Biomedical Beat - A monthly digest of research news from NIGMS

November 21, 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: Repairing DNA

Repairing DNA
High res. image (446 KB JPEG)

Like a watch wrapped around a wrist, a special enzyme encircles the DNA double helix. Using a combination of imaging techniques, researchers have captured snapshots of the enzyme, DNA ligase, joining together a broken strand of DNA. Millions of DNA breaks occur during the normal course of a cell's life. Without molecules that can connect the pieces, cells can malfunction, die, or become cancerous. Courtesy of Tom Ellenberger, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

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Ellenberger lab home page (no longer available)
Article abstract (from the October 20, 2006, issue of Molecular Cell)

Gene Research Helps Explain Trauma Response

Trauma is the leading cause of death for Americans 40 and under. Although prompt emergency medical care spares many lives, some people suffer serious complications or die because their immune system goes unchecked, causing life-threatening organ damage. On the hunt for molecular culprits, immunologist Carol Miller-Graziano of the University of Rochester Medical Center focused on T cells, central players in the immune system response. She used an automated approach that could map the activity of all T-cell genes simultaneously. She found 338 that behaved very differently in trauma patients whose organs were failing. More research on these differences could help predict a patient's chances for recovery and ultimately could prevent post-trauma organ damage.

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Miller-Graziano lab home page
Article abstract (from the October 17, 2006, issue of PNAS)

Shipping Cargo in Neurons

The Atlantic squid Loligo pealei. Courtesy of Russell Jacobs and Elaine Bearer
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Caption: The Atlantic squid Loligo pealei. Courtesy of Russell Jacobs and Elaine Bearer

A protein abbreviated APP tops the list of suspected causes of Alzheimer's disease, but scientists know little about the protein's normal role. While conducting research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Brown University Medical School pathologist Elaine Bearer discovered that a snippet of APP acts like a ZIP code inside the nerve cells of squid. The snippet directs cargo like proteins and RNA from a nerve cell's body to the tips of its spindly extremities, where the molecules can be released. This process is crucial to nerve cell function and survival. Because the protein snippet is nearly identical in squid and humans, the discovery could advance studies of nerve cell function and possible therapies for neurodegenerative diseases.

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Bearer lab home page
Bearer profile (from Findings)
Article abstract (from the October 31, 2006, issue of PNAS)

Thwarting a Smallpox Attack

The current U.S. policy governing a national response to a smallpox bioterrorist attack is adequate, according to a study led by Ira Longini, a biostatistician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Longini and his team used information on how the virus spreads and how members of a community interact to model the effects of various intervention strategies on a U.S attack. The computer model supported the current policy of surveillance and containment-isolating infected individuals and vaccinating their close contacts-even in the event of a large-scale attack involving the most fatal forms of the virus. Longini is part of the NIGMS-sponsored Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS) program, which uses computational models to help prepare the nation for infectious diseases outbreaks.

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Longini Home page (no longer available)
MIDAS home page
Article abstract (from the August 7, 2006, issue of the International Journal of Infectious Diseases)

PSI: Proteins for All

To date, the PSI has determined more than 1,700 protein structures. Courtesy of the Protein Data Bank.

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To date, the PSI has determined more than 1,700 protein structures. Courtesy of the Protein Data Bank.

In the cascade of cellular activities, proteins play a central role. But a misstep in the production of these molecules can lead to disease. Scientists involved in the NIGMS Protein Structure Initiative (PSI) have been developing tools to determine protein shapes—information key to understanding protein function—more quickly and easily. Many of these tools are available to the greater scientific community. For example, a new materials repository housed at the Harvard Institute of Proteomics will store and ship tens of thousands of protein clones generated by the PSI centers.

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PSI home page
Harvard Institute of Proteomics home page