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Snapshots of Life

How to Feed a Macrophage

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Dark light microscopy with man small circles. Green macrophages are nearly filled with some of the circles.
Credit: Annalise Bond, Morrissey Lab, University of California, Santa Barbara

For Annalise Bond, a graduate student in the lab of Meghan Morrissey, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), macrophages are “the professional eaters of our immune system.” Every minute of every day, macrophages somewhere in the body are gorging themselves to remove the cellular debris that builds up in our tissues and organs.

In this image, Bond caught several macrophages (green) doing what they do best: shoveling it in—in this case, during a lab experiment. The macrophages are consuming silica beads (purple) prepared with biochemicals that whet their appetites. Each bead measures about five microns in diameter. That’s roughly the size of a bacterium or a spent red blood cell—debris that a macrophage routinely consumes.

When Bond snapped this image, she noticed a pattern that reminded her of a childhood tabletop game called Hungry Hungry Hippos. Kids press a lever attached to the mouth of a plastic hippo, its lower jaw flaps open, and the challenge is to fill the mouth with as many marbles as possible . . . just like the macrophages eating beads.

Bond adjusted the colors in the photo to make them pop. She then entered it into UCSB’s 2023 Art of Science contest with the caption of Hungry Hungry Macrophages, winning high marks for drawing the association.

Though the caption was written in fun, Bond studies in earnest a fascinating biological question: How do macrophages know what to eat in the body and what to leave untouched?

In her studies, Bond coats the silica beads shown above with a lipid bilayer to mimic a cell membrane. To that coating, she adds various small molecules and proteins as “eat-me” signals often found on the surface of dying cells. Some of the signals are well characterized; but many aren’t, meaning there’s still a lot to learn about what makes a macrophage “particularly hungry” and what makes a particular target cell “extra tasty.”

Capturing fluorescent images of macrophages under the microscope, Bond counts up how many beads are eaten. Beads bearing no signal to stimulate their appetite might get eaten occasionally. But when an especially enticing signal is added, macrophages will gorge themselves until they can’t eat anymore.

In the experiment pictured above, the beads contain the antibody immunoglobulin G (IgG), which tags foreign pathogens for macrophage removal. Interestingly, IgG antibody responses also play an important role in cancer immunotherapies, in which the immune system is unleashed to fight cancer.

Among its many areas of study, the NIH-supported Morrissey lab’s wants to understand better how macrophages interact with cancer cells. They want to learn how to make cancer cells even tastier to macrophages and program their elimination from the body. Sorting out the signals will be challenging, but we know that macrophages will take a bite at the right ones. They are, after all, professional eaters.


Cancer Immunotherapy (NIH)

Annalise Bond (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Morrissey Lab (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Art of Science (University of California, Santa Barbara)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Science, Serendipity, and Art

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

green and blue, fractal-like patterns
Credit: Bryan Bogin and Matthew Steinsaltz, Zachary Levine Lab, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT

Fractals are complex geometric patterns repeated at progressively smaller scales. You’ll find them throughout nature. That includes in the 3D structures and shapes of tissues throughout our bodies, from the bones in our skulls down to the blood vessels in our feet. But the fractal pattern above isn’t from a precisely patterned human tissue. It comes from some unexpected biochemistry that formed the stunning pattern on its own.

In fact, the exact source for this fractal pattern reminiscent of peacock feathers isn’t known. It turned up out of the blue (and green) in a sample that had been sitting around on the shelf for some time. The original image appeared in black and white, but the colors added post-collection help to highlight the fractal pattern of a sample including an essential hormone produced in the pancreas. The hormone is called islet amyloid polypeptide (IAPP).

Also known as amylin, IAPP plays many important roles in our bodies, including the feeling of fullness after a meal. But the amino acid chains that make up IAPP also are prone to forming abnormal clumps of misfolded polypeptides (a long name for proteins) known as amyloids. Much like the amyloid plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, misfolded IAPP amyloids in people with type 2 diabetes also can damage insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas and make controlling their blood sugar levels even more difficult.

This unusual image comes from graduate students Bryan Bogin and Matthew Steinsaltz. They study the biophysics and biochemistry of protein folding and misfolding in the lab of Zachary Levine, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT. The Levine lab recently moved to the Altos Labs San Diego Institute. However, Bogin and Steinsaltz continue to conduct their studies at Yale.

The two conduct in-solution experiments and molecular simulations to elucidate the precise conditions and triggers that can lead otherwise normal polypeptide chains to fold up incorrectly and wreak havoc as they do in diabetes and other diseases. When Steinsaltz was learning how to use transmission electron microscopy (TEM), a technique in which an electron beam captures images including detailed molecular-level structures, Bogin handed over an assortment of IAPP samples in different solution conditions from some of his past experiments for a look.

In those microscopy images, they expected to see long, linear fibrils consisting of IAPP polypeptides. While that’s indeed what they saw in most of the samples, this one was the exception. It was such a remarkable image that they submitted it in the Biophysical Society’s 2022 Art of Science Image Contest, where it took the top prize.

Bogin and Steinsaltz say they still can’t explain the source or meaning behind these unusual fractal patterns. But they do continue to conduct experiments to understand how various polypeptides implicated in health and disease misfold to form destructive aggregates. This striking image may not hold the answers they seek, but it is an inspiring reminder that the path to making groundbreaking biomedical discoveries will have many beautiful surprises along the way.


Type 2 Diabetes (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Zachary Levine Lab (Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT)

Art of Science Image Contest (Biophysical Society, Rockville, MD)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging

How Neurons Make Connections

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Credit: Emily Heckman, Doe Lab, University of Oregon, Eugene

For many people, they are tiny pests. These fruit flies that sometimes hover over a bowl of peaches or a bunch of bananas. But for a dedicated community of researchers, fruit flies are an excellent model organism and source of information into how neurons self-organize during the insect’s early development and form a complex, fully functioning nervous system.

That’s the scientific story on display in this beautiful image of a larval fruit fly’s developing nervous system. Its subtext is: fundamental discoveries in the fruit fly, known in textbooks as Drosophila melanogaster, provide basic clues into the development and repair of the human nervous system. That’s because humans and fruit flies, though very distantly related through the millennia, still share many genes involved in their growth and development. In fact, 60 percent of the Drosophila genome is identical to ours.

Once hatched, as shown in this image, a larval fly uses neurons (magenta) to sense its environment. These include neurons that sense the way its body presses against the surrounding terrain, as needed to coordinate the movements of its segmented body parts and crawl in all directions.

This same set of neurons will generate painful sensations, such as the attack of a parasitic wasp. Paintbrush-like neurons in the fly’s developing head (magenta, left side) allow the insect to taste the sweetness of a peach or banana.

There is a second subtype of neurons, known as proprioceptors (green). These neurons will give the young fly its “sixth sense” understanding about where its body is positioned in space. The complete collection of developing neurons shown here are responsible for all the fly’s primary sensations. They also send these messages on to the insect’s central nervous system, which contains thousands of other neurons that are hidden from view.

Emily Heckman, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Michigan Neuroscience Institute, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, captured this image during her graduate work in the lab of Chris Doe, University of Oregon, Eugene. For her keen eye, she received a trainee/early-career BioArt Award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), which each year celebrates the art of science.

The image is one of many from a much larger effort in the Doe lab that explores the way neurons that will partner find each other and link up to drive development. Heckman and Doe also wanted to know how neurons in the developing brain interconnect into integrated neural networks, or circuits, and respond when something goes wrong. To find out, they disrupted sensory neurons or forced them to take alternate paths and watched to see what would happen.

As published in the journal eLife [1], the system has an innate plasticity. Their findings show that developing sensory neurons instruct one another on how to meet up just right. If one suddenly takes an alternate route, its partner can still reach out and make the connection. Once an electrically active neural connection, or synapse, is made, the neural signals themselves slow or stop further growth. This kind of adaptation and crosstalk between neurons takes place only during a particular critical window during development.

Heckman says part of what she enjoys about the image is how it highlights that many sensory neurons develop simultaneously and in a coordinated process. What’s also great about visualizing these events in the fly embryo is that she and other researchers can track many individual neurons from the time they’re budding stem cells to when they become a fully functional and interconnected neural circuit.

So, the next time you see fruit flies hovering in the kitchen, just remember there’s more to their swarm than you think. Our lessons learned studying them will help point researchers toward new ways in people to restore or rebuild neural connections after devastating disruptions from injury or disease.


Presynaptic contact and activity opposingly regulate postsynaptic dendrite outgrowth. Heckman EL, Doe CQ. Elife. 2022 Nov 30;11:e82093.


Research Organisms (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

Doe Lab (University of Oregon, Eugene)

Emily Heckman (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

BioArt Awards (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Rockville, MD)

NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Saving Fat for Lean Times

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Credit: Rupali Ugrankar, Henne Lab, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas

Humans and all multi-celled organisms, or metazoans, have evolved through millennia into a variety of competing shapes, sizes, and survival strategies. But all metazoans still share lots of intriguing cell biology, including the ability to store excess calories as fat. In fact, many researchers now consider fat-storing cells to be “nutrient sinks,” or good places for the body to stash excess sugars and lipids. Not only can these provide energy needed to survive a future famine, this is a good way to sequester extra molecules that could prove toxic to cells and organs.

Here’s something to think about the next time you skip a meal. Fat-storing cells organize their fat reserves spatially, grouping them into specific pools of lipid types, in order to generate needed energy when food is scarce.

That’s the story behind this striking image taken in a larval fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster). The image captures fat-storing adipocytes in an organ called a fat body, where a larval fruit fly stores extra nutrients. It’s like the fat tissue in mammals. You can see both large and small lipid droplets (magenta) inside polygon-shaped fat cells, or adipocytes, lined by their plasma membranes (green). But notice that the small lipid droplets are more visibly lined by green, as only these are destined to be saved for later and exported when needed into the fly’s bloodstream.

Working in Mike Henne’s lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, research associate Rupali Ugrankar discovered how this clever fat-management system works in Drosophila [1]. After either feeding flies high-or-extremely low-calorie diets, Ugrankar used a combination of high-resolution fluorescence confocal microscopy and thin-section transmission electron microscopy to provide a three-dimensional view of adipocytes and their lipid droplets inside.

She observed two distinct sizes of lipid droplets and saw that only the small ones clustered at the cell surface membrane. The adipocytes contorted their membrane inward to grab these small droplets and package them into readily exportable energy bundles.

Ugrankar saw that during times of plenty, a protein machine could fill these small membrane-wrapped fat droplets with lots of triacylglycerol, a high-energy, durable form of fat storage. Their ready access at the surface of the adipocyte allows the fly to balance lipid storage locally with energy release into its blood in times of famine.

Ugrankar’s adeptness at the microscope resulted in this beautiful photo, which was earlier featured in the American Society for Cell Biology’s Green Fluorescent Protein Image and Video Contest. But her work and that of many others help to open a vital window into nutrition science and many critical mechanistic questions about the causes of obesity, insulin resistance, hyperglycemia, and even reduced lifespan.

Such basic research will provide the basis for better therapies to correct these nutrition-related health problems. But the value of basic science must not be forgotten—some of the most important leads could come from a tiny insect in its larval state that shares many aspects of mammalian metabolism.


[1] Drosophila Snazarus regulates a lipid droplet population at plasma membrane-droplet contacts in adipocytes. Ugrankar R, Bowerman J, Hariri H, Chandra M, et al. Dev Cell. 2019 Sep 9;50(5):557-572.e5.


The Interactive Fly (Society for Developmental Biology, Rockville, MD)

Henne Lab (University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

An Inflammatory View of Early Alzheimer’s Disease

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

multicolored section of brain
Credit: Sakar Budhathoki, Mala Ananth, Lorna Role, David Talmage, National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, NIH

Detecting the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in middle-aged people and tracking its progression over time in research studies continue to be challenging. But it is easier to do in shorter-lived mammalian models of AD, especially when paired with cutting-edge imaging tools that look across different regions of the brain. These tools can help basic researchers detect telltale early changes that might point the way to better prevention or treatment strategies in humans.

That’s the case in this technicolor snapshot showing early patterns of inflammation in the brain of a relatively young mouse bred to develop a condition similar to AD. You can see abnormally high levels of inflammation throughout the front part of the brain (orange, green) as well as in its middle part—the septum that divides the brain’s two sides. This level of inflammation suggests that the brain has been injured.

What’s striking is that no inflammation is detectable in parts of the brain rich in cholinergic neurons (pink), a distinct type of nerve cell that helps to control memory, movement, and attention. Though these neurons still remain healthy, researchers would like to know if the inflammation also will destroy them as AD progresses.

This colorful image comes from medical student Sakar Budhathoki, who earlier worked in the NIH labs of Lorna Role and David Talmage, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Budhathoki, teaming with postdoctoral scientist Mala Ananth, used a specially designed wide-field scanner that sweeps across brain tissue to light up fluorescent markers and capture the image. It’s one of the scanning approaches pioneered in the Role and Talmage labs [1,2].

The two NIH labs are exploring possible links between abnormal inflammation and damage to the brain’s cholinergic signaling system. In fact, medications that target cholinergic function remain the first line of treatment for people with AD and other dementias. And yet, researchers still haven’t adequately determined when, why, and how the loss of these cholinergic neurons relates to AD.

It’s a rich area of basic research that offers hope for greater understanding of AD in the future. It’s also the source of some fascinating images like this one, which was part of the 2022 Show Us Your BRAIN! Photo and Video Contest, supported by NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative.


[1] NeuRegenerate: A framework for visualizing neurodegeneration. Boorboor S, Mathew S, Ananth M, Talmage D, Role LW, Kaufman AE. IEEE Trans Vis Comput Graph. 2021;Nov 10;PP.

[2] NeuroConstruct: 3D reconstruction and visualization of neurites in optical microscopy brain images. Ghahremani P, Boorboor S, Mirhosseini P, Gudisagar C, Ananth M, Talmage D, Role LW, Kaufman AE. IEEE Trans Vis Comput Graph. 2022 Dec;28(12):4951-4965.


Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)

Role Lab (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Talmage Lab (NINDS)

The Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo and Video Contest (BRAIN Initiative)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

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