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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.

In This Issue... January 17, 2013

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Cover image of Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group's 2013 calendar.

Cool Image: A Year of Scientific Beauty and Insights

Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

A rabbit virus in beach ball red. Protein ribbons curling every which way. A gold nanochip speckled with multi-colored peptides. These are just three of the images featured in the 2013 calendar from the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group (TCBG). More than just pretty pictures, the images reveal new details about the inner workings of biological processes like blood coagulation, viral infection and whole cell behavior. They also showcase TCBG's stellar modeling, visualization and computational abilities. Download and print the free calendar Link to external Web site

Molecular structure and herbs. Credit: Paul Schimmel, The Scripps Research Institute.

Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine Yields Its Secrets

Paul Schimmel and Xiang-Lei Yang • The Scripps Research Institute

Chang San, a Chinese herbal medicine, has been used for thousands of years to treat malaria fevers, yet its mode of action has eluded scientists. A structural study has now revealed clues about how the medicine works: The active compound kills malaria parasites by binding to and blocking the activity of a key enzyme involved in making proteins. In an unusual twist, the scientists discovered that ATP, a molecule needed for the enzyme to function normally, enables the binding. These details of the herbal compound bound to the enzyme and ATP suggests the medicine's structure could be a useful model in designing drugs to treat numerous other diseases. Read more... Link to external Web site

Caption: Molecular structure helps explain how Chinese herbal medicine works. Credit: Paul Schimmel, The Scripps Research Institute. High res. image (JPG, 66KB)
Hsp70 mechanism. Credit: University of Massachusetts.

Chaperones Caught in the Act

Lila Gierasch • University of Massachusetts

Like their human namesakes at a debutante ball, chaperone proteins ensure that their young wards behave correctly and avoid inappropriate interactions. That is, chaperone proteins enable newly minted amino acid chains to fold properly into functional proteins while preventing misfolding or clumping together. Scientists captured the image of a key chaperone, Hsp70, in the midst of this important—and difficult—task. The research promises to provide atomic-level clues about how to regulate the activity of Hsp70, which is excessively high in cancers and insufficiently low in some neurodegenerative diseases. Read more... Link to external Web site

Caption: Hsp70 mechanism of action. Credit: University of Massachusetts. High res. image (JPG, 37KB)
Microscopic image of porcupine quill. Credit: Jeffrey Karp and Woo Kyung Cho, Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Porcupine Quill Structure May Offer Model for Future Medical Devices

Jeffrey Karp • Brigham and Women's Hospital

A defining characteristic of the North American porcupine is the 30,000 quills on its back, which can quickly release into a predator and cause pain and damage when removed. Researchers recently examined natural and synthetic porcupine quills to test how they penetrate tissue. Their study revealed that the tips have backward-facing barbs that slip into the tissue with ease but catch and drag it during removal, thereby creating a strong grip with minimal effort and depth of penetration. The quills' structure may inspire—and serve as a model for developing—improved medical adhesives as well as needles.
Read more... Link to external Web site

This work also was supported by NIH's National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

Caption: Microscopic image of porcupine quill. Credit: Jeffrey Karp and Woo Kyung Cho, Brigham and Women's Hospital. High res. image (JPG, 17KB)
Red blood cells. Credit: Tina Carvalho, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Evolution, Genetics and Environmental Adaptation

Anna Di Rienzo • University of Chicago

Some populations living at high elevations have evolved over time to adapt to low oxygen levels. By analyzing the genomes of the Amhara group in Ethiopia, researchers found that these high-altitude natives have a genetic variant linked to low hemoglobin levels in blood—a trait that makes them less susceptible to chronic mountain sickness. Native highlanders in Tibet have a similar trait, but the researchers determined that the two groups adapted to the same environmental stress through different genetic and physiological mechanisms. This research may shed light on conditions related to low blood oxygen levels, such as asthma, sleep apnea and heart problems. Read more... Link to external Web site

Caption: Some Ethiopians and Tibetans can maintain low hemoglobin levels at high altitudes. Credit: Tina Carvalho, University of Hawaii at Manoa. High res. image (JPG, 53KB)

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For more information about Biomedical Beat, please contact the editor, Emily Carlson, in the NIGMS Office of Communications and Public Liaison at 301-496-7301. The text in this newsletter is not copyrighted, and we encourage its use or reprinting.

This page last reviewed on January 17, 2013