Christina is a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology. She earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
We still talk about guinea pigs as experimental subjects yet you'd have a hard time finding one in a modern research laboratory. Guinea pigs were first used in biomedical research in the late 19th century, playing a major role in establishing the germ theory, identifying pathogens, linking vitamin C insufficiency to scurvy, and modeling diabetes and pre-eclampsia. The guinea pig metaphor lives on but today, mice, rats, fruit flies, nematodes, and zebrafish dominate as model animals. But there are many new model animals on the research horizon, chosen because they can model human diseases in novel ways or because they have special abilities that humans lack. In this series, we will explore a few of the nontraditional animal models, and their potential in the lab.
Nearly every cell in your body is releasing microscopic bubbles that contain tiny messages to other cells in your body. The bubbles are so small that if a cell were the size of the Empire State Building, the vesicles would be the size of teenage couriers, running to deliver messages to neighboring buildings in the organism of Manhattan. But now there's evidence that at least in worms, these little bubbles, called extracellular vesicles (ECVs), can leave the cells of the Manhattan Island worm to deliver messages to cells in the Brooklyn worm. The first of these external messages to be discovered turns out to be a love note.
It was an all-or-nothing moment. Titia de Lange, a newly hired assistant professor at the Rockefeller University, had months of prep work and her entire grant's supply budget in hand as she waited to cross York Avenue, the busy north-south street on Manhattan's Upper East Side that separates Rockefeller from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where a collaborator was waiting to sequence de Lange's protein distillate. "We walked with all the protein we had from 1,500 liters of HeLa cells," de Lange recalled. "If we had tripped it would have been a problem. "It was a potentially self-destructive experiment, but it worked."
A yogurt producer with concerns, a puzzling aspect of bacterial genomes, a discussion over coffee, and a new MIT faculty member so youthful that he was mistaken for a freshman—these are a few links in the chain of discovery that led to CRISPR, today's hottest genetic rewriting technology. It stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, and CRISPRs are changing biological research by making it easier than ever to edit genomes, opening whole fields to new possibilities in experiments and likely providing new treatments for complex diseases.
For those who think scientific discoveries pop up overnight, consider Tom Rapoport's tale of the holiday carp and how it led him to study the translocation channel through which proteins, such as insulin, are secreted. Rapoport's latest discovery starts with a fish 30 years ago and ends, or at least continues, this month with a publication in Nature of the first x-ray structure of an open protein translocation channel.
"Why is my bench sticky?" one card asks. If the answers, "Rotation students" or "Because the Bible says so," strike you as particularly funny, then you need to download and print out a new open-source card game called Cards Against Science. It was created by a physicist for scientists including non-physicists (like cell biologists), although with its references to spermatozoa and Drosophila, it wouldn't hurt to know your pipette from your elbow.
It may sound like a spam subject line but you can change the trajectory of your career in a few short weeks. If it sounds too good to be true, consider one of the numerous short-term courses, internships, and fellowships in outside-the-lab science careers that can give you a look at a whole new career track.
In the "big data" realms of genome sequencing, there are many surprises left to be untangled. A new bioinformatics paper published January 10 in Nature Chemical Biology unwinds one—a new class of RNA-catalysts.
Modeling membranes, nano-magnets to control cell activity, and a gain-of-function protein behind a severe progressive brainstem disorder were hot topics at the 2013 ASCB Annual Meeting in New Orleans, December 14-18. This year, ASCB continued the tradition of weaving two scientific threads—biophysics and medicine—through many of the 254 science presentations.
Contending that no enemy could have devised a system so effective at destroying U.S. science and technology competitiveness as the policies pursued by Congress and state legislatures in "disinvesting" in education and innovation, a former president of Lockheed Martin and longtime presidential science advisor Norman Augustine warned that the U.S. economic engine was in decline in a recent TEDx talk.