Biomedical Beat - A monthly digest of research news from NIGMS

IN THIS ISSUE . . .
December 20, 2005

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The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), one of the National Institutes of Health, supports all research featured in this digest. Although only the lead scientists are named, coworkers and other collaborators also contributed to the findings. To read additional news items, visit NIGMS News.

Cool Image: Snow World

The virtual land of Snow World can help reduce pain.
High res. image (12.3 MB TIFF)
Glide across an icy canyon, where you see smiling snowmen and waddling penguins. Toss a snowball, hear it smash against an igloo, and then watch it explode in bright colors. Psychologists David Patterson and Hunter Hoffman of the University of Washington in Seattle developed this virtual “Snow World” to test whether immersing someone in a pretend reality could ease pain during burn treatment and other medical procedures. They found that people fully engaged in the virtual reality experience reported 60 percent less pain. The technology offers a promising new way to manage pain.

Full story (from Findings)
Patterson home page
Hoffman home page

New Microscope Tracks a Protein in Real Time

RNA polymerase (green) and one end of a DNA molecule (blue) are attached to clear beads pinned down in two optical traps. As RNA polymerase moves along the DNA, it creates an RNA copy of a gene, shown as a red strand. Courtesy of Steven Block.
High res. image (149 KB JPEG)

Caption: RNA polymerase (green) and one end of a DNA molecule (blue) are attached to clear beads pinned down in two optical traps. As RNA polymerase moves along the DNA, it creates an RNA copy of a gene, shown as a red strand. Courtesy of Steven Block.

One of the great technological challenges in biology has been viewing and following molecules in action. For the better part of a decade, biophysicist Steven Block of Stanford University has worked to develop a microscope sensitive enough to track proteins in great structural detail and in real time. Now, his lab has created the first device that can do just that. The instrument uses infrared light to trap molecules and lasers to monitor their movements. The high-resolution technique helped Block and his team answer some longstanding questions about the enzyme that copies genes from DNA in a process essential to life. Among other findings, the group learned exactly how the enzyme, called RNA polymerase, climbs the DNA ladder.

Full story
Block lab home page
Article abstract (from the November 24, 2005 issue of Nature)

Timekeeping: How Fruit Flies Reset Cellular Clocks

Fruit flies are an excellent model system for investigating circadian rhythms. Courtesy of Jay Hirsh.
High res. image (516 KB JPEG)

Caption: Fruit flies are an excellent model system for investigating circadian rhythms. Courtesy of Jay Hirsh.

Did you know that some drugs work best at certain times of the day or that heart attacks usually strike in the morning? Our bodies control daily, or circadian, rhythms through a tiny sliver of brain tissue that communicates with clusters of cells spread throughout the body. Researchers know that nearly all living things keep time using similar clock networks. Fruit flies, for example, have both a.m. and p.m. cellular clocks. To figure out what makes these clocks tick, so to speak, biologist Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University made them run faster or slower. He discovered that the flies’ morning clock sets the rules, acting as the waking alarm each day and resetting the evening clock. The findings may shed light on how natural biological rhythms are controlled in people.

"We’ve known for years that people, flies, and other species have lots of different circadian clocks. But figuring out what each clock does is hard because the clocks are normally synchronized with each other. Dr. Rosbash used clever genetic tricks to make the two major clocks in the fly brain run independently, which enabled him to figure out which one was the master clock."

—Laurie Tompkins, NIGMS program director in the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology

Full story
Rosbash lab
Article abstract (from the November 10, 2005, issue of Nature)

Viral Infections Could Spur Cancer

Cancer cells often have the wrong number or structure of chromosomes, usually arising from genetic mutations that have disrupted cell division in some way. But viruses can lead to the same types of chromosomal abnormalities by causing cells to fuse. Yuri Lazebnik, biologist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, has uncovered evidence for a link between viral infection, cell fusion, and cancer. When he fused laboratory-grown human cells with a virus, he found that some of the hybrid cells had the potential to rapidly grow and increase in number—but only if one of the fusion partners had a genetic mutation that predisposed it to cancer. These findings suggest that viral infection can contribute to the runaway cell division that typifies cancer and raises concerns about the use of viruses for clinical applications, such as gene therapy.


Full story
Lazebnik home page (no longer available)
Article abstract (from the November 2005 issue of the Journal of Cell Biology)

Adventures Inside the Cell

Inside the Cell Booklet Cover Image

Caption: Cover, Inside the Cell

At this very moment, electricity zaps in your brain, voracious killers course through your veins, and corrosive chemicals sizzle in bubbles from your head to your toes. Learn how and why in the newly revised booklet Inside the Cell, a free NIGMS publication about cell biology that vividly describes the structures and functions shared by virtually all cells. Through easy-to-understand writing and illustrative examples, the booklet explains how cells specialize, reproduce, age, and die. It also features cutting-edge cell biology research and techniques.

Order or view Inside the Cell