Snapshots of Life: Muscling in on Development

Limb Muscles

Credit: Mary P. Colasanto, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Twice a week, I do an hour of weight training to maintain muscle strength and tone. Millions of Americans do the same, and there’s always a lot of attention paid to those upper arm muscles—the biceps and triceps. Less appreciated is another arm muscle that pumps right along during workouts: the brachialis. This muscle—located under the biceps—helps your elbow flex when you are doing all kinds of things, whether curling a 50-pound barbell or just grabbing a bag of groceries or your luggage out of the car.

Now, scientific studies of the triceps and brachialis are providing important clues about how the body’s 40 different types of limb muscles assume their distinct identities during development [1]. In these images from the NIH-supported lab of Gabrielle Kardon at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, you see the developing forelimb of a healthy mouse strain (top) compared to that of a mutant mouse strain with a stiff, abnormal gait (bottom).

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Creative Minds: Building the RNA Toolbox

Mice

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.

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Of Mice and Men: Study Pinpoints Genes Essential for Life

Many people probably think of mice as unwanted household pests. But over more than a century, mice have proven to be incredibly valuable in medical research. One of many examples is how studies in mice are now helping researchers understand how mammalian genomes work, including the human genome. Scientists have spent decades inactivating, or “knocking out,” individual genes in laboratory mice to learn which tissues or organs are affected when a specific gene is out of order, providing valuable clues about its function.

More than a decade ago, NIH initiated a project called KOMP—the Knockout Mouse Project [1]. The goal was to use homologous recombination (exchange of similar or identical DNA) in embryonic stem cells from a standard mouse strain to knock out all of the mouse protein-coding genes. That work has led to wide availability of such cell lines to investigators with interest in specific genes, saving time and money. But it’s one thing to have a cell line with the gene knocked out, it’s even more interesting (and challenging) to determine the phenotype, or observable characteristics, of each knockout. To speed up that process in a scientifically rigorous and systematic manner, NIH and other research funding agencies teamed to launch an international research consortium to turn those embryonic stem cells into mice, and ultimately to catalogue the functions of the roughly 20,000 genes that mice and humans share. The consortium has just released an analysis of the phenotypes of the first 1,751 new lines of unique “knockout mice” with much more to come in the months ahead. This initial work confirms that about a third of all protein-coding genes are essential for live birth, helping to fill in a major gap in our understanding of the genome.

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Snapshots of Life: Development in Exquisite Detail

Developmental biology

Credit: Shachi Bhatt and Paul Trainor, Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, MO

If you’ve ever tried to take photos of wiggly kids, you know that it usually takes several attempts before you get the perfect shot. It’s often the same for biomedical researchers when taking images with microscopes because there are so many variables—from sample preparation to instrument calibration—to take into account. Still, there are always exceptions where everything comes together just right, and you are looking at one of them! On her first try at using a confocal microscope to image this cross-section of a mouse embryo’s torso, postdoc Shachi Bhatt captured a gem of an image that sheds new light on mammalian development.

Bhatt, who works in the NIH-supported lab of Paul Trainor at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, MO, produced this micrograph as part of a quest to understand the striking parallels seen between the development of the nervous system and the vascular system in mammals. Fluorescent markers were used to label proteins uniquely expressed in each type of tissue: reddish-orange delineates developing nerve cells; gray highlights developing blood vessels; and yellow shows where the nerve cells and blood vessels overlap.

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Snapshots of Life: Stronger Than It Looks

Structure of dental enamel

Credit: Olivier Duverger and Maria I. Morasso, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, NIH

If you went out and asked folks what they’re seeing in this picture, most would probably guess an elegantly woven basket, or a soft, downy feather. But what this scanning electron micrograph actually shows isn’t at all soft: it is the hardest substance in the mammalian body—tooth enamel!

This exquisitely detailed image—a winner of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2015 BioArt competition—was generated by Olivier Duverger and Maria Morasso of NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Before placing a sample of mouse dental enamel under the microscope, they treated it briefly with acid in order to reveal how the tissue’s mineralized rods are interwoven in a manner that gives teeth both strength and flexibility.

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