Biomedical Beat - A monthly digest of research news from NIGMS

May 16, 2006

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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: Genetic Imprinting

Courtesy of Robert Fischer, a plant and microbial biologist at University of California, Berkeley.
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This delicate, birdlike projection is an immature seed of the Arabidopsis plant. The part in blue shows the cell that gives rise to the endosperm, the tissue that nourishes the embryo. The cell is expressing only the maternal copy of a gene called MEDEA. This phenomenon, in which the activity of a gene can depend on the parent that contributed it, is called genetic imprinting. In Arabidopsis, the maternal copy of MEDEA makes a protein that keeps the paternal copy silent and reduces the size of the endosperm. In flowering plants and mammals, this sort of genetic imprinting is thought to be a way for the mother to protect herself by limiting the resources she gives to any one embryo. Courtesy of Robert Fischer, a plant and microbial biologist at University of California, Berkeley.

Fischer lab home page (no longer available)

Trauma Treatment: Setting New Standards

In treating trauma or burn patients, physicians in the emergency room typically follow widely accepted guidelines. But subsequent treatment in the intensive care unit or operating room is less well established and can vary significantly. A team led by trauma surgeon Ronald Maier of Harborview Medical Center in Seattle is developing a series of standard procedures for the care of severely injured patients. In addition to improving care, standardizing treatment will allow the scientists to better discern the genetic factors that correlate with particular outcomes and should ultimately help them use the information to develop personalized treatments.

Full story
Maier home page

Super Sticky Situation

Caulobacter crescentus. Courtesy of Brun
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Caption: Caulobacter crescentus. Courtesy of Brun

Yves Brun, a microbiologist and geneticist at Indiana University, has gotten himself into a sticky situation—he and his colleagues have identified the world’s strongest natural adhesive. A common water bacterium called Caulobacter crescentus secretes this glue so it can fix itself to rocks and the insides of water pipes. By studying the properties of C. crescentus, the scientists found that chains of sugars seem to be the source of the steadfastness and that the hold can be three times stronger than commercial super glue. All this, plus its water-resistant and non-toxic nature, could make the bacterial product an attractive new surgical adhesive. This work points to the valuable—and often surprising—outcomes that emerge from basic research.

Full story
Brun home page
Article abstract (from the April 11, 2006, issue of PNAS)

Pharmacology Tops Anatomy in Treating Cancer

Almost all forms of cancer are named and treated based on the tissue in which they originated. But that’s probably not the most effective approach, according to research by pharmacologist Howard McLeod of the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine. Cancer cells can render first-line drugs ineffective by destroying them or pumping them out before they’ve had a chance to work. McLeod’s studies indicate that, for successful treatment, a tumor’s reaction to medications is more relevant than its birthplace.

McLeod’s work is an example of research supported by the NIH Pharmacogenetics Research Network, a nationwide collaboration of scientists focused on understanding how genes affect the way a person responds to medicines. The long-term goal of the network is to make information available to doctors that will ensure the right dose of the right medicine the first time for everyone.

Full story
McLeod home page
PGRN home page
Article abstract (from the February 28, 2006 online issue of the Journal of Pathology) (Link no longer available)

Nature’s Tricks Could Improve Medicines

Caption: Genome of the plant pathogen Pseudomonas syringae. Courtesy of Alan Collmer, a plant pathologist at Cornell University.

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Caption: Genome of the plant pathogen Pseudomonas syringae. Courtesy of Alan Collmer, a plant pathologist at Cornell University.

Many organisms like bacteria, insects, reptiles, and amphibians self-medicate with substances they manufacture. Scientists want to learn some of these tricks so they can copy nature’s secrets to more efficiently produce human drugs. Recently, chemists Catherine Drennan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Christopher Walsh of Harvard Medical School discovered that the plant pathogen Pseudomonas syringae uses a very simple method to make its chemical concoctions. The scientists captured the three-dimensional structure of a key enzyme and learned that an amino acid in the enzyme’s active site was shorter than usual, freeing up enough space for a chloride ion to slip in and trigger the reaction.

Full story
Drennan lab home page
Article abstract (from the March 16, 2006 issue of Nature)