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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.


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lipid-covered water drop

Credit: Valentin Romanov, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Oil and water may not mix, but under the right conditions—like those in the photo above—it can sure produce some interesting science that resembles art. You’re looking at a water droplet suspended in an emulsion of olive oil (black and purple) and lipids, molecules that serve as the building blocks of cell membranes. Each lipid has been tagged with a red fluorescent marker, and what look like red and yellow flames are the markers reacting to a beam of UV light. Their glow shows the lipids sticking to the surface of the water droplet, which will soon engulf the droplet to form a single lipid bilayer, which can later be transformed into a lipid bilayer that closely resembles a cell membrane. Scientists use these bubbles, called liposomes, as artificial cells for a variety of research purposes.

In this case, the purpose is structural biology studies. Valentin Romanov, the graduate student at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, who snapped the image, creates liposomes to study proteins that help cells multiply. By encapsulating and letting the proteins interact with lipids in the artificial cell membrane, Romanov and his colleagues in the NIH-supported labs of Bruce Gale at the University of Utah and Adam Frost at the University of California, San Francisco, can freeze and capture their changing 3D structures at various points in the cell division process with high-resolution imaging techniques. These snapshots will help the researchers to understand in finer detail how the proteins work and perhaps to design drugs to manipulate their functions.


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Optofluidic analysis system

Caption: A rapid Ebola detection system consisting of a microfluidic chip (left) and an optofluidic chip (right), connected by a curved tube (center).
Credit: Joshua Parks, University of California, Santa Cruz

Many lessons were learned during last year’s devastating outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa. A big one is that field clinics operating in remote settings desperately need a simple, rapid, and accurate test that can tell doctors on the spot—with just a drop of blood—whether or not a person has an active Ebola infection.

A number of point-of-care tests are under development, and it’s exciting to see them moving in the right direction to fill this critical need [1]. As a recent example, a paper published in Nature Scientific Reports by a team of NIH-supported researchers and colleagues shows early success in rapid Ebola detection with an automated lab on a chip [2]. The hybrid system, which combines microfluidics for sample preparation with optofluidics for viral detection, identifies Ebola at concentrations that are typically seen in the bloodstream of an infected person. It also distinguishes between Ebola and the related Marburg and Sudan viruses, suggesting it could be used to detect other infectious diseases.


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Credit:  Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California

Just as the computational power of yesterday’s desktop computer has been miniaturized to fit inside your mobile phone, bioengineers have shrunk traditional laboratory instruments to the size of a dime. To assemble a “snap lab” like the one you see above, all scientists have to do is click together some plastic components in much the same way that kids snap together the plastic bricks in their toy building sets.

The snap lab, developed by an NIH-funded team led by Noah Malmstadt at the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering, Los Angeles, is an exciting example of a microfluidic circuit—tiny devices designed  to test just a single drop of blood, saliva, or other fluids. Such devices have the potential to make DNA analysis, microbe detection, and other biomedical tests easier and cheaper to perform.


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