Biomedical Beat - A monthly digest of research news from NIGMS

October 17, 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. To check out other free NIGMS publications, go to the order form.

Cool Image: Neural Development

Neural Development
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Using techniques that took 4 years to design, a team of developmental biologists has shown that certain proteins can direct the subdivision of fruit fly and chicken nervous system tissue into the regions depicted here in blue, green, and red. Molecules called bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) helped form this fruit fly embryo. While scientists knew that BMPs play a major role earlier in embryonic development, they didn't know how the proteins help organize nervous tissue. The findings suggest that BMPs are part of an evolutionarily conserved mechanism for organizing the nervous system. Courtesy of Mieko Mizutani and Ethan Bier of the University of California, San Diego, and Henk Roelink of the University of Washington.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke also supported this work.

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Bier home page
Roelink home page (no longer available)
Article abstract (from the September 2006 issue of PLoS Biology)

Worm Sperm Helps Explain Male Infertility

Fluorescent microscopic photo of worm sperm production: Sperm DNA  (red), Sperm proteins (green). Courtesy of Chu and Meyer.
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Caption: Fluorescent microscopic photo of worm sperm production: sperm DNA (red); sperm proteins (green). Courtesy of Chu and Meyer.

Male infertility accounts for about 30 percent of all cases of reproductive failure in the United States, but the root causes are unknown. In a study supported by an NIGMS Minority Opportunities in Research program, San Francisco State University biologist Diana Chu and her team used roundworms to unravel the mystery. Like human sperm, worm sperm is bundled in protein-rich packages. Working with Barbara Meyer at the University of California, Berkeley, Chu used a powerful microscope to get a closer look at the proteins that associate with worm sperm. After follow-up study, she found several proteins that appear to be key for maintaining healthy sperm in worms. Since humans have nearly the same proteins, the findings may lead to better infertility treatments and birth control approaches.

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Chu lab home page
Article abstract (from the September 7, 2006, issue of Nature)

Harnessing Yeast to Sugarcoat Drug Production

Tinkering with the genes of yeast cells or bacteria has enabled biotechnology companies to mass-produce a number of protein-based medicines including insulin, human growth hormone, and some childhood vaccines. Although this genetic engineering approach works well for drugs that are made solely of protein, it doesn't work well for drugs that are part protein and part sugar. With support from an NIGMS Small Business Innovation Research grant and other sources, the biotechnology company GlycoFi, Inc. has taken a giant step toward solving this problem. Scientists there have sliced out the sugar-making machinery from yeast and genetically replaced it with the human version. This technique allows the researchers to produce protein-based drugs complete with their sugar parts, using a tried-and-true yeast system. The new technique promises to improve and speed the production of countless medicines.

Full story
Article abstract (from the September 8, 2006 issue of Science)

NIGMS Grantees Sweep Up Nobel Prizes

The 2006 Nobel Prizes recognize breakthroughs made by three long-time NIGMS grantees. Andrew Z. Fire, Ph.D., of Stanford University School of Medicine and Craig C. Mello, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical School share the Nobel in physiology or medicine for the discovery of a gene-silencing process called RNA interference. RNAi, which occurs in cells from a wide range of organisms, is a powerful tool for decoding the human genome and holds promise as a medical therapy for human diseases such as cancer and viral infections. Roger D. Kornberg, Ph.D., also of the Stanford University School of Medicine, won the Nobel in chemistry for his seminal studies on transcription, or how DNA is converted into RNA for the purpose of making proteins. When transcription fails to happen, cellular processes cease and the cell subsequently dies. Kornberg used approaches in biochemistry and structural biology to reveal the first picture of how transcription occurs in eukaryotic organisms, such as yeast and humans. To date, NIGMS has supported the research of 62 Nobel laureates.

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Full story (RNAi)
NIGMS Nobel fact sheet

Profiles in Discovery: Sleepy Flies and Fused Cells

Profiles in Discovery: Sleepy Flies and Fused Cells

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Find out what's cooking in the lab of Chiara Cirelli, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who uses fruit flies as a research tool for studying sleep. Read about her discoveries on why we snooze—and her love of cooking—in "Recipe for Sleep," appearing in the September 2006 issue of Findings. In the same issue, read "Hunting a Killer" to find out what Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory scientist and martial arts aficionado Yuri Lazebnik is learning about cell fusion and the role this process might play in the development of certain cancers.

Recipe for Sleep
Hunting a Killer
Cirelli home page
Lazebnik home page (no longer available)
Findings home page