Creative Minds: Interrogating a Master of Disguise

Monica Mugnier

Monica Mugnier

When I volunteered several years ago as a physician in a small hospital in West Africa, one of the most frustrating and frightening diseases I saw was sleeping sickness. Now, an investigator supported by the NIH Common Fund aims to figure out how this disease pathogen manages to evade the human immune system.

Monica Mugnier’s fascination with parasites started in college when she picked up the book Parasite Rex, a riveting, firsthand account of how “sneaky” parasites can be. The next year, while studying abroad in England, Mugnier met a researcher who had studied one of the most devious of parasites—a protozoan, spread by blood-sucking tsetse flies, that causes sleeping sickness in humans and livestock across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Creative Minds: Stretching the Limits of Wearable Devices

Darren Lipomi

Darren Lipomi/ Credit: UC, San Diego

Whether it’s a pedometer dangling from a belt loop or a skin patch to monitor heart rate and hydration levels, wearable and mobile devices have become essential gear for many of today’s fitness minded. But Darren Lipomi, a nanoengineer at the University of California, San Diego, envisions even more impressive things to come for optimizing workouts and bringing greater precision to health care. Lipomi is helping to build a future of “stretchable electronics,” semiconducting devices that will more seamlessly integrate with the contours of our bodies, outside and even inside, to monitor vital signs, muscle activity, metabolic changes, and organ function—to name just a few possibilities.

Lipomi and his colleagues specifically want to create a new class of semiconducting polymer that has the mechanical properties of human skin. This transparent “electronic skin” will have a soft elasticity to conform to shape, sense contact, absorb blunt force, and even self heal when dinged. It will do all of this—and possibly more—while continuously and wirelessly performing its programmed health-monitoring function. To help Lipomi build this future of real-time health monitoring, he has been awarded a 2015 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. This NIH award supports exceptionally creative new investigators who propose highly innovative projects with the potential for unusually high impact.

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Snapshots of Life: Fish Awash in Color

Skin cells from a genetically engineered zebrafish

Credit: Chen-Hui Chen, Duke University

If this image makes you think of a modern art, you’re not alone. But what you’re actually seeing are hundreds of live cells from a tiny bit (0.0003348 square inches) of skin on the tail fin of a genetically engineered adult zebrafish. Zebrafish are normally found in tropical freshwater and are a favorite research model to study vertebrate development and tissue regeneration. The cells have been labeled with a cool, new fluorescent imaging tool called Skinbow. It uniquely color codes cells by getting them to express genes encoding red, green, and blue fluorescent proteins at levels that are randomly determined. The different ratios of these colorful proteins mix to give each cell a distinctive hue when imaged under a microscope. Here, you can see more than 70 detectable Skinbow colors that make individual cells as visually distinct from one another as jellybeans in a jar.

Skinbow is the creation of NIH-supported scientists Chen-Hui Chen and Kenneth Poss at Duke University, Durham, NC, with imaging computational help from collaborators Stefano Di Talia and Alberto Puliafito. As reported recently in the journal Developmental Cell [1], Skinbow’s distinctive spectrum of color occurs primarily in the outermost part of the skin in a layer of non-dividing epithelial cells. Using Skinbow, Poss and colleagues tracked these epithelial cells, individually and as a group, over their entire 2 to 3 week lifespans in the zebrafish. This gave them an unprecedented opportunity to track the cellular dynamics of wound healing or the regeneration of lost tissue over time. While Skinbow only works in zebrafish for now, in theory, it could be adapted to mice and maybe even humans to study skin and possibly other organs.

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LabTV: Curious About the Microbiome

Keisha FindleyWhen people think about the human microbiome—the scientific term for all of the microbes that live in and on our bodies—the focus is often on bacteria. But Keisha Findley, the young researcher featured in today’s LabTV video, is fascinated by a different part of the microbiome: fungi.

While earning her Ph.D. at Duke University, Durham, N.C., Findley zeroed in on Cryptococcus neoformans, a common, single-celled fungus that can lead to life-threatening infections, especially in people with weakened immune systems. Now, as a postdoctoral fellow at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, MD, she is part of an effort to survey all of the fungi, as well as bacteria, that live on healthy human skin. The goal is to get a baseline understanding of these microbial communities and then examine how they differ between healthy people and those with skin conditions such as acne, athlete’s foot, skin ulcers, psoriasis, or eczema.

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Of Microbes, Molecules, and Maps

3D molecular topographical skin maps

Bouslimani et al., PNAS

These glow-in-the-dark images may look like a 60’s rock album cover, but they’re actually a reflection of some way cool science. Here are maps showing the diversity of bacteria (left) and “acquired” molecules (right) on the skin of a healthy man. Blue indicates areas of least diversity; green/yellow, medium; and orange/red, the greatest.

To create these maps, NIH-funded researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and their colleagues swabbed the skin of a male volunteer at roughly 400 spots to sample for bacteria. Then, they swabbed the same spots again to sample for chemicals and other types of molecules, natural or synthetic, that the man’s skin acquired over the course of his daily activities. Examples of such molecules include chemicals in shampoo and grooming products, polymers shed from clothing, and proteins released when skin cells are damaged or die.

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