Creative Minds: The Worm Tissue-ome Teaches Developmental Biology for Us All

C. elegans

Caption: An adult Caenorhabditis elegans, 5 days
Credit: Coleen Murphy, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

In the nearly 40 years since Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sydney Brenner proposed using a tiny, transparent soil worm called Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism for biomedical research, C. elegans has become one of the most-studied organisms on the planet. Researchers have determined that C. elegans has exactly 959 cells, 302 of which are neurons. They have sequenced and annotated its genome, developed an impressive array of tools to study its DNA, and characterized the development of many of its tissues.

But what researchers still don’t know is exactly how all of these parts work together to coordinate this little worm’s response to changes in nutrition, environment, health status, and even the aging process. To learn more, 2015 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award winner Coleen Murphy of Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, has set out to analyze which genes are active, or transcribed, in each of the major tissues of adult C. elegans, building the framework for what’s been dubbed the C. elegans “tissue-ome.”

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Creative Minds: Do Celebrity Endorsements Influence Teens’ Health?

Marie Bragg

Marie Bragg

Marie Bragg is a first-generation American, raised by a mother who immigrated to Florida from Trinidad. She watched her uncle in Florida cope effectively with type 2 diabetes, taking prescription drugs and following doctor-recommended dietary changes. But several of her Trinidadian relatives also had type 2 diabetes, and often sought to manage their diabetes by alternative means—through home remedies and spiritual practices.

This situation prompted Bragg to develop, at an early age, a strong interest in how approaches to health care may differ between cultures. But that wasn’t Bragg’s only interest—her other love was sports, having played on a high school soccer team that earned two state championships in Florida. That made her keenly aware of the sway that celebrity athletes, such as Michael Jordan and Serena Williams, could have on the public, particularly on young people. Today, Bragg combines both of her childhood interests—the influence of celebrities and the power of cultural narratives—in research that she is conducting as an Assistant Professor of Population Health at New York University Langone Medical Center and as a 2015 recipient of an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award.

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Feed a Virus, Starve a Bacterium?

Woman eating hot soup in bed

Thinkstock/Stockbyte

Yes, the season of colds and flu is coming. You’ve probably heard the old saying “feed a cold and starve a fever.” But is that sound advice? According to new evidence from mouse studies, there really may be a scientific basis for “feeding” diseases like colds and flu that are caused by viruses, as well as for “starving” certain fever-inducing conditions caused by bacteria.

In the latest work, an NIH-funded research team found that providing nutrition to mice infected with the influenza virus significantly improved their survival. In contrast, the exact opposite proved true in mice infected with Listeria, a fever-inducing bacterium. When researchers forced Listeria-infected mice to consume even a small amount of food, they all died.

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Snapshots of Life: Arabidopsis Art

Arabidopsis

Credit: Nathanaël Prunet, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena

Modern sculptors might want to take a few notes from Mother Nature. The striking, stone-like forms that you see above are a micrograph of flower buds from the mustard plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which serves as an important model organism in biomedical research. In the center are the shoot apical meristems, consisting of undifferentiated stem cells (gray) that give rise to the flowers. Around the edge are buds that are several hours older, in which the flowers have just begun to form off of the shoot apical meristems. And, to the bottom left, are four structures that are the early sepals that will surround the fully formed flower that will bloom in a few weeks. The colored circles indicate areas of gene activity involved in determining the gender of the resulting flower, with masculinizing genes marked in green and feminizing in red.

This image, a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2015 BioArt competition, is the creation of postdoctoral student Nathanaёl Prunet, now in the NIH-supported lab of Elliot Meyerowitz at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA. Using scanning electron microscopy, Prunet snapped multiple 2D photographs of Arabidopsis buds at different tissue depths and computationally combined them to produce this 3D image.

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Creative Minds: Considering the Social Determinants of Health

Sanjay Basu

Sanjay Basu

When Sanjay Basu was growing up in Arizona in the 1980s, his mother contracted a devastating lung infection known as valley fever. Caused by a fungus (called Coccidioides) common in the southwest United States, the condition often affects construction or agricultural workers who inhale the fungal spores while working the soil. Basu’s mother didn’t work in agriculture or construction, but the family did happen to live near a construction site. She spent about nine years in and out of intensive care units battling her illness. She survived, but still has difficulty breathing.

This wrenching experience gave Basu a first-hand appreciation for the social determinants of health—the conditions in which people live and the myriad internal and external forces that dynamically shape them. Now an assistant professor at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, Basu has dedicated his career to studying the social determinants of health disparities, health differences that adversely affect disadvantaged populations. He recently received an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to examine U.S. social assistance programs and their effects on a range of health outcomes over the last 40-plus years. He’ll consider eight federal and state programs—including income, housing, and food assistance programs—that reach more than 1 in 3 Americans.

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