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A Global Look at Cancer Genomes

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Cancer Genomics

Cancer is a disease of the genome. It can be driven by many different types of DNA misspellings and rearrangements, which can cause cells to grow uncontrollably. While the first oncogenes with the potential to cause cancer were discovered more than 35 years ago, it’s been a long slog to catalog the universe of these potential DNA contributors to malignancy, let alone explore how they might inform diagnosis and treatment. So, I’m thrilled that an international team has completed the most comprehensive study to date of the entire genomes—the complete sets of DNA—of 38 different types of cancer.

Among the team’s most important discoveries is that the vast majority of tumors—about 95 percent—contained at least one identifiable spelling change in their genomes that appeared to drive the cancer [1]. That’s significantly higher than the level of “driver mutations” found in past studies that analyzed only a tumor’s exome, the small fraction of the genome that codes for proteins. Because many cancer drugs are designed to target specific proteins affected by driver mutations, the new findings indicate it may be worthwhile, perhaps even life-saving in many cases, to sequence the entire tumor genomes of a great many more people with cancer.

The latest findings, detailed in an impressive collection of 23 papers published in Nature and its affiliated journals, come from the international Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes (PCAWG) Consortium. Also known as the Pan-Cancer Project for short, it builds on earlier efforts to characterize the genomes of many cancer types, including NIH’s The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) and the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC).

In these latest studies, a team including more than 1,300 researchers from around the world analyzed the complete genomes of more than 2,600 cancer samples. Those samples included tumors of the brain, skin, esophagus, liver, and more, along with matched healthy cells taken from the same individuals.

In each of the resulting new studies, teams of researchers dug deep into various aspects of the cancer DNA findings to make a series of important inferences and discoveries. Here are a few intriguing highlights:

• The average cancer genome was found to contain not just one driver mutation, but four or five.

• About 13 percent of those driver mutations were found in so-called non-coding DNA, portions of the genome that don’t code for proteins [2].

• The mutations arose within about 100 different molecular processes, as indicated by their unique patterns or “mutational signatures.” [3,4].

• Some of those signatures are associated with known cancer causes, including aberrant DNA repair and exposure to known carcinogens, such as tobacco smoke or UV light. Interestingly, many others are as-yet unexplained, suggesting there’s more to learn with potentially important implications for cancer prevention and drug development.

• A comprehensive analysis of 47 million genetic changes pieced together the chronology of cancer-causing mutations. This work revealed that many driver mutations occur years, if not decades, prior to a cancer’s diagnosis, a discovery with potentially important implications for early cancer detection [5].

The findings represent a big step toward cataloging all the major cancer-causing mutations with important implications for the future of precision cancer care. And yet, the fact that the drivers in 5 percent of cancers continue to remain mysterious (though they do have RNA abnormalities) comes as a reminder that there’s still a lot more work to do. The challenging next steps include connecting the cancer genome data to treatments and building meaningful predictors of patient outcomes.

To help in these endeavors, the Pan-Cancer Project has made all of its data and analytic tools available to the research community. As researchers at NIH and around the world continue to detail the diverse genetic drivers of cancer and the molecular processes that contribute to them, there is hope that these findings and others will ultimately vanquish, or least rein in, this Emperor of All Maladies.


[1] Pan-Cancer analysis of whole genomes. ICGC/TCGA Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes Consortium. Nature. 2020 Feb;578(7793):82-93.

[2] Analyses of non-coding somatic drivers in 2,658 cancer whole genomes. Rheinbay E et al; PCAWG Consortium. Nature. 2020 Feb;578(7793):102-111.

[3] The repertoire of mutational signatures in human cancer. Alexandrov LB et al; PCAWG Consortium. Nature. 2020 Feb;578(7793):94-101.

[4] Patterns of somatic structural variation in human cancer genomes. Li Y et al; PCAWG Consortium. Nature. 2020 Feb;578(7793):112-121.

[5] The evolutionary history of 2,658 cancers. Gerstung M, Jolly C, Leshchiner I, Dentro SC et al; PCAWG Consortium. Nature. 2020 Feb;578(7793):122-128.


The Genetics of Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Precision Medicine in Cancer Treatment (NCI)

ICGC/TCGA Pan-Cancer Project

The Cancer Genome Atlas Program (NIH)

NCI and the Precision Medicine Initiative (NCI)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute, National Human Genome Research Institute

The Perfect Cytoskeletal Storm

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Ever thought about giving cell biology a whirl? If so, I suggest you sit down and take a look at this full-blown cytoskeletal “storm,” which provides a spectacular dynamic view of the choreography of life.

Before a cell divides, it undergoes a process called mitosis that copies its chromosomes and produces two identical nuclei. As part of this process, microtubules, which are structural proteins that help make up the cell’s cytoskeleton, reorganize the newly copied chromosomes into a dense, football-shaped spindle. The position of this mitotic spindle tells the cell where to divide, allowing each daughter cell to contain its own identical set of DNA.

To gain a more detailed view of microtubules in action, researchers designed an experimental system that utilizes an extract of cells from the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). As the video begins, a star-like array of microtubules (red) radiate outward in an apparent effort to prepare for cell division. In this configuration, the microtubules continually adjust their lengths with the help of the protein EB-1 (green) at their tips. As the microtubules grow and bump into the walls of a lab-generated, jelly-textured enclosure (dark outline), they buckle—and the whole array then whirls around the center.

Abdullah Bashar Sami, a Ph.D. student in the NIH-supported lab of Jesse “Jay” Gatlin, University of Wyoming, Laramie, shot this movie as a part his basic research to explore the still poorly understood physical forces generated by microtubules. The movie won first place in the 2019 Green Fluorescent Protein Image and Video Contest sponsored by the American Society for Cell Biology. The contest honors the 25th anniversary of the discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP), which transformed cell biology and earned the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for three scientists who had been supported by NIH.

Like many movies, the setting was key to this video’s success. The video was shot inside a microfluidic chamber, designed in the Gatlin lab, to study the physics of microtubule assembly just before cells divide. The tiny chamber holds a liquid droplet filled with the cell extract.

When the liquid is exposed to an ultra-thin beam of light, it forms a jelly-textured wall, which traps the molecular contents inside [1]. Then, using time-lapse microscopy, the researchers watch the mechanical behavior of GFP-labeled microtubules [2] to see how they work to position the mitotic spindle. To do this, microtubules act like shapeshifters—scaling to adjust to differences in cell size and geometry.

The Gatlin lab is continuing to use their X. laevis system to ask fundamental questions about microtubule assembly. For many decades, both GFP and this amphibian model have provided cell biologists with important insights into the choreography of life, and, as this work shows, we can expect much more to come!


[1] Microtubule growth rates are sensitive to global and local changes in microtubule plus-end density. Geisterfer ZM, Zhu D, Mitchison T, Oakey J, Gatlin JC. November 20, 2019.

[2] Tau-based fluorescent protein fusions to visualize microtubules. Mooney P, Sulerud T, Pelletier JF, Dilsaver MR, et al. Cytoskeleton (Hoboken). 2017 Jun;74(6):221-232.


Mitosis (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Gatlin Lab (University of Wyoming, Laramie)

Green Fluorescent Protein Image and Video Contest (American Society for Cell Biology, Bethesda, MD)

2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, Sweden)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Battling Malaria at the Atomic Level

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Cryo-EM Image of P. falciparum Protein
Credit: Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York

Tropical medicine has its share of wily microbes. Among the most clever is the mosquito-borne protozoan Plasmodium falciparum, which is the cause of the most common—and most lethal—form of malaria. For decades, doctors have used antimalarial drugs against P. falciparum. But just when malaria appeared to be well on its way to eradication, this parasitic protozoan mutated in ways that has enabled it to resist frontline antimalarial drugs. This resistance is a major reason that malaria, one of the world’s oldest diseases, still claims the lives of about 400,000 people each year [1].

This is a situation with which I have personal experience. Thirty years ago before traveling to Nigeria, I followed directions and took chloroquine to prevent malaria. But the resistance to the drug was already widespread, and I came down with malaria anyway. Fortunately, the parasite that a mosquito delivered to me was sensitive to another drug called Fansidar, which acts through another mechanism. I was pretty sick for a few days, but recovered without lasting consequences.

While new drugs are being developed to thwart P. falciparum, some researchers are busy developing tools to predict what mutations are likely to occur next in the parasite’s genome. And that’s what is so exciting about the image above. It presents the unprecedented, 3D atomic-resolution structure of a protein made by P. falciparum that’s been a major source of its resistance: the chloroquine-resistance transporter protein, or PfCRT.

In this cropped density map, you see part of the protein’s biochemical structure. The colorized area displays the long, winding chain of amino acids within the protein as helices in shades of green, blue and gold. These helices enclose a central cavity essential for the function of the protein, whose electrostatic properties are shown here as negative (red), positive (blue), and neutral (white). All this structural information was captured using cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). The technique involves flash-freezing molecules in liquid nitrogen and bombarding them with electrons to capture their images with a special camera.

This groundbreaking work, published recently in Nature, comes from an NIH-supported multidisciplinary research team, led by David Fidock, Matthias Quick, and Filippo Mancia, Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York [2]. It marks a major feat for structural biology, because PfCRT is on the small side for standard cryo-EM and, as Mancia discovered, the protein is almost featureless.

These two strikes made Mancia and colleagues wonder at first whether they would swing and miss at their attempt to image the protein. With the help of coauthor Anthony Kossiakoff, a researcher at the University of Chicago, the team complexed PfCRT to a bulkier antibody fragment. That doubled the size of their subject, and the fragment helped to draw out PfCRT’s hidden features. One year and a lot of hard work later, they got their homerun.

PfCRT is a transport protein embedded in the surface membrane of what passes for the gut of P. falciparum. Because the gene encoding it is highly mutable, the PfCRT protein modified its structure many years ago, enabling it to pump out and render ineffective several drugs in a major class of antimalarials called 4-aminoquinolines. That includes chloroquine.

Now, with the atomic structure in hand, researchers can map the locations of existing mutations and study how they work. This information will also allow them to model which regions of the protein to be on the lookout for the next adaptive mutations. The hope is this work will help to prolong the effectiveness of today’s antimalarial drugs.

For example, the drug piperaquine, a 4-aminoquinoline agent, is now used in combination with another antimalarial. The combination has proved quite effective. But recent reports show that P. falciparum has acquired resistance to piperaquine, driven by mutations in PfCRT that are spreading rapidly across Southeast Asia [3].

Interestingly, the researchers say they have already pinpointed single mutations that could confer piperaquine resistance to parasites from South America. They’ve also located where new mutations are likely to occur to compromise the drug’s action in Africa, where most malarial infections and deaths occur. So, this atomic structure is already being put to good use.

Researchers also hope that this model will allow drug designers to make structural adjustments to old, less effective malarial drugs and perhaps restore them to their former potency. Perhaps this could even be done by modifying chloroquine, introduced in the 1940s as the first effective antimalarial. It was used worldwide but was largely shelved a few decades later due to resistance—as I experienced three decades ago.

Malaria remains a constant health threat for millions of people living in subtropical areas of the world. Wouldn’t it be great to restore chloroquine to the status of a frontline antimalarial? The drug is inexpensive, taken orally, and safe. Through the power of science, its return is no longer out of the question.


[1] World malaria report 2019. World Health Organization, December 4, 2019

[2] Structure and drug resistance of the Plasmodium falciparum transporter PfCRT. Kim J, Tan YZ, Wicht KJ, Erramilli SK, Dhingra SK, Okombo J, Vendome J, Hagenah LM, Giacometti SI, Warren AL, Nosol K, Roepe PD, Potter CS, Carragher B, Kossiakoff AA, Quick M, Fidock DA, Mancia F. Nature. 2019 Dec;576(7786):315-320.

[3] Determinants of dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine treatment failure in Plasmodium falciparum malaria in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam: a prospective clinical, pharmacological, and genetic study. van der Pluijm RW, Imwong M, Chau NH, Hoa NT, et. al. Lancet Infect Dis. 2019 Sep;19(9):952-961.


Malaria (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Fidock Lab (Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York)

Video: David Fidock on antimalarial drug resistance (BioMedCentral/YouTube)

Kossiakoff Lab (University of Chicago)

Mancia Lab (Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

Matthias Quick (Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Why Flies and Humans Freeze When Startled

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When faced with something unexpected and potentially ominous, like a sudden, loud noise or a threat of danger, humans often freeze before we act. This is colloquially referred to as the “deer in the headlights” phenomenon. The movie of fruit flies that you see above may help explain the ancient origins of the “startle response” and other biomechanical aspects of motion.

In this video, which shows a footrace between two flies (Drosophila melanogaster), there are no winners or losers. Their dash across the screen provides a world-class view of the biomechanics of walking in these tiny, 3 millimeter-long insects that just won’t sit still.

The fly at the top zips along at about 25 millimeters per second, the normal walking speed for Drosophila. As a six-legged hexapod, the fly walks with a “tripod gait,” alternating between its stance phase—right fore (RF), left middle (LM), and right hind (RH) —and its swing phase sequence of left fore (LF), right middle (RM), and left hind (LH).

The slowpoke at the bottom of the video clocks in at a mere 15 millimeters per second. This fly’s more-tentative gait isn’t due to an injury or a natural lack of speed. What is causing the delay is the rapid release of the chemical messenger serotonin into its nervous system, which models a startle response.

You may have already heard about serotonin because of its role in regulating mood and appetite in humans. Now, a team led by Richard S. Mann and Clare Howard, Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York, has discovered that fruit flies naturally release serotonin to turn on neural circuits that downshift and steady the speed of their gait.

As detailed recently in Current Biology [1], serotonin is active under myriad conditions to tell flies to slow things down. For example, serotonin helps flies weather the stress of extreme temperatures, conserve energy during bouts of hunger, and even walk upside down on the ceiling.

But the research team, which was supported by the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, found that serotonin’s most-powerful effect came during an actual startle response, prompted by a sudden, jolting vibration. Scientists suspect the release of serotonin activates motor neurons much like an emergency brake, stiffening and locking up the fly’s leg joints. When the researchers blocked the fly’s release of serotonin, it interrupted their normal startle response.

In years past, such a detailed, high-resolution “action video” of Drosophila, one of the most-popular model organisms in biology, would have been impossible to produce. Fruit flies are tiny and possess extremely high energy.

But a few years ago, the Mann lab developed the approach used in this video to bring the hurried gait of fruit flies into tight focus [2]. Their system combines an optical touch sensor and high-speed video imaging that records the footfalls of all six of a fly’s feet.

Then, using the lab’s unique software program called FlyWalker , the researchers can extract various biomechanical parameters of walking in time and space. These include step length, footprint alignment, and, as the letters in the video show, the natural sequence of a tripod gait.

Drosophila may be a very distant relative of humans. But these ubiquitous insects that sometimes buzz around our fruit bowls contain many fundamental clues into human biology, whether the area of research is genetics, nutrition, biomechanics, or even the underlying biology of the startle response.


[1] Serotonergic Modulation of Walking in Drosophila. Howard CE, Chen CL, Tabachnik T, Hormigo R, Ramdya P, Mann RS. Curr Biol. 2019 Nov 22.

[2] Quantification of gait parameters in freely walking wild type and sensory deprived Drosophila melanogaster. Mendes CS, Bartos I, Akay T, Márka S, Mann RS. Elife. 2013 Jan 8;2:e00231.


Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Mann Lab (Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York)

MouseWalker Colored Feet (YouTube)

NIH Support: National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Largest-Ever Genetic Study of Autism Yields New Insights

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Baby and DNA Strands

Anyone who’s spent time with people affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can tell you that it’s a very complex puzzle. The wide variability seen among individuals with this group of developmental brain disorders, which can disrupt communication, behavior control, and social skills, has also posed a huge challenge for researchers trying to identify underlying genetic and environmental factors. So, it’s no surprise that there’s been considerable interest in the recent findings of the largest-ever genetic study of ASD.

In a landmark study that analyzed the DNA of more than 35,000 people from around the world, the NIH-funded international Autism Sequencing Consortium (ASC) identified variants in 102 genes associated with increased risk of developing ASD, up from 65 identified previously. Of the 102 genes, 60 had not been previously linked to ASD and 53 appeared to be primarily connected to ASD as opposed to other types of intellectual disability or developmental delay. It is expected that this newfound genetic knowledge will serve to improve understanding of the complex biological mechanisms involved in ASD, ultimately paving the way for new approaches to diagnosis and treatment.

The study reported in the journal Cell was led by Joseph Buxbaum, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York; Stephan Sanders, University of California, San Francisco; Kathryn Roeder, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA; and Mark Daly, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA. These researchers and their teams faced what might seem like a rather daunting task.

While common genetic variants collectively are known to contribute substantially to ASD, rare variants have been recognized individually as more major contributors to a person’s risk of developing ASD. The challenge was how to find such rare variants—whether inherited or newly arising.

To do so, the researchers needed to analyze a enormous amount of DNA data. Fortunately, they and their ASC colleagues already had assembled a vast trove of data. Over the last decade, the ASC had collected DNA samples with full consent from thousands of people with and without ASD, including unaffected siblings and parents. All were aggregated with other studies, and, at the time of this investigation, they had gathered 35,584 unique samples. Those included more than 21,000 family-based samples and almost 12,000 samples from people diagnosed with ASD.

In search of rare genetic alterations, they sequenced whole exomes, the approximately 1.5 percent of the genome that codes for proteins. Their search produced a list of 102 ASD-associated genes, including 30 that had never been implicated in any developmental brain disorder previously.

But that was just the beginning. Next, the ASC team dug deeper into this list. The researchers knew from previous work that up to half of people with ASD also have an intellectual disability or developmental delay. Many of the associated genes overlap, meaning they play roles in both outcomes. So, in one set of analyses, the team compared the list to the results of another genetic study of people diagnosed with developmental delays, including problems with learning or gross motor skills such as delayed walking.

The detailed comparison allowed them to discern genes that are more associated with features of ASD, as opposed to those that are more specific to these developmental delays. It turns out that 49 of the 102 autism-associated genes were altered more often in people with developmental delay than in those diagnosed with ASD. The other 53 were altered more often in ASD, suggesting that they may be more closely linked to this condition’s unique features.

Further study also showed that people who carried alterations in genes found predominantly in ASD also had better intellectual function. They also were more likely to have learned to walk without a developmental delay.

The 102 new genes fell primarily into one of two categories. Many play a role in the brain’s neural connections. The rest are involved primarily in switching other genes on and off in brain development. Interestingly, they are expressed both in excitatory neurons, which are active in sending signals in the brain, and in inhibitory neurons that squelch such activity. Many of these genes are also commonly expressed in the brain’s cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the brain that is responsible for many complex behaviors.

Overall, these findings underscore that ASD truly does exist on a spectrum. Indeed, there are many molecular paths to this disorder. The ASC researchers continue to collect samples, so we can expect this list of 102 genes will continue to expand in the future.

With these gene discoveries in hand, the researchers will now also turn their attention to unravelling additional details about how these genes function in the brain. The hope is that this growing list of genes will converge on a smaller number of important molecular pathways, pointing the way to new and more precise ways of treating ASD in all its complexity.


[1] Large-scale exome sequencing study implicates both developmental and functional changes in the neurobiology of autism. Satterstrom FK, Kosmicki JA, Wang J, Breen MS, De Rubeis S, An JY, Peng M, Collins R, Grove J, Klei L, Stevens C, Reichert J, Mulhern MS, Artomov M, Gerges S, Sheppard B, Xu X, Bhaduri A, Norman U, Brand H, Schwartz G, Nguyen R, Guerrero EE, Dias C; Autism Sequencing Consortium; iPSYCH-Broad Consortium, Betancur C, Cook EH, Gallagher L, Gill M, Sutcliffe JS, Thurm A, Zwick ME, Børglum AD, State MW, Cicek AE, Talkowski ME, Cutler DJ, Devlin B, Sanders SJ, Roeder K, Daly MJ, Buxbaum JD.Cell. 2020 Jan 23. {Epub ahead of print]


Autism Spectrum Disorder (NIH/National Institute of Mental Health)

Joseph Buxbaum (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York)

Sanders Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

Kathryn Roeder (Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA)

Mark Daly (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA)

Autism Sequencing Consortium (Emory University, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute Mental Health; National Human Genome Research Institute

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