Fished to the Edge: How DNA Identification Can Help Fight the Illegal Trade of Threatened Shark Species

Whether your first encounter was peering through the thick glass of an aquarium tank or peeking through your fingers in a darkened theater, there is something about sharks that captures our imagination. These fierce, and sometimes fearsome, creatures have existed in our oceans for over 400 million years, and  survived multiple mass extinction events, including the one that killed the dinosaurs. They are not, however, the vicious, vengeful villain that some movies would have us believe. Sharks are apex predators, who play an important role in the world’s ocean ecosystem by regulating the population of prey species below them.  Unfortunately, they are also part of one of the most threatened group of marine fish in the world. Of the more than 400 species of sharks that exist in our oceans today, approximately 15% are considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. Continue reading

Collaboration Brings Researchers to a New Level of Discovery

2018 Steenbock Symposium program graphic. Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison Biochemistry Media Lab

I recently attended the 40th Steenbock Symposium at University of Wisconsin-Madison. This year’s theme was “Epiphanies in and beyond the RNA World”. Twenty-seven researchers from RNA and related fields convened at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery to share “eureka” moments in their careers. It was so inspiring to hear from founding members of the RNA community, including Joan Steitz, Christine Guthrie, John Abelson, and Harry Noller. I noticed a recurring theme throughout the talks: many of these epiphanies resulted from informal meetings (quite often at a bar or social event) between colleagues in different groups, sometimes from different universities. They discussed tough problems and brainstormed about how to solve them, pondered about what their peculiar results could mean biologically, or dreamed, “wouldn’t it be cool if we could  <insert awesome idea here>?” and then came up with a way to do it. It sounded like a wonderful time to be a scientist! Sitting together freely sharing ideas, motivated by curiosity and the joy of doing science.

As I thought back to my research career to look for instances of such encounters, I was happy to find a few. “Philosophy” Meetings during grad school and Tea Time during my postdoc—informal social events to bring people together from different labs and departments with drinks and snacks. RNA Cluster Meetings during grad school and RNA MaxiGroup during my postdoc—events where people interested in a certain research area (in this case RNA) would gather for dinner and to hear an informal research talk. These organized events were intended to provide a forum for conversations between scientists to spark new ideas. Sometimes, I would talk to someone in a totally different field and learn something new. But I really didn’t have an epiphany about my own research. I often found myself (and others) scurrying away after the event to get back to lab work. Was I missing out on the best part of the meeting: the after-discussion?

My reflection on the Steenbock Symposium talks led me to ask a somewhat troubling question:

In today’s competitive research environment, have we missed out on crucial discoveries and technological advances because they weren’t given the right environment in which to develop? Continue reading

Of Mice and Microbes: The Science Behind Food Analysis

In general, people like to know that their food is what the label says it is. It’s a real bummer to find out that beef lasagna you just ate was actually horsemeat. Plus, there are many religious, ethical and medical reasons to be cognizant of what you eat. Someone who’s gluten intolerant and Halal probably doesn’t want a bite of that BLT.

Labels don’t always accurately reflect what is in food. So how do we confirm that we are in fact buying crab, and not whitefish with a side of Vibrio contamination?

For the most part, it comes down to separation science. Scientists and technicians use various chromatographic methods, such as gas chromatography, liquid chromatography, and mass spectrometry, to separate the complex mixture of molecules in food into individual components. By first mapping out the molecular profile of reference samples, they can then take an unknown sample and compare its profile to what it should look like. If the two don’t match up, an analyst would assume that the unknown is not what it claims to be. Continue reading

How Autophagy Feeds Cancer’s Need for Metabolites

Illustration of energy metablism in cell.Metabolism underpins numerous cellular processes. Without it, cells would not grow, divide, synthesize or secrete. Another pathway, autophagy, degrades unwanted cellular materials, helping to maintain cell health. With these opposing roles, is there a connection between autophagy and metabolism? As it turns out, the answer is yes. Because molecules degraded by autophagy are recycled and fed into metabolism pathways as precursor compounds. There are interesting implications as a result of this connection, ones that affect cancer cells as described in a recent Cell Metabolism review article.

Autophagic flux, the process by which molecules and organelles are directed to the autophagosome, fuse with the lysosome and are degraded, involves a selective process that determines the cargo carried within the autophagosome. Autophagy-related genes (ATGs) direct the process and particular receptor proteins bind the cargo. What is interesting about the connection among cancer, autophagy and metabolism is the complexity of the role that autophagy plays in cancer. While autophagy was thought to act in a more tumor suppressive manner as shown when one copy of an ATG6 analogous gene in mice was deleted and the other left unaltered, and malignant tumors developed, but in mice mosaic for ATG5 deletions, the inhibition of autophagy resulted in benign tumors in the liver. This latter experiment suggested autophagy was needed for cancer progression, a hypothesis reinforced by the lack of ATG mutations in human cancers. Continue reading

#scientistswhoselfie: building a community of trust in the digital age

Danette Daniels, Senior Research Scientist

Earlier this year, an opinion piece published in Science criticized scientists who use Instagram as a tool for science outreach.1 The author argued that “time spent on Instagram is time away from research” and specifically called out female scientists for snapping selfies instead of proposing policy changes to battle the systemic issues of marginalization in STEM fields.

The piece received a significant amount of backlash from social media-savvy scientists. The community commonly referred to as “Science Twitter” is active in using the social media platform as a novel way to humanize science and engage with science-curious followers. Likewise, Instagram provides snapshots into the diverse lives of scientists who feel free to offer their own personal perspectives rather than acting as a representative of their institutions. These growing communities also challenge the stereotypical image of scientists as white men wearing lab coats. Furthermore, the digital presence of scientists and science communicators continues to be fueled by trending hashtags like #actuallivingscientist, #stillascientist, and #scientistswhoselfie.

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Autophagy: The Poem

Roberta A. Gottlieb, MD, is the Director of Molecular Cardiobiology at Cedar-Sinai, a nonprofit academic healthcare organization. She is interested in the role of autophagy in myocardial ischemia, a kind of heart disease in which blood flow to the heart is blocked. (Studies have shown that autophagy is upregulated during myocardial ischemia, but why this happens is not entirely clear.) Her ultimate goal is to understand and mitigate ischemic injury, with the hope of developing therapeutics for humans.

And—she’s a poet. Continue reading

“Aha! Moments” in Science Education

Significant resources are required to deliver high-quality science experiences for students and their teachers. In addition to generous amounts of staff time, for both preparation and program delivery, often there are costly lab supplies. Access to a well-equipped laboratory designed to facilitate educational experiences is also important.

Of course, hands-on experiences are related to learning: for example, becoming scientifically literate, meeting science standards, preparing for AP tests. That said, many of us involved in science outreach activities will tell you that perhaps the most significant justification for these investments is that you never know when one of the students will experience that ‘Aha!’ moment which proves to be life-changing for them.

Over the years, we have heard many testimonials from students, teachers, school-to-career coordinators and other school district personnel, mentors and parents that speak to this experience. There just seems to be something about getting into the lab and engaging directly in “doing science” that stays with some participants as they head back to school, continue with their studies and on to their careers. Continue reading

At Promega, Corporate Responsibility Comes Down to Relationship

We recently connected with a customer who has been using Promega products loyally for years, but who had no idea what the company was like beyond that. She humorously commented, “Oh, there are people at Promega?” Now while we are of course pleased that the quality and capability of our products stand alone, we also place tremendous value on authentic relationships and sustained engagement in the company’s exchanges with customers, as well as employees, suppliers, the communities in which we work and the environment. We wondered how many others were out there with whom we would like to connect and say, “Hello! Curious to get to know us better?”

As a Promega Connections reader, we suspect you already know a bit about who we are, but for those who are especially inquisitive (as most scientists are) we also invite you to check out our newly launched Corporate Responsibility website. Click around and you will soon discover themes of innovative collaboration with scientists, meaningful interconnectedness with employees and communities, and long-term commitment to sustainable growth. The website contains highlights of our 2018 Corporate Responsibility Report, which you can read in its entirety here.

It really comes down to relationship, as Promega founder and CEO Bill Linton writes in his letter for the 2018 Corporate Responsibility Report: “More than any product, technology, or market in guiding our path, we continue to look toward relationship as our North Star to a fulfilling future.” (Read Bill’s full letter here.)

Promoting meaningful connection happens in many ways at Promega. Here are just a few examples: Continue reading

Forensic Scientists Improve Sexual Assault Kit Turnaround Time with Y-Screening

The backlog of sexual assault kit samples in crime laboratories across the nation is a topic that hit the spotlight when a group of journalists uncovered the issue in an open records search of crime lab records in 2015. Reasons for the backlog include lack of staff, lack of funding, and simply, lack of time or a decision not to prosecute the case. Processing samples can be a labor-intensive process.

We recently interviewed Lynndsey R. Simon, Forensic Scientist II and Alternate CODIS Administrator from the Columbus Police Forensic Services Center to discuss some recent changes in sample processing in their laboratory that are helping to alleviate some of the backlog. She will be presenting a talk at the upcoming International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI) in September.

The Columbus Police Forensic Services Center is a smaller forensic laboratory and according to Simon, one of the biggest challenges they face is strained resources. The DNA extraction and processing kits that forensic laboratories use are very expensive, and the number of DNA samples that laboratories are getting for DNA analysis are increasing. With limited resources and funding, maximizing efficiency and finding the best solutions for the laboratory becomes critical. Continue reading

Working with RNA doesn’t have to be a nightmare

We’re all familiar with the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology: DNA is transcribed into RNA, which is translated into proteins. It’s drilled into our heads from the early days of biology classes, and it’s surprisingly useful when we start exploring in our own research projects. For example, if you’re interested in gene expression, you’ll most likely be working with RNA, specifically mRNA. Messenger RNA (mRNA) is transcribed from DNA and is used by ribosomes as a “template” for a specific protein. The total mRNA in a cell represents all of the genes that are actively being transcribed. So, if you want to know whether or not a gene is being transcribed, RNA purification is a great place to start.

When preparing your RNA samples for a downstream assay, there are several roadblocks and pitfalls that could give you quite a headache. Let’s tackle two of the most common.

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