Creative Minds: A New Mechanism for Epigenetics?

Keith Maggert

Keith Maggert

To learn more about how DNA and inheritance works, Keith Maggert has spent much of his nearly 30 years as a researcher studying what takes place not just within the DNA genome but also the subtle modifications of it. That’s where a stable of enzymes add chemical marks to DNA, turning individual genes on or off without changing their underlying sequence. What’s really intrigued Maggert is these “epigenetic” modifications are maintained through cell division and can even get passed down from parent to child over many generations. Like many researchers, he wants to know how it happens.

Maggert thinks there’s more to the story than scientists have realized. Now an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, he suspects that a prominent subcellular structure in the nucleus called the nucleolus also exerts powerful epigenetic effects. What’s different about the nucleolus, Maggert proposes, is it doesn’t affect genes one by one, a focal point of current epigenetic research. He thinks under some circumstances its epigenetic effects can activate many previously silenced, or “off” genes at once, sending cells and individuals on a different path toward health or disease.

Maggert has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to pursue this potentially new paradigm. If correct, it would transform current thinking in the field and provide an exciting new perspective to track epigenetics and its contributions to a wide range of human diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative disorders.

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Random Mutations Play Major Role in Cancer

Cancer OddsWe humans are wired to search for a causative agent when something bad happens. When someone develops cancer, we seek a reason. Maybe cancer runs in the family. Or perhaps the person smoked, never wore sunscreen, or drank too much alcohol. At some level, those are reasonable assumptions, as genes, lifestyle, and environment do play important roles in cancer. But a new study claims that the reason why many people get cancer is simply just bad luck.

This bad luck occurs during the normal process of cell division that is essential to helping our bodies grow and remain healthy. Every time a cell divides, its 6 billion letters of DNA are copied, with a new copy going to each daughter cell. Typos inevitably occur during this duplication process, and the cell’s DNA proofreading mechanisms usually catch and correct these typos. However, every once in a while, a typo slips through—and if that misspelling happens to occur in certain key areas of the genome, it can drive a cell onto a pathway of uncontrolled growth that leads to cancer. In fact, according to a team of NIH-funded researchers, nearly two-thirds of DNA typos in human cancers arise in this random way.

The latest findings should help to reassure people being treated for many forms of cancer that they likely couldn’t have prevented their illness. They also serve as an important reminder that, in addition to working on better strategies for prevention, cancer researchers must continue to pursue innovative technologies for early detection and treatment.

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Cool Videos: Making Multicolored Waves in Cell Biology

Bacteria are single-cell organisms that reproduce by dividing in half. Proteins within these cells organize themselves in a number of fascinating ways during this process, including a recently discovered mechanism that makes the mesmerizing pattern of waves, or oscillations, you see in this video. Produced when the protein MinE chases the protein MinD from one end of the cell to the other, such oscillations are thought to center the cell’s division machinery so that its two new “daughter cells” will be the same size.

To study these dynamic patterns in greater detail, Anthony Vecchiarelli purified MinD and MinE proteins from the bacterium Escherichia coli. Vecchiarelli, who at the time was a postdoc in Kiyoshi Mizuuchi’s intramural lab at NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), labeled the proteins with fluorescent markers and placed them on a synthetic membrane, where their movements were then visualized by total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy. The proteins self-organized and generated dynamic spirals of waves: MinD (blue, left); MinE (red, right); and both MinD and MinE (purple, center) [1].

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Cool Videos: Fireworks under a Microscope

This Fourth of July, many of you will spread out a blanket and enjoy an evening display of fireworks with their dramatic, colorful bursts. But here’s one pyrotechnic pattern that you’ve probably never seen. In this real-time video, researchers set off some fluorescent fireworks under their microscope lens while making an important basic discovery about how microtubules, the hollow filaments that act as the supportive skeleton of the cell, dynamically assemble during cell division.

The video starts with a few individual microtubule filaments (red) growing linearly at one end (green). Notice the green “comets” that quickly appear, followed by a red trail. Those are new microtubules branching off. This continuous branching is interesting because microtubules were generally thought to grow linearly in animal cells (although branching had been observed a few years earlier in fission yeast and plant cells). The researchers, led by Sabine Petry, now at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, showed for the first time that not only do new microtubules branch during cell division, but they do so very rapidly, going from a few branches to hundreds in a matter of minutes [1].

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Human Folate Receptor Model May Aid Antifolate Drug Design

Model of the human folate receptor and three antifolate drugs used in chemotherapy

Caption: A model of the human folate receptor (top) and three antifolate drugs used in chemotherapy: aminopterin (left), pemetrexed, and methotrexate (right).
Credit: Charles Dann III / Courtesy of Indiana University

Vitamin B9 or folic acid, which is found in dark green leafy vegetables, is essential for cells to grow and divide rapidly—as they do in a growing embryo. This is why women are advised to take folic acid supplements before conception and during pregnancy: inadequate folate raises the risk of brain and spinal cord defects. But while folic acid is key to normal cell growth, rapidly dividing cancer cells also have a tremendous appetite for this vitamin.

Drugs called antifolates have been used for decades in chemotherapy to starve cancer cells of folate, which can help kill the tumor. These drugs have also been used to treat inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. But many of these drugs have nasty side effects because they also enter normal healthy cells, depriving them of this essential compound. Continue reading