Creative Minds: Reprogramming the Brain

Cells of a mouse retina

Caption: Neuronal circuits in the mouse retina. Cone photoreceptors (red) enable color vision; bipolar neurons (magenta) relay information further along the circuit; and a subtype of bipolar neuron (green) helps process signals sensed by other photoreceptors in dim light.
Credit: Brian Liu and Melanie Samuel, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.

When most people think of reprogramming something, they probably think of writing code for a computer or typing commands into their smartphone. Melanie Samuel thinks of brain circuits, the networks of interconnected neurons that allow different parts of the brain to work together in processing information.

Samuel, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, wants to learn to reprogram the connections, or synapses, of brain circuits that function less well in aging and disease and limit our memory and ability to learn. She has received a 2016 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to decipher the molecular cues that encourage the repair of damaged synapses or enable neurons to form new connections with other neurons. Because extensive synapse loss is central to most degenerative brain diseases, Samuel’s reprogramming efforts could help point the way to preventing or correcting wiring defects before they advance to serious and potentially irreversible cognitive problems.

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Tumor Scanner Promises Fast 3D Imaging of Biopsies

UW light sheet microscope team

Caption: University of Washington team that developed new light-sheet microscope (center) includes (l-r) Jonathan Liu, Adam Glaser, Larry True, Nicholas Reder, and Ye Chen.
Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

After surgically removing a tumor from a cancer patient, doctors like to send off some of the tissue for evaluation by a pathologist to get a better idea of whether the margins are cancer free and to guide further treatment decisions. But for technical reasons, completing the pathology report can take days, much to the frustration of patients and their families. Sometimes the results even require an additional surgical procedure.

Now, NIH-funded researchers have developed a groundbreaking new microscope to help perform the pathology in minutes, not days. How’s that possible? The device works like a scanner for tissues, using a thin sheet of light to capture a series of thin cross sections within a tumor specimen without having to section it with a knife, as is done with conventional pathology. The rapidly acquired 2D “optical sections” are processed by a computer that assembles them into a high-resolution 3D image for immediate analysis.

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Got It Down Cold: Cryo-Electron Microscopy Named Method of the Year


Caption: Composite image of beta-galactosidase showing how cryo-EM’s resolution has improved dramatically in recent years. Older images to the left, more recent to the right.
Credit: Veronica Falconieri, Subramaniam Lab, National Cancer Institute

In the quest to find faster, better ways of mapping the structure of proteins and other key biological molecules, a growing number of researchers are turning to an innovative method that pushes the idea of a freeze frame to a whole new level:  cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). The technique, which involves flash-freezing molecules in liquid nitrogen and bombarding them with electrons to capture their images with a special camera, has advanced dramatically since its inception thanks to the efforts of many creative minds. In fact, cryo-EM has improved so much that its mapping performance now rivals that of X-ray crystallography [1], the long-time workhorse of drug developers and structural biologists.

To get an idea of just how far cryo-EM has come over the last decade, take a look at the composite image above, which shows a bacterial enzyme (beta-galactosidase) bound to a drug-like molecule (phenylethyl beta-D-thiogalactopyranoside). To the left, you see a blob-like area generated by cryo-EM methods that would have been considered state-of-the-art just a few years ago. To the right, there’s an exquisitely detailed structure, which was produced at more than 10-times greater resolution using the latest advances in cryo-EM. In fact, today’s cryo-EM is so powerful that researchers can almost make out individual atoms! Very impressive, and just one of the many reasons why the journal Nature Methods recently named cryo-EM its “Method of the Year” for 2015 [2].

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Snapshots of Life: Allergen Art

Pollen grains

Credit: Edna, Gil, and Amit Cukierman, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia

Seasonal allergy sufferers, allow me to take advantage of the powers of confocal microscopy to introduce you to your tormenter: pollen. Although pollen grains look amazing at this magnification, their effects on many of us are not so wonderful. These spiky spheres can trigger an immune reaction that produces the runny nose, itchy eyes, and other symptoms that make people with pollen allergies miserable from early spring through late fall.

In fact, this image was created by a seasonal allergy sufferer who also happens to be a cell biologist. On a Saturday afternoon about a decade ago, Edna Cukierman of Philadelphia’s Fox Chase Cancer Center had just received a new spinning disc confocal microscope and couldn’t wait to try it out. There was just one catch—she also had to watch her two children. Not to be deterred, this multi-tasking scientist/mom turned the process of calibrating her new microscope into a creative way of entertaining her kids.

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