'Master key' microRNA has links to both ASD and schizophrenia

Recent studies of complex brain disorders such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have identified a few "master keys," risk genes that sit at the center of a network of genes important for brain function. Researchers at Emory and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have created mice partially lacking one of those master keys, called MIR-137, and have used them to identify an angle on potential treatments for ASD. The results were published this Read more

Shape-shifting RNA regulates viral sensor

OAS senses double-stranded RNA: the form that viral genetic material often takes. Its regulator is also Read more

Mapping shear stress in coronary arteries can help predict heart attacks

Predicting exactly where and when a future seismic fault will rupture is a scientific challenge – in both geology and Read more

epigenetics

When parents de-stress, so do offspring

Parents around the world can relax, knowing that their kids won’t inherit all of their stresses — at least at the DNA or epigenetic level. In an animal model, neuroscientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center have shown they can reverse influences of parental stress by exposing parents to behavioral interventions following their own exposure to stress.

“These results in our mouse model are an important public health contribution because they provide optimism for applying similar interventional approaches in humans and breaking intergenerational cycles of stress,” says lead author Brian Dias. More information here.

The research was published in Biological Psychiatry, and is a continuation of Dias’ work with Kerry Ressler on this topic, which earned some attention in 2013. Note: the mice weren’t inheriting a fear as much as a sensitivity to a smell. Even so, it remains an intriguing example of how transgenerational (um, since the word “epigenetic” is so stretchy now) influences can be studied in a precise molecular way.

Read more

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Mysterious DNA modification important in fly brain

Emory scientists have identified a function for a mysterious DNA modification in fruit flies’ brain development, which may provide hints to its role in humans.

The results were published Thursday, August 2 in Molecular Cell.

Epigenetics may mean “above the genes,” but a lot of the focus in the field is on DNA methylation, a chemical modification of DNA itself. Methylation doesn’t change the actual DNA letters (A, C, G and T), but it does change how DNA is handled by the cell. Generally, it shuts genes off and is essential for cell differentiation.

The most commonly studied form of DNA methylation appears on the DNA letter C (cytosine). Drosophila, despite being a useful genetic model of development, have very little of this form of DNA methylation. What they do have is methylation on A — technically, N6-methyladenine, although little was known about what this modification did for flies.

Editor’s note: See this 2017 Nature feature from Cassandra Willyard on an “epigenetics gold rush”, which mentions the discovery of N6-methyladenine’s presence in the genomes of several organisms.

Emory geneticists Bing Yao, PhD, Peng Jin, PhD and colleagues now have shown that an enzyme that removes methylation from A is critical for neuronal development in Drosophila.

This finding is significant because the enzyme is in the same family (TET for ten-eleven translocation) of demethylases that trigger removal of DNA methylation from C in mammals. The function of TET enzymes, revealing that cells actively removed DNA methylation rather than just letting it slough off, was discovered only in 2009. Read more

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New insight into how brain cells die in Alzheimer’s and FTD

Removal of a regulatory gene called LSD1 in adult mice induces changes in gene activity that look unexpectedly like Alzheimer’s disease, scientists have discovered.

Researchers also discovered that LSD1 protein is perturbed in brain samples from humans with Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Based on their findings in human patients and mice, the research team is proposing LSD1 as a central player in these neurodegenerative diseases and a drug target.

David Katz, PhD

The results were published Oct. 9 in Nature Communications.

In the brain, LSD1 (lysine specific histone demethylase 1) maintains silence among genes that are supposed to be turned off. When the researchers engineered mice that have the LSD1 gene snipped out in adulthood, the mice became cognitively impaired and paralyzed. Plenty of neurons were dying in the brains of LSD1-deleted mice, although other organs seemed fine. However, they lacked aggregated proteins in their brains, like those thought to drive Alzheimer’s disease and FTD.

“In these mice, we are skipping the aggregated proteins, which are usually thought of as the triggers of dementia, and going straight to the downstream effects,” says David Katz, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine. Read more

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Worm collaboration w/Oglethorpe probes neurodegeneration

Emory cell biologist David Katz’s lab has facilitated a collaboration with our neighbors at Oglethorpe University, working with undergraduates on the worm C. elegans and contributing to Alzheimer’s/frontotemporal dementia research. A new article from Oglethorpe describes how C. elegans is ideal for undergraduate biology instruction. Check it out.  

In the photo: Oglethorpe student and Katz lab intern Caitlin May, Oglethorpe biology professor Karen Schmeichel, Elias Castro — also an Oglethorpe student and Katz lab intern, Katz lab postdoc Teresa Lee and David Katz.

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How estrogen modulates fear learning — molecular insight into PTSD in women

Low estrogen levels may make women more susceptible to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some points in their menstrual cycles or lifetimes, while high estrogen levels may be protective.

New research from Emory University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School provides insight into how estrogen changes gene activity in the brain to achieve its protective effects.

The findings, published in Molecular Psychiatry, could inform the design of preventive treatments aimed at reducing the risk of PTSD after someone is traumatized.

The scientists examined blood samples from 278 women from the Grady Trauma Project, a study of low-income Atlanta residents with high levels of exposure to violence and abuse. They analyzed maps of DNA methylation, a modification to the shape of DNA that is usually a sign of genes that are turned off.

The group included adult women of child-bearing age, in which estrogen rises and falls with the menstrual cycle, and women that had gone through menopause and had much lower estrogen levels.

“We knew that estrogen affects the activity of many genes throughout the genome,” says Alicia Smith, PhD, associate professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine. “But if you look at the estrogen-modulated sites that are also associated with PTSD, just one pops out.”

That site is located in a gene called HDAC4, known to be critical for learning and memory in mice. Genetic variation in HDAC4 among the women was linked to a lower level of HDAC4 gene activity and differences in their ability to respond to and recover from fear, and also differences in “resting state” brain imaging. Women with the same variation also showed stronger connections in activation between the amygdala and the cingulate cortex, two regions of the brain involved in fear learning. Read more

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Gestational age estimated via DNA methylation

Researchers have developed a method for estimating developmental maturity of newborns. It is based on tracking DNA methylation, a structural modification of DNA, whose patterns change as development progresses before birth.

The new method could help doctors assess developmental maturity in preterm newborns and make decisions about their care, or estimate the time since conception for a woman who does not receive prenatal care during pregnancy. As a research tool, the method could help scientists study connections between the prenatal environment and health in early childhood and adulthood.

How advanced is the development of a newborn, possibly preterm baby? Geneticists have developed a method for estimating gestational age by looking at DNA methylation.

The study, led by Alicia Smith, PhD and Karen Conneely, PhD, used blood samples from more than 1,200 newborns in 15 cohorts from around the world. The results are published in Genome Biology.

Smith is an associate professor and vice chair of research for the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics in the School of Medicine, and Conneely is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Genetics. The first author, Anna Knight, is a graduate student in the Genetics and Molecular Biology Program.

Gestational age, is normally estimated by obstetricians using ultrasound during the first trimester, by asking a pregnant woman about her last menstrual period, or by examining the baby at birth. Ultrasound is considered to be the most precise estimate of gestational age. This work extends upon earlier studies of DNA methylation patterns that change over development and predict age and age-related health conditions in children and adults.

The Emory team gathered DNA methylation data from previous studies examining live births and health outcomes, and used an unbiased statistical learning approach to select 148 DNA methylation sites out of many thousands in the genome. By examining methylation at those sites, gestational age could be accurately estimated between 24 and 44 weeks, the authors report. The median difference between age determined by DNA methylation and age determined by an obstetrician estimate was approximately 1 week.

The researchers also found that the difference between a newborn’s age predicted by DNA methylation and by an obstetrician may be another indicator of developmental maturity, and is correlated with birthweight, commonly used as an indicator of perinatal health. Read more

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Plasma cells, antibody factories

Immune cells that serve as antibody production factories, also known as plasma cells, are the focus of a recent Nature Immunology paper from Jeremy Boss and colleagues.

Plasma cells also appear in Ali Ellebedy and Rafi Ahmed’s recent paper on the precursors of memory B cells and Eun Lee’s work on long-lived antibody-producing cells. In addition, plasma cells appear prominently in Larry Boise’s studies of myeloma, because myeloma cancer cells are thought to come from plasma cells and have a similar biology.B cell methylation

The Boss lab’s paper focuses on patterns of methylation, modifications of DNA that usually help turn genes off. In comparison with resting B cells, plasma cells need to turn on lots of genes, so their DNA methylation level goes down when differentiation occurs (see graph). PC = plasma cells, PB = plasmablasts. DNAme indicates the extent of DNA methylation. Read more

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When genes forget to forget

In ancient Greek mythology, the souls of the dead were made to drink from the river Lethe, so that they would forget their past lives. Something analogous happens to genes at the very beginning of life. Right after fertilization, the embryo instructs them to forget what it was like in the egg or sperm where they had come from.

This is part of the “maternal-to-zygote transition”: much of the epigenetic information carried on and around the DNA is wiped clean, so that the embryo can start from a clean slate.

Developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert once said: “It is not birth, marriage or death which is
the most important time in your life, but gastrulation,” referring to when the early embryo separates into layers of cells that eventually make up all the organs. Well, the MZT, which occurs first, comes pretty close in importance.

When this process of epigenetic reprogramming is disrupted, the consequences are often lethal. Emory cell biologists David Katz and Jadiel Wasson discovered that when mouse eggs are missing an enzyme that is critical for the MZT, on the rare instances when the mice survive to adulthood, they display odd repetitive behaviors. Read more

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Epigenetic inheritance via sperm RNA

In 2013, Brian Dias (at Yerkes) and Kerry Ressler (now at Harvard) described a surprising example of epigenetic inheritance.

They found that a mouse, exposed to a smell in combination with stress, could transmit the resulting sensitivity to that smell to its offspring. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information about mechanism.

Now other scientists have substantiated a proposal that micro RNA in playing a role in sperm. See this story (“Sperm RNAs transmit stress”) from Kate Yandell in The Scientist or this one from Rachel Zamzow at Spectrum, the Simons Foundation’s autism news site, for more. An added wrinkle is that this research shows that descendants of stress-exposed mice show a muted response to stress.

Note for Emory readers: Dias is scheduled to give a Frontiers in Neuroscience talk on Friday.

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Lab Land looking back: Top ten themes for 2014

It is a privilege to work at Emory and learn about and report on so much quality biomedical research. I started to make a top 10 for 2014 and had too many favorites. After diverting some of these topics into the 2015 crystal ball, I corralled them into themes.
1. Cardiac cell therapy
PreSERVE AMI clinical trial led by cardiologist Arshed Quyyumi. Emory investigators developing a variety of approaches to cardiac cell therapy.
2. Mobilizing the body’s own regenerative potential
Ahsan Husain’s work on how young hearts grow. Shan Ping Yu’s lab using parathyroid hormone bone drug to mobilize cells for stroke treatment.
3. Epigenetics
Many colors in the epigenetic palette (hydroxymethylation). Valproate – epigenetic solvent (anti-seizure –> anti-cancer). Methylation in atherosclerosis model (Hanjoong Jo). How to write conservatively about epigenetics and epigenomics.
4. Parkinson’s disease therapeutic strategies
Container Store (Gary Miller, better packaging for dopamine could avoid stress to neurons).
Anti-inflammatory (Malu Tansey, anti-TNF decoy can pass blood-brain barrier).
5. Personal genomics/exome sequencing
Rare disease diagnosis featured in the New Yorker. Threepart series on patient with GRIN2A mutation.
6. Neurosurgeons, like Emory’s Robert Gross and Costas Hadjpanayis, do amazing things
7. Fun vs no fun
Fun = writing about Omar from The Wire in the context of drug discovery.
No fun (but deeply moving) = talking with patients fighting glioblastoma.
8. The hypersomnia field is waking up
Our Web expert tells me this was Lab Land’s most widely read post last year.
9. Fine-tuning approaches to cancer
Image guided cancer surgery (Shuming Nie/David Kooby). Cancer immunotherapy chimera (Jacques Galipeau). Fine tuning old school chemo drug cisplatin (Paul Doetsch)
10. Tie between fructose effects on adolescent brain (Constance Harrell/Gretchen Neigh) and flu immunology (embrace the unfamiliar! Ali Ellebedy/Rafi Ahmed)
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