What do you have in common with rodents, birds, and reptiles? A lot more than you might think. These creatures have organs and body systems very similar to our own: a skeleton, digestive tract, brain, nervous system, heart, network of blood vessels, and more. Even so-called “simple” organisms such as insects and worms use essentially the same genetic and molecular pathways we do. Studying these organisms provides a deeper understanding of human biology in health and disease, and makes possible new ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat a wide range of conditions.
Historically, scientists have relied on a few key organisms, including bacteria, fruit flies, rats, and mice, to study the basic life processes that run bodily functions. In recent years, scientists have begun to add other organisms to their toolkits. Many of these newer research organisms are particularly well suited for a specific type of investigation. For example, the small, freshwater zebrafish grows quickly and has transparent embryos and see-through eggs, making it ideal for examining how organs develop. Organisms such as flatworms, salamanders, and sea urchins can regrow whole limbs, suggesting they hold clues about how to improve wound healing and tissue regeneration in humans.
Here are profiles of other amazing organisms that are entering the research world.
Australian Zebra FinchCredit: Chris Olson.
Whether it’s a robin, sparrow, or yellow-rumped warbler, each songbird sings its own tunes. For decades, scientists have studied how the birds learn their unique songs. Many researchers, including Claudio Mello at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, study vocal learning in Australian zebra finches. These common birds sing a simple, easily analyzed tune. Mello and other scientists are identifying which genes and which parts of finch brains allow the birds to learn to sing their songs. Similar gene pathways and brain circuitry come into play when humans learn to speak. A better understanding of vocal learning in birds can shed light on how we acquire language and may help scientists and clinicians better address a broad range of speech and language disorders. For more information on finch-brain research, visit the NIGMS-funded ZEBrA website .
African Spiny MiceCredit: Malcolm Maden, University of Florida.
If you’ve ever seriously cut or burned yourself, you probably ended up with a thick, stiff scar. Internal organs can be similarly scarred when damaged by a heart attack, car crash, or other trauma. Such scarring can make it hard for the organ to function and can even lead to death. Some scientists seeking ways to lessen or prevent dangerous scarring are beginning to study the African spiny mouse (Acomys kempi and Acomys percivali).
This mouse is the only mammal known to heal without scarring. Just like a lizard that can release then regrow a severed tail, the African spiny mouse can leave patches of its easily torn skin in a predator’s teeth, then regrow it later—healthy layers of skin that include hair follicles, sweat glands, fur, cartilage, blood vessels, and nerve fibers—all without any scar tissue.
Chelsey Simmons at the University of Florida in Gainesville studies cells from these mice to figure out how they do it. By contributing to the understanding of how and why scar tissue forms—or doesn’t form—this research could reveal ways to prevent scarring caused by heart attacks, severe burns, and other injuries.
Hawaiian Bobtail SquidCredit: Dr. Satoshi Shibata.
Antibiotic medications are usually excellent at killing bacteria. But some types of bacteria protect themselves by joining together by the hundreds and sometimes thousands into a cooperative community called a biofilm. The biofilm helps bacteria evade antibiotics.
Biofilms are common in almost any moist, relatively undisturbed location (your mouth, shower stalls, wastewater treatment centers). They can be extremely difficult to destroy. Although they play an important role in degrading organic matter and pollutants, they can wreak havoc in the human body. They can block narrow passages in medical stents and other implants. They can also cause recurrent, life-threatening infections in lungs, intestines, and other organs.
Strawberry-sized Hawaiian bobtail squid, found in the shallow waters around Hawaii, give scientists a chance to study how biofilms form inside the body of a host animal. These miniature squid have a mutually beneficial relationship with a type of biofilm-forming bacteria. The squid nourish and cultivate their bacterial partners, which form a biofilm and wait on the surface of a special organ. When needed, the bacteria leave their biofilm and enter the organ, where they provide the squid with a sort of invisibility cloak, hiding it from predators.
Researchers such as Karen Visick at Loyola University in Chicago are studying this unique partnership between bobtail squid and their biofilm guests. They hope to gain a better understanding of how biofilms form, how they exist inside animals, and whether it’s possible to prevent, delay, or destroy them in humans.
Tasmanian DevilCredit: iStock.
The Tasmanian devil, the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, is in danger of extinction. In the past two decades, its population in the wild has plummeted by nearly 80 percent. One of the main causes is Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease. Animals with the disease develop tumors in and around their mouths. The tumors make it hard for the animals to eat, often leading to starvation.
The transmissible cancer is sweeping through Tasmanian devil populations. Researchers believe it spreads through the animals’ bite. When a healthy devil bites a diseased one, the resulting immune response leads to out-of-control cell growth and tumors. The disease kills more than 90 percent of animals that contract it.
Andrew Storfer at Washington State University in Pullman is studying genes from the tumors and from some of the few animals that have contracted and recovered from the disease. His work suggests that some devils survive because key elements of their immune systems have evolved to resist the cancer. These studies are helping with cancer research in humans and are particularly applicable to cervical cancer, another transmissible cancer. The work is also uncovering strategies to help prevent the spread of disease among Tasmanian devils in the wild.
Arctic Ground SquirrelCredit: Brian Barnes.
Our brains need a steady supply of blood and nutrients. When that flow stops, such as during a heart attack or stroke, it can damage or kill brain cells. More cells are damaged when blood flow restarts.
This isn’t the case for hibernating animals. Animals such as the Arctic ground squirrel can lower their body temperatures, heart rates, and blood flow for weeks at a time. And when they stop hibernating, these levels come back to normal without causing any damage.
Brian Barnes and others at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks are studying these squirrels to see how their brains adapt to these changes, especially when their blood flow levels are low even when the squirrels aren’t hibernating. The work could help scientists learn new ways to prevent human brain damage that often occurs after a stroke.
Sea LampreyCredit: Jeramiah Smith.
Sea lampreys are parasitic fish that latch onto other fish using suction-type mouths. Lampreys then feed on the host’s blood and body fluids. Though harmful to other fish, these parasites have two traits that make them interesting research organisms. First, they can repair their spinal cords when injured, something most animals can’t do. Second, they’re able to streamline their DNA as they grow so that different cell types keep only the genes that are necessary to function and remove other genes that could be detrimental.
Lampreys were some of the first animals to evolve a backbone and other traits common to all vertebrates. Researchers are looking at this fish’s ancient genetic information to see what genes are essential in growing backbones and other characteristics, and how traits have been gained and lost along the way during evolution. Jeramiah Smith at the University of Kentucky in Lexington studies these lost traits in hopes of finding new and unexpected ways of solving some of today’s most devastating human health problems, such as paralysis, cancer, and infertility.
Claudio Mello’s research is supported in part by NIGMS grant number 5R24GM12046402; Chelsey Simmons’ work is supported by 1R35GM1283101; Karen Visick’s work is supported by 1R01GM11428801; Andrew Storfer’s research is supported by 5R01GM12656302; Brian Barnes and colleagues’ research is supported by 5P20GM10339518 under the IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence program; and Jeramiah Smith’s work is supported by 1R35GM13034901.
Charmaine N. Nganje, PREP scholar at Tufts University in Boston.
Credit: Katherine Suarez.
Hometown: Montgomery Village, Maryland
Influential book : The Harry Potter series (not exactly influential, but they’re my favorite)
Favorite movie/TV show: The Pursuit of Happyness/The Flash
Languages: English (and a bit of Patois)
Unusual fact: I’m the biggest Philadelphia Eagles fan from Maryland that you’ll ever meet
Hobbies: Off-peak traveling
A. The Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University in Boston.
A. I’ve always loved science. I loved being outside and had a natural curiosity to understand how things worked in and around us. I went to and participated in every science fair I could. I know I probably annoyed my mom with all my questions.
“Staining cells during lab almost felt like art class.”
After a rough sophomore year in college, I was starting to think science wasn’t the route for me anymore. Luckily, I enrolled in a microbiology class the following year, which sparked my interest in research and my curiosity for science. This class was both fun and intellectually stimulating. Staining cells during lab almost felt like art class.
After taking this course, I wanted to learn more about microbes, so I worked as an undergraduate researcher in the bacterial pathogenesis lab of my instructor, Dr. Mara Shainheit.
I was fortunate enough to pick a project based on my own interests. Our project involved studying the interactions between bacteria and their host. My mentor inspired me to pursue a career in research, specifically studying host pathogenesis, or how our bodies can do more harm than good in response to infections.White blood cells called neutrophils protect our bodies from infection by recognizing and destroying disease-causing bacteria. In this microscopy image, a neutrophil (shown in violet) is ingesting MRSA (methicillin-resistant, Staphylococcus aureus) bacteria, shown in yellow.
A. I’m lucky that I’m able to continue studying infectious diseases and how the immune system responds to disease-causing bacteria. I’m working with two scientists, Dr. Joan Mecsas and Dr. John Leong, to understand why people become more susceptible to bacterial diseases as they get older.
I’m particularly interested in a type of white blood cell called a neutrophil, which acts as a sort of “first responder” in the immune system. There are billions of neutrophils circulating throughout our bodies, attempting to destroy the bacteria that make us sick. I’m interested in discovering how the antimicrobial functions of neutrophils change as we age.
A. I’m focused and determined to pursue a Ph.D. in immunology, and I’ve applied to graduate programs in the Boston area. Everything the PREP program has provided, including the mentorship, workshops, and career panels, have solidified my decision. The program has helped me build confidence and learn essential skills to become an independent scientist. In the future, I’d like to use the knowledge I’ve gained through studying host-pathogen interactions to develop and enhance therapeutics.
“As long as I’m contributing new knowledge, I’ll remain curious and excited every day.”
A. Research is hard. You work long hours and sometimes—most of the time—things don’t work as expected. I’ve always known that I wanted to help people, and that’s what motivates me. Every day at the bench or under the tissue culture hood helps paint a clearer picture of how our immune system defends us from countless pathogens. As long as I’m contributing new knowledge, I’ll remain curious and excited every day.
Women have two X chromosomes (XX) and men have one X and one Y (XY), right? Not always, as you’ll learn from the quiz below. Men can be XX and women can be XY. And many other combinations of X and Y are possible.NIGMS Director’s
Melissa A. Wilson, Ph.D.
Arizona State University
Wednesday, April 10, 2019
10:00-11:30 a.m. ET
Lecture followed by Q&A session
Info on the ECI Lecture webpage
You can learn more by listening to the live stream of a talk, titled “Sex-Biased Genome Evolution,” at 10 a.m. ET on April 10. The speaker, Melissa A. Wilson, is a researcher at Arizona State University who uses high-performance computing, statistics, and comparative genomics to study the X and Y chromosomes.
Wilson’s 30-minute talk is geared for an undergraduate-level audience and will be followed by a Q&A session. We encourage you use the hashtag #ECILecture to live-tweet the event and submit questions during the Q&A session.
For more details about Wilson’s work, background, and upcoming event, visit our ECI Lecture webpage. A videocast of the talk will be available to view live and at a later date.
Until then, see how well you do on the quiz below.
That’s the case for some people, but many others have normal sexual organs. Try a different answer.
This can happen, but it doesn’t always. Puberty can progress normally. Consider other answers.
True in some cases, but it’s not the best answer. Try again.
That’s it! The symptoms and severity of these conditions vary widely and are not always recognized. About a million people in the U.S. are estimated to have a sex chromosome number that’s atypical. Some people with these conditions don’t even know it!
Nope. Women with only one X chromosome (X0) have Turner syndrome. Give it another shot.
You’re right! This genotype is fatal long before birth. The X chromosome contains many genes that are essential to life for both males and females.
Actually, this is more common than you might think. It’s known as Klinefelter syndrome. It affects between 1 in 500 to 1,000 newborn males. Try again.
Sorry, wrong answer. The XYY genotype is estimated to occur in approximately 1 in 1,000 newborn boys.
Hemophilia A, a blood-clotting disorder, is caused by alterations to a gene on the X chromosome. In most cases, boys inherit the condition from their mothers, who carry the altered gene but do not experience symptoms (typically, women are protected because they carry a fully functional version of the gene on their second X chromosome). In about 30 percent of cases, a spontaneous genetic change causes the condition.
Duchenne muscular dystrophy is caused by an alteration of the dystrophin gene on the X chromosome. The condition, characterized by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness, is usually diagnosed during early childhood. Like most X-linked recessive traits, it primarily affects boys. Women act as carriers who pass the altered gene to their children.
You got it. Down syndrome, also called trisomy 21, results from an extra chromosome 21. All the other conditions are caused by genetic variations on the X chromosome.
Red-green color blindness affects up to 8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women of northern European descent. The genes responsible for the most common, inherited color blindness are on the X chromosome. Women who have unaffected genes on their other X chromosome will not experience color blindness but can pass the altered genes to their children.
Yes, it’s true. Melissa Wilson will explain more in her April 10 talk. Join us by videocast live or later.
Although sometimes chromosomes (or parts of chromosomes) can stick to each other, that’s not what happened in the case of X and Y. Melissa Wilson will explain more in her April 10 talk. Join us by videocast live or later.
NIGMS and Scholastic, Inc., have collaborated to bring you Pathways, a collection of free resources that teaches students about basic science, its importance to human health, and research careers that students can pursue.
Pathways, designed for grades 6 through 12, provides educators with a student magazine and corresponding teaching guide, related lessons with interactive activities, videos, and a vocabulary list.
The first unit of Pathways focuses on the fundamentals of basic research and includes information on:
Featured in This Issue:
“Beetle Guy” Ryan Bracewell, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley
“Viral Star” Mavis Agbandje-McKenna, professor at the University of Florida
“Gene Detective” Melissa Wilson, assistant professor at Arizona State University
“Powerhouse” Christian J. Garcia, Ph.D. student at Columbia University
“Bacteria Spy” Alecia Dent, Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, School of Pharmacy
“Science All-Star” Michael Young, Nobel laureate and a professor at Rockefeller University
By bringing Pathways into classrooms, educators can shed more light on the fascinating aspects of basic research and inspire students to pursue exiting careers in science. Let us know on social media how you’re sharing Pathways in your classroom by using the hashtag #NIGMSPathways!
Happy Fat Tuesday!
On this day, celebrated in many countries with lavish parties and high-fat foods, we’re recognizing the importance of fats in the body.
You’ve probably heard about different types of fat, such as saturated, trans, monounsaturated, omega-3, and omega-6. But fats aren’t just ingredients in food. Along with similar molecules, they fall under the broad term lipids and serve critical roles in the body. Lipids protect your vital organs. They help cells communicate. They launch chemical reactions needed for growth, immune function, and reproduction. They serve as the building blocks of your sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone).
Here we feature five of the hundreds of lipids that are essential to health.Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid (known nutritionally as a “good” fat). It makes up a significant portion of the human brain, skin, sperm, testicles, and retina (part of the eye).
Although our bodies can make very small amounts of DHA, the most common source of DHA is food. Fish and seafood, particularly fatty cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, or herring, are the best places to find this important fat.
Our bodies make sphingosine-1-phosphate by adding a few atoms to another molecule. Although we don’t need much, sphingosine-1-phosphate is necessary throughout the body. It’s especially important for shoring up the walls of blood vessels and allowing only certain molecules to enter and leave the blood stream. It protects the body from disease by directing certain immune cells to locations where they are needed to fight infection. It also has important functions in the brain and nervous system. When sphingosine-1-phosphate signaling goes awry, it can contribute to cardiovascular disease, cancer, or multiple sclerosis.Retinal
One of many forms of vitamin A, retinal is crucial for our vision. It helps us see under low-light conditions and to recognize colors. The molecule is found in the retina, a thin cell layer at the back of the eyeball. We “see” when light enters our eyes and strikes the retina. There, retinal helps convert the light into a nerve signal. The nerve signal travels to the brain, which forms a visual image. Our bodies can make retinal from other forms of vitamin A, such as carotenes contained in carrots.
2AG works as a messaging molecule in the brain and in nerve cells throughout the body. Our bodies make it, so we don’t need to get it from food. 2AG belongs to a class of nerve signaling molecules called endocannabinoids, which are similar in structure and function to the active ingredient in cannabis (marijuana). 2AG and the molecules it interacts with affect mood, memory, pain sensation, and appetite. They also are important in fertility and pregnancy. Changes in 2AG levels can contribute to many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and atherosclerosis (clogging of blood vessels).Ursodeoxycholic Acid
Bacteria in our intestines make ursodeoxycholic acid. As starting material, they use molecules known as bile acids that our bodies make in the liver, store in the gall bladder, and secrete into the intestine. Ursodeoxycholic acid helps regulate cholesterol levels. It reduces the rate at which cholesterol enters the blood from the intestine and breaks apart cholesterol clumps. Because of these effects, ursodeoxycholic acid is used as a medication to dissolve gallstones, which are rich in cholesterol. It’s also prescribed to treat certain liver diseases.
The lipids described here are only a fraction of the hundreds found throughout the body. Researchers funded by NIGMS are studying lipids to better understand their role in normal body processes and in disease.
When you think of blood, chances are you think of the color red. But blood actually comes in a variety of colors, including red, blue, green, and purple. This rainbow of colors can be traced to the protein molecules that carry oxygen in the blood. Different proteins produce different colors.Red Blood
Humans, along with most other animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, have red blood. We all use an oxygen-carrying blood protein, known as hemoglobin, that contains iron. It’s the iron that gives blood its dark red color in the body. When blood comes into contact with air, it turns the classic scarlet red. Some people appear to have blue blood in their veins. That’s just an optical illusion caused by the way the skin filters light.Blue Blood
The term blue blood often refers to people related to kings and queens. But organisms with actual blue-colored blood are far from royal. They include snails, spiders, slugs, octopuses, and squid. The protein that carries oxygen in these creatures is called hemocyanin. Instead of iron, this protein contains copper. The blood appears clear when it’s not carrying oxygen. It turns blue when it picks up oxygen.Green Blood
Science fiction aliens aren’t the only ones with green blood. Earthbound creatures with green blood include fantastically shaped sea worms, some leeches, and earthworms. These animals have a blood protein called chlorocruorin. It’s similar to hemoglobin but doesn’t hold oxygen as tightly. Also, it floats free in the bloodstream instead of being inside a blood cell.Purple Blood
Peanut worms, duck leeches, and bristle worms, all of which live in the ocean, use the protein hemerythrin to carry oxygen in the blood. Without oxygen, their blood is clear in color. When it carries oxygen, it turns purple.
In a previous post, we highlighted two NIGMS-funded winners of the 2018 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM ). For January’s National Mentoring Month, we tell you about other awardees: J.K. Haynes, Virginia Shepherd, and Maria da Graça H. Vicente.
During his long scientific career, J. K. Haynes has been a successful researcher and served in prestigious administrative and national leadership positions. But he is most proud of the individual lives he has impacted. Teaching and mentoring are his passions.
During his four decades at Morehouse College—the nation’s only private, historically black, liberal arts college for men—Haynes has influenced the lives of more than 3,000 African American undergraduates. He inspired many of these young men to pursue graduate degrees in STEM fields. He has also mentored many junior faculty and others at Morehouse.
Key to Haynes’s mentorship philosophy is instilling a sense of professionalism, integrity, compassion, and competence. To empower mentees to overcome obstacles, he helps them develop a healthy outlook on uncertainty and rejection. He also emphasizes interdisciplinary studies and intercultural experiences, and the importance of networking and embracing new ideas.
During his time at Morehouse, Haynes served as director of the Office of Health Professions, director of the honors program, chair of the department of biology, dean of the division of science and mathematics, and faculty member of the NIGMS-supported Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA) collaboration between Emory University and Morehouse. He has also served on advisory committees and as a board member for several national and government science organizations.
In 2015, Haynes received a Champion of Change at HBCUs Award from the Whitehouse. His biography is included in the 1996 book Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century, and an interview with him is included in the History Makers Digital Oral Archive (2011).
For more than 25 years, Virginia Shepherd has championed science and math education in public schools. Her interest in this area was initially sparked by a talk she attended in 1992, in which scientists were encouraged to spend 4 hours per week in a K–12 science classroom. Since that time, she has continued to seek new ways of improving STEM education in schools and promoting professional development for K–12 science teachers.
A professor emerita of education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, Shepherd founded and directed the university’s Center for Science Outreach (CSO), which connects scientists with the K–12 community, both locally in Nashville, Tennessee, and nationally. The CSO’s School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV), funded in part by the Science Education Partnership Award, is a joint venture between Vanderbilt and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Twenty-six students from each high school class year participate in a 4-year, research-centered experience 1 day per week on the Vanderbilt campus. They start with classroom instruction from professors and progress to completing individual research projects. Similarly, the Day of Discovery program provides middle school students with an immersive, research-based STEM curriculum 1 day per week at a magnet high school. Among SSMV students, 86 percent have gone on to college to major in a STEM field or graduate with a STEM major. Fifty-five percent of SSMV students are female.
Shepherd also started the Scientist in the Classroom program, now in its 19th year. The program is a collaboration between Nashville’s public schools and five local higher-learning institutions, including Vanderbilt. It creates partnerships between science teaching fellows (STFs) and public-school science teachers in elementary and middle schools. The STFs, about 40 percent of whom represent underrepresented populations are graduate or post-graduate students who work with teachers to develop hands-on, inquiry-based activities and provide classroom demonstrations. The STFs also help tutor students and direct student research projects. About 10 percent of the STFs have gone on to become K–12 teachers. The program benefits some 130 graduate and undergraduate students, 110 K–12 teachers, and more than 10,000 K–12 students.
Along with her Presidential Award, Shepherd has received many accolades related to her dedication to promoting STEM education, including the Mayor’s Award for Outstanding Partner in 2011 and the Mary Jane Werthan award for contributions to the advancement of women in 2008.
Maria da Graça H. Vicente is both a distinguished professor of chemistry and an influential scientific mentor. Dozens of her mentees now hold scientific leadership positions in universities, government, and industry. Vicente’s impact is especially strong among students from groups that are underrepresented in STEM disciplines.
Since 2007, Vicente has directed the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) at Louisiana State University (LSU). This NIGMS-supported program provides research training and career development to graduate students across the country. Its long-term goal is to produce a diverse pool of well-trained biomedical scientists.
As director of LSU’s IMSD program, Vicente and her staff arrange meaningful research experiences, training activities, educational mentoring plans, and networking opportunities for participating students. She believes that keys to the success of the program include providing students with resources to explore career options, access to a strong network of collaborations, and support for making critical career and personal decisions.
Under Vicente’s leadership, LSU’s IMSD program expanded the university’s outreach to underrepresented students. The program also increased student retention and graduation rates and boosted students’ competitiveness for entering the next phase of their educational and professional lives. In part due to her efforts, more African Americans receive doctorate degrees in chemistry from LSU than from anywhere else in the nation. The program even strengthened LSU’s faculty publication record and competitiveness for research awards.
Along with her Presidential Award, Vicente has received numerous other teaching and mentoring awards.