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environmental factors

Red Blood Cells and Mercury

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Red blood cells after mercury exposure

Credit: Courtney Fleming, Birnur Akkaya, and Umut Gurkan, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland

Mercury is a naturally occurring heavy metal and a well-recognized environmental toxin. When absorbed into the bloodstream at elevated levels, mercury is also extremely harmful to people, causing a range of problems including cognitive impairments, skin rashes, and kidney problems [1].

In this illustration, it’s possible to see in red blood cells the effects of mercury chloride, a toxic chemical compound now sometimes used as a laboratory reagent. Normally, healthy red blood cells have a distinct, doughnut-like shape that helps them squeeze through the tiniest of blood vessels. But these cells are terribly disfigured, with unusual spiky projections, after 24 hours of exposure to low levels of a mercury chloride in solution.

Working Toward Greater Precision in Childhood Cancers

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Pediatric Cancer

Credit: National Cancer Institute, NIH

Each year, more than 15,000 American children and teenagers will be diagnosed with cancer. While great progress has been made in treating many types of childhood cancer, it remains the leading cause of disease-related death among kids who make it past infancy in the United States [1]. One reason for that sobering reality is our relatively limited knowledge about the precise biological mechanisms responsible for childhood cancers—information vital for designing targeted therapies to fight the disease in all its varied forms.

Now, two complementary studies have brought into clearer focus the genomic landscapes of many types of childhood cancer [2, 3]. The studies, which analyzed DNA data representing tumor and normal tissue from more than 2,600 young people with cancer, uncovered thousands of genomic alterations in about 200 different genes that appear to drive childhood cancers. These so-called “driver genes” included many that were different than those found in similar studies of adult cancers, as well as a considerable number of mutations that appear amenable to targeting with precision therapies already available or under development.

Creative Minds: Building the RNA Toolbox

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Caption: Genetically identical mice. The Agouti gene is active in the yellow mouse and inactive in the brown mouse.
Credit: Dana Dolinoy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Randy Jirtle, Duke University, Durham, NC

Step inside the lab of Dana Dolinoy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and you’re sure to hear conversations that include the rather strange word “agouti” (uh-goo-tee). In this context, it’s a name given to a strain of laboratory mice that arose decades ago from a random mutation in the Agouti gene, which is normally expressed only transiently in hair follicles. The mutation causes the gene to be turned on, or expressed, continuously in all cell types, producing mice that are yellow, obese, and unusually prone to developing diabetes and cancer. As it turns out, these mutant mice and the gene they have pointed to are more valuable than ever today because they offer Dolinoy and other researchers an excellent model for studying the rapidly emerging field of epigenomics.

The genome of the mouse, just as for the human, is the complete DNA instruction book; it contains the coding information for building the proteins that carry out a variety of functions in a cell. But modifications to the DNA determine its function, and these are collectively referred to as the epigenome. The epigenome is made up of chemical tags and proteins that can attach to the DNA and direct such actions as turning genes on or off, thereby controlling the production of proteins in particular cells. These tags have different patterns in each cell type, helping to explain, for example, why a kidney and a skin cell can behave so differently when they share the same DNA.

Some types of genes, including Agouti, are particularly vulnerable to epigenomic effects. In fact, Dolinoy has discovered that exposing normal, wild-type (brown) mice to certain chemicals and dietary factors during pregnancy can switch on the Agouti gene in their developing offspring, turning their coats yellow and their health poor. Dolinoy says these experiments raise much larger questions: If researchers discover populations of humans that have been exposed to lifestyle or environmental factors that modify their epigenomes in ways that may possibly contribute to risk for certain diseases, can the modification be passed on to their children and grandchildren (referred to as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, a controversial topic)? If so, how can we develop the high-precision tools needed to better understand and perhaps even reduce such risks? The University of Michigan researcher received a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to undertake that challenge.

Autism Architecture: Unrolling the Genetic Blueprint

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An array of childrenWe know that a combination of genetic and environmental factors influence a child’s risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is a diverse group of developmental brain conditions that disrupt language, communication, and social interaction. Still, there remain a great many unknowns, including the crucial issues of what proportion of ASD risk is due to genes and what sorts of genes are involved. Answering such questions may hold the key to expanding our understanding of the disorder—and thereby to devising better ways to help the millions of Americans whose lives are touched by ASD [1].

Last year, I shared how NIH-funded researchers had identified rare, spontaneous genetic mutations that appear to play a role in causing ASD. Now, there’s additional news to report. In the largest study of its kind to date, an international team supported by NIH recently discovered that common, inherited genetic variants, acting in tandem with each other or with rarer variants, can also set the stage for ASD—accounting for nearly half of the risk for what’s called “strictly defined autism,” the full-blown manifestation of the disorder. And, when the effects of both rare and common genetic variants are tallied up, we can now trace about 50 to 60 percent of the risk of strictly defined autism to genetic factors.