work was funded in part by NIH under grant R01GM074057.

Interview With a Worm: We’re Not So Different

Planarian
Credit: Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, Stowers Institute for Medical Research.
Schmidtea mediterranea
Home: Freshwater habitats along the Mediterranean
Party trick: Regenerating its head
Most charismatic feature: Eyespots
Work site: Science labs worldwide

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

Molecules Known to Damage Cells May Also Have Healing Power

Free radicals in an ying-yang symbol
Biology in balance: Molecules called free radicals—like the peroxide molecules illustrated here—have a reputation for being dangerous. Now, they’ve revealed healing powers. In worms, at least. Credit: Stock image

When our health is concerned, some molecules are widely labeled “good,” while others are considered “bad.” Often, the truth is more complicated.

Consider free radical molecules. These highly reactive, oxygen-containing molecules are well known for damaging DNA, proteins and other molecules in our bodies. They are suspected of contributing to premature aging and cancer. But now, new research shows they might also have healing powers Exit icon.

Using the oft-studied laboratory roundworm known as C. elegans, a research group led by Andrew Chisholm Exit icon at the University of California, San Diego, made a surprising discovery. Free radicals, specifically those made in cell structures called mitochondria, appear necessary for skin wounds to heal. In fact, higher (but not dangerously high) levels of the molecules can actually speed wound closure.

If further research shows the same holds true in humans, the work could point to new ways to treat hard-to-heal wounds, like diabetic foot ulcers.

This work was funded in part by NIH under grants R01GM054657 and P40OD010440.

Meet Elizabeth Grice

Elizabeth Grice
Elizabeth Grice
First job: Detasseling corn
Favorite food: Chocolate
Pets: An adopted shelter cat, Dolce
Favorite city: Athens, Greece
Hidden talent: Baking creative desserts
Credit: Bill Branson, NIH

Imagine a landscape with peaks and valleys, folds and niches, cool, dry zones and hot, wet ones. Every inch is swarming with diverse communities, but there are no cities, no buildings, no fields and no forests.

You’ve probably thought little about the inhabitants, but you see their environment every day. It’s your largest organ—your skin.

Elizabeth Grice, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the skin microbiome to learn how and why bacteria colonize particular places on the body. Already, she’s found that the bacterial communities on healthy skin are different from those on diseased skin.

She hopes her work will point to ways of treating certain skin diseases, especially chronic wounds. “I like to think that I am making discoveries that will impact the way medicine is practiced,” she says.

Grice’s Findings

To investigate what role bacteria play in diabetic wounds, Grice and her colleagues took skin swabs from both diabetic and healthy mice, and then compared the two. They found that diabetic mice had about 40 times more bacteria on their skin, but it was concentrated into few species. A more diverse array of bacteria colonized the skin of healthy mice.

The researchers then gave each mouse a small wound and spent 28 days swabbing the sites to collect bacteria and observing how the skin healed. They found that wounds on diabetic mice started to increase in size at the same time as wounds on healthy mice began to heal. In about 2 weeks, most healthy mice looked as good as new. But most of the wounds on diabetic mice had barely healed even after a month.

Interestingly, bacterial communities in the wounds became more diverse in both groups of mice as they healed—although the wounds on diabetic mice still had less diversity than the ones on healthy mice.

“Bacterial diversity is probably a good thing, especially in wounds,” says Grice. “Often, potentially infectious bacteria are found on normal skin and are kept in check by the diversity of bacteria surrounding them.”

Grice and her colleagues also found distinctly different patterns of gene activity between the two groups of mice. As a result, the diabetic mice put out a longer-lasting immune response, including inflamed skin. Scientists believe prolonged inflammation might slow the healing process.

Grice’s team suspects that one of the main types of bacteria found on diabetic wounds, Staphylococcus, makes one of the inflammation-causing genes more active.

Now that they know more about the bacteria that thrive on diabetic wounds, Grice and her colleagues are a step closer to looking at whether they could reorganize these colonies to help the wounds heal.

Content adapted from the NIGMS Findings magazine article Body Bacteria.

Good Vibrations

A knot-like structure in a section of RNA from a flavivirus
Findings in mice may lead to a drug-free, noninvasive way to treat chronic wounds in people with type 2 diabetes. Credit: Stock image.

For people living with type 2 diabetes, wounds often heal slowly, sometimes even becoming chronic. Now, scientists have shown that low-intensity vibrations can speed up the healing process in a strain of diabetic mice commonly used to study delayed wound healing. The research team, led by Timothy Koh exit icon of the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that exposing the mice to barely perceptible vibrations five times a week for just 30 minutes promoted wound healing by increasing the formation of new blood vessels and of granulation tissue, a type of tissue critical in the early stages of healing. If researchers can show that the vibration technique also works in humans, this approach could one day offer a drug-free, non-invasive therapy for chronic wounds in people with diabetes.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

Learn more:
University of Illinois at Chicago News Release exit icon