Biomedical Beat - A monthly digest of research news from NIGMS

January 16, 2007

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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 Tube Development

Neural Tube Development. Courtesy of Alexander Schier.
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Proteins in the neural tissues of this zebrafish embryo direct cells to line up and form the neural tube, which will become the spinal cord and brain. Studies of zebrafish embryonic development may help pinpoint the underlying cause of common neural tube defects—such as spina bifida—which occur in about 1 in 1,000 newborn children. Courtesy of Alexander Schier, a molecular biologist at Harvard University.

Schier home page

Speeding Sepsis Diagnosis

Sepsis, commonly called blood poisoning or blood infection, is among the top killers in the United States. This rapidly progressing response to infection spreads through the body, often causing organ failure and death within days. Early detection and treatment can halt the spread of sepsis, but diagnosis requires culturing blood or other body fluids and can take several days. Now, surgeon J. Perren Cobb of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and his research team have quickly and reliably diagnosed sepsis in mice using gene chip technology that analyzes patterns of gene expression. If the test works in humans, the technique could lead to the rapid diagnosis of sepsis, possibly preventing thousands of deaths each year.

Full story
Cobb lab home page
Article abstract (from the November 2006 issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons)

Mapping the Genes of a Malaria Parasite

Malaria clinic in Senegal. Courtesy of Wirth.
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Malaria clinic in Senegal. Courtesy of Wirth.

A team science project involving researchers from the United States and western Africa has produced a detailed genetic map of Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest of the parasites that cause malaria. Harvard geneticists Daniel Hartl and Dyann Wirth (who is also with the Broad Institute of MIT) are working with scientists in Senegal, where malaria is endemic. The researchers collected and analyzed malaria parasite DNA samples from varied geographic locations. They discovered a surprising amount of genetic diversity in Plasmodium falciparum, which may contribute to the parasite's ability to develop resistance to malaria drugs. The research promises to aid global malaria prevention and treatment efforts.

This work was also funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH.

Full story
Wirth lab home page (Harvard)
Article abstract (from the December 10, 2006, online issue of Nature Genetics)

Simulations Show DNA Flexibility

Watch the simulation of bendy DNA. Courtesy of Onufriev.
Watch the simulation of bendy DNA. Courtesy of Onufriev.

While the double helix of DNA appears stiff, new computer simulations show that short sections of the strand can bend, wiggle, and kink. Alexey Onufriev, the physicist and computer scientist at Virginia Tech who developed the simulations, used a cluster of processors from a supercomputer to demonstrate in atomic detail that strands of 147 base pairs, which is the length of vital DNA packages found inside living cells, are considerably more flexible than previously thought. Malleable DNA makes it easier for proteins to bind and unbind from DNA, allowing different cell types to regulate DNA differently. The finding leads to new questions about the steps of DNA bending and the mechanisms behind it.

Full story (no longer available)
Onufriev home page
Article abstract (from the December 2006 issue of the Biophysics Journal)

ATP Helps Immune Cell Find Its Target

A neutrophil-like cell migrating toward chemical signals given off by bacteria or inflamed tissues. Courtesy of Junger.
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A neutrophil-like cell migrating toward chemical signals given off by bacteria or inflamed tissues. Courtesy of Junger.

Immune cells called neutrophils detect and destroy microbial invaders by following chemical signals given off by bacteria and inflamed tissues. But exactly how neutrophils track these chemical trails has been a mystery. New work led by immunologist Wolfgang Junger and pharmacologist Paul Insel, both of the University of California, San Diego, has revealed the identity of a key navigator—ATP, the cell's main energy source. The research shows that chemicals from the infection site trigger neutrophils to release ATP, which then prompts the cells to head toward the site. The team's discoveries could lead to new ways to boost immune functioning and treat inflammatory diseases.

Full story
Junger home page
Insel home page
Article abstract (from the December 15, 2006, issue of Science)