Every person’s genetic blueprint, or genome, is unique because of variations that occasionally occur in our DNA sequences. Most of those are passed on to us from our parents. But not all variations are inherited—each of us carries 60 to 100 “new mutations” that happened for the first time in us. Some of those variations can knock out the function of a gene in ways that lead to disease or other serious health problems, particularly in people unlucky enough to have two malfunctioning copies of the same gene. Recently, scientists have begun to identify rare individuals who have loss-of-function variations that actually seem to improve their health—extraordinary discoveries that may help us understand how genes work as well as yield promising new drug targets that may benefit everyone.
In a study published in the journal Nature, a team partially funded by NIH sequenced all 18,000 protein-coding genes in more than 10,500 adults living in Pakistan . After finding that more than 17 percent of the participants had at least one gene completely “knocked out,” researchers could set about analyzing what consequences—good, bad, or neutral—those loss-of-function variations had on their health and well-being.
Caption: Microtubules (blue) in a beating heart muscle cell, or cardiomyocyte. Credit: Lab of Ben Prosser, Ph.D., Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
You might expect that scientists already know everything there is to know about how a healthy heart beats. But researchers have only recently had the tools to observe some of the dynamic inner workings of heart cells as they beat. Now an NIH-funded team has captured video to show that a component of a heart muscle cell called microtubules—long thought to be very rigid—serve an unexpected role as molecular shock absorbers.
As described for the first time recently in the journal Science, the microtubules buckle under the force of each contraction of the muscle cell before springing back to their original length and form. The team also details a biochemical process that allows a cell to fine-tune the level of resistance that the microtubules provide. The findings have important implications for understanding not only the mechanics of a healthy beating heart, but how the abnormal stiffening of heart cells might play a role in various forms of cardiac disease.
Credit: Jessica Ryvlin, Stephanie Lindsey, and Jonathan Butcher, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
What might appear in this picture to be an exotic, green glow worm served up on a collard leaf actually comes from something we all know well: an egg. It’s a 3-day-old chicken embryo that’s been carefully removed from its shell, placed in a special nutrient-rich bath to keep it alive, and then photographed through a customized stereo microscope. In the middle of the image, just above the blood vessels branching upward, you can see the outline of a transparent, developing eye. Directly to the left is the embryonic heart, which at this early stage is just a looped tube not yet with valves or pumping chambers.
Developing chicks are one of the most user-friendly models for studying normal and abnormal heart development. Human and chick hearts have a lot in common structurally, with four chambers and four valves pumping two circulations of blood in parallel. Unlike mammalian embryos tucked away in the womb, researchers have free range to study the chick heart in or out of the egg as it develops from a simple looped tube to a four-chambered organ.
Jonathan Butcher and his NIH-supported research group at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, snapped this photo, a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2015 BioArt competition, to monitor differences in blood flow through the developing chick heart. You can get a sense of these differences by the varying intensities of green fluorescence in the blood vessels. The Butcher lab is interested in understanding how the force of the blood flow triggers the switching on and off of genes responsible for making functional heart valves. Although the four valves aren’t yet visible in this image, they will soon elongate into flap-like structures that open and close to begin regulating the normal flow of blood through the heart.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Josh Maxwell enjoyed romping around outdoors. He was an adventurous kid who liked to catch live frogs and snakes, lug them home, and surprise his parents with the latest creepy find. Maxwell rode his curiosity for nature to a bachelor’s degree in biology from Allegheny College, Meadville, PA. He then went on to earn a Ph.D. in cell and molecular physiology from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
Maxwell, the focus of our latest LabTV video, is now a research scientist in the lab of Michael Davis at Emory University, Atlanta, where he studies pediatric heart failure. Maxwell grows cardiac cells in tissue culture and tries to fix the defects that lie within. What’s driving this important research is that a heart transplant remains the only option to save the lives of many kids born with severe congenital heart problems. In addition to shortages of donated organs, undergoing such a major operation at such a tender age can take a real toll on the children and their families. Maxwell wants to be a part of discovering non-surgical alternatives to regenerate cardiac tissue and one day repair a damaged heart for a lifetime.
Caption: Heart microchamber generated from human iPS cells; cardiomyocytes (red), myofibroblasts (green), cell nuclei (blue) Credit: Zhen Ma, University of California, Berkeley
The adult human heart is about the size of a large fist, divided into four chambers that beat in precise harmony about 100,000 times a day to circulate blood throughout the body. That’s a very dynamic system, and also a very challenging one to study in real-time in the lab. Understanding how the heart forms within developing human embryos is another formidable challenge. So, you can see why researchers are excited by the creation of tiny, 3D heart chambers with the ability to exist (see image above) and even beat (see video below) in a lab dish, or as scientists say “in vitro.”
Credit: Zhen Ma et al., Nature Communications
To achieve this feat, an NIH-funded team from University of California, Berkeley, and Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, San Francisco turned to human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technology. The resulting heart chambers may be miniscule—measuring no more than a couple of hair-widths across—but they hold huge potential for everything from improving understanding of cardiac development to speeding drug toxicity screening.