Vulnerability to stress - Tet by Tet

Transition states like 5-hydroxymethylcytosine aren't really a new letter of the genetic alphabet – they’ve been there all along. We just didn’t see them Read more

Circadian rhythms go both ways: in and from retina

Removal of Bmal1 accelerates the deterioration of vision that comes with Read more

Genomics plus human intelligence

The power of gene sequencing to solve puzzles when combined with human Read more

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Need a really small number?

Biomedical engineer Yonggang Ke‘s “DNA origami” artwork appears on the cover of NKe-image-300x265ature Methods, as part of a celebration of the journal’s 10th anniversary. Ke designed self-assembling DNA strands that would form a cylinder and a ring structure, let them assemble, and obtained images with transmission electron microscopy. The height of the final image is 120 nanometers, smaller than the wavelengths of visible light and about the size of an influenza or HIV virion.

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Refining tools for Big Data

You may have been hearing about the advent of Big Data: truckloads of information coming from cell phones, satellites, microscopes, and perhaps someday, wearable health monitoring devices.

At Emory, specialists in biomedical informatics have been in the forefront of efforts to design software that will allow scientists to learn from these mountains of data. Fusheng Wang was recently named as co-PI on a five-year $5 million National Science Foundation grant to create MIDAS (Middleware for Data-Intensive Analytics and Science), part of the NSF’s Data Infrastructure Building Blocks program. For this grant, the team consists of seven institutions: Indiana University (lead — Geoffrey Fox), Arizona State, Emory, Kansas, Rutgers, Utah and Virginia Tech.

Wang also recently received a NSF Career award in this same area.

The MIDAS project addresses major data challenges in seven different communities: biomolecular simulations, network and computational social science, epidemiology, computer vision, spatial geographical information systems, remote sensing for polar science, and pathology informatics. Wang is responsible for pathology informatics and geospatial, gathering requirements from those communities and implementing the spatial query and parts of the image analysis library. The libraries are supposed to be interoperable across a range of computing systems including clouds, clusters and supercomputers. The project includes a plan to develop a open online course (MOOC), according to the NSF.

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Cardiac cell therapy: three papers at a glance

Cardiac cell therapy sounds like a promising idea: use the patients’ own cells to enhance healing or even regenerate the damaged heart muscle. Doctors have taken up the promise, testing it in clinical trials involving thousands of patients. But a basic problem facing the field is this: naked cells don’t appear to stay in the heart or stay alive for long enough to provide a sustained benefit.

Three labs at Emory have published papers in the last year addressing this problem. All describe some kind of supportive biomaterials, consisting of capsules or a gel, which help cells stay put and stay alive, in experiments where recovery from a heart attack is modeled in rodents.nn-2014-04617g_0001

The most recent comes from cardiologist Young-sup Yoon and colleagues, in ACS Nano. The first author is Kiwon Ban, a senior postdoc in Yoon’s laboratory. Ban and his team use self-assembling peptides, developed in collaboration with biomaterials engineer Ho-wook Jun at UAB (see figure). The peptides form a gel that both physically keeps cardiac muscle cells in the heart and eases their integration into the heart tissue over a period of weeks. As Katie Bourzac explains in Chemical & Engineering News:

One peptide acts like a natural protein that adheres to cells and promotes cell survival. The second peptide is readily broken down by a protease. The team designed the gel so that when it is implanted, it begins to degrade a bit, allowing cells from the body to migrate in. Eventually the gel should disintegrate completely as the heart tissue builds its own extracellular matrix. This particular gel has already performed well as a support for other kinds of cells grown from stem cells, including pancreatic and muscle cells.

We thought it may be useful to readers to be able to compare and contrast these papers in chart form.  Read more

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A new frame of reference — on ribosome frameshifting

It’s a fundamental rule governing how the genetic code works. Ribosomes, the factories that assemble proteins in all types of living cells, read three letters (or nucleotides) of messenger RNA at a time.

In some instances, the ribosome can bend its rules, and read either two or four nucleotides, altering how downstream information is read. Biologists call this normally rare event ribosomal frameshifting. For an ordinary gene, the event of a frameshift turns the rest of the ensuing protein into nonsense. However, many viruses exploit frameshifting, because they can then have overlapping genes and fit more information into a limited space.

Regulated frameshifting takes place in human genes too, and understanding frameshifting is key to recent efforts to expand the genetic code. Researchers are aiming to use the process to customize proteins for industrial and pharmaceutical applications, by inserting amino acid building blocks not found in nature.

“Going back to the 1960s, when the genetic code was first revealed, there were many studies on ribosomal frameshifting, yet no-one really knows how it works on a molecular and mechanistic level,” says Christine Dunham, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine. “What we do know is that the ‘yardstick’ model that appears in a lot of textbooks, saying that the anticodon loop dictates the number of nucleotides decoded, while elegant, is probably incorrect.”

Dunham, who first studied the topic as a postdoc, and her colleagues published a paper this week in PNAS where they outline a model for how ribosomal frameshifting occurs, based on structural studies of the ribosome interacting with some of its helper machinery. Co-first authors of the paper are postdoctoral fellows Tatsuya Maehigashi, PhD and Jack Dunkle, PhD.

Read more

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Antibiotic resistance enzyme caught in the act

Resistance to an entire class of antibiotics – aminoglycosides — has the potential to spread to many types of bacteria, according to new biochemistry research.

A mobile gene called NpmA was discovered in E. coli bacteria isolated from a Japanese patient several years ago. Global spread of NpmA and related antibiotic resistance enzymes could disable an entire class of tools doctors use to fight serious or life-threatening infections.

Using X-ray crystallography, researchers at Emory made an atomic-scale snapshot of how the enzyme encoded by NpmA interacts with part of the ribosome, protein factories essential for all cells to function. NpmA imparts a tiny chemical change that makes the ribosome, and the bacteria, resistant to the drugs’ effects.

The results, published in PNAS, provide clues to the threat NpmA poses, but also reveal potential targets to develop drugs that could overcome resistance from this group of enzymes.

First author of the paper is postdoctoral fellow Jack Dunkle, PhD. Co-senior authors are assistant professor of biochemistry Christine Dunham, PhD and associate professor of biochemistry Graeme Conn, PhD. Read more

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Buzzword overuse alert: epigenetics

The term “epigenetics” has come up a lot here on the Lab Land blog.

In June a discussion came up on Twitter about scientific terms that are overused. I began to wonder whether I was contributing to the problem and may need to tighten up my use of the word “epigenetics.” Read more

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Flashback to LSD research from the 1950s

Accompanying Kai Kupferschmidt’s July 3 feature in Science, which discusses a current revival of clinical research on hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin, was a curious historical photo. The 1955 copyrighted photo depicts pharmacologist Harry Williams squirting LSD into the mouth of Carl Pfeiffer, chair of pharmacology at Emory during the 1950’s. Read more

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Hunting for potential diabetes drugs

Pathologist Keqiang Ye and his colleagues have been prolific in finding small molecules able to mimic the action of the brain growth factor BDNF. Aiming to export that success to similar molecules (that is, other receptor tyrosine kinases), they have been searching for potential drugs able to substitute for insulin.

Diabetes drugs Januvia (sitagliptin) and Lantus (insulin analog) are top 20 drugs, both in terms of dollars and monthly prescriptions, and the inconvenience of insulin injection is well known, so the business potential is clear.

A paper published in the journal Diabetes in April describes Ye’s team’s identification of a compound called chaetochromin A, which was originally isolated by Japanese researchers studying toxins found in moldy rice. Chaetochromin A can drive down blood sugar in normal, type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes mouse models, the authors show.

See here for another compound identified in Ye’s lab with similar properties.

Read more

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CRISPR gene editing can miss its mark

Yanni Lin, TJ Cradick, Gang Bao and colleagues from Georgia Tech and Emory reported recently in Nucleic Acids Research on how the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system can sometimes miss its mark.

CRISPR/Cas9 has received abundant coverage from science-focused media outlets. Basically, it is a convenient system for cutting DNA in cells in a precise way. This paper shows that the CRISPR/Cas9 system can sometimes cut DNA in places that don’t exactly match the designed target.

Here we show that CRISPR/Cas9 systems can have off-target cleavage when DNA sequences have an extra base or a missing base at various locations compared with the corresponding RNA guide strand…Our results suggest the need to perform comprehensive off-target analysis by considering cleavage due to DNA and sgRNA bulges in addition to base mismatches.

CRISPR/Cas9 could be used to develop therapies for humans for genetic blood diseases such as sickle cell or thalassemia, and this paper does not change that potential. But the authors are cautioning fellow scientists that they need to design their tools carefully and perform quality control. Other investigators have made similar findings.

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Charlotte Observer highlights Lab Land

Thanks to Amber Veverka for featuring Lab Land as part of the Charlotte Observer’s regular look at science-oriented blogs. I reproduce my responses here to add some links.

Describe the range of health science research you are covering on Lab Land – and a little bit about your intended audience.

Any intriguing idea emerging from basic or clinical biomedical research happening at Emory. The blog is aimed at people who are somewhat familiar with biological concepts, like graduate students, postdocs or science journalists.

What are some of the most exciting advances you’ve recently written about?

Here are a few!

*Neuroscientists found that a mouse can pass on a learned sensitivity to a smell to its offspring

*Cardiologists discovered that heart muscle cells in mice grow in a dramatic spurt after birth, with implications for the treatment of congenital heart defects.

*Some peoples’ brains produce something that acts like a sleeping pill, giving them hypersomnia. It’s not clear what this mysterious brain chemical is yet.

*Less invasive epilepsy surgery involving lasers; seizure control with fewer cognitive side effects

*Biomedical engineers are developing ways to prevent stem cells from being washed out of the heart Read more

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