The Stories in the Bones: DNA Forensic Analysis 20 Years after 9/11

September 11, 2001 is the day that will live in infamy for my generation. On that beautiful late summer day, I was at my desk working on the Fall issue of Neural Notes magazine when a colleague learned of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. As the morning wore on, we learned quickly that it wasn’t just one plane, and it wasn’t just the World Trade Center.

Two beams of light recognized the site of the World Trade Center attack. Today DNA forensic analysis applies new technologies to bring closure to families of victims.

Information was sparse. The world wide web was incredibly slow, and social media wasn’t much of a thing—nothing more than a few listservs for the life sciences. Someone managed to find a TV with a rabbit-eared, foil-covered antenna, and we gathered in the cafeteria of Promega headquarters—our shock growing as more footage became available. At Promega, conversation immediately turned to how we could bring our DNA forensic analysis expertise to help and support the authorities with the identification of victims and cataloguing of reference samples.

Just as the internet and social media have evolved into faster and more powerful means of communication—no longer do we rely on TVs with antennas for breaking news—the technology that is used to identify victims of a tragedy from partial remains like bone fragments and teeth has also evolved to be faster and more powerful.

Teeth and Bones: Then and Now

“Bones tell me the story of a person’s life—how old they were, what their gender was, their ancestral background.”  Kathy Reichs

Many stories, both fact and fiction, start with a discovery of bones from a burial site or other scene. Bones can be recovered from harsh environments, having been exposed to extreme heat, time, acidic soils, swamps, chemicals, animal activities, water, or fires and explosions. These exposures degrade the sample and make recovering DNA from the cells deep within the bone matrix difficult.

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Science and Journalism – Opposites or Not So Much?

This blog was written in collaboration with our partners at Promega GmbH.

Scientists are comfortable speaking to people who know their field. Speaking to scientists outside of their field of expertise can become a little more challenging, and many find the greatest challenge of all is speaking to people who do not have a science background and are hearing about a scientific concept for the first time, such as journalists in the popular media. What can scientists and journalists do to make the most of the interface of science and journalism?

Digital image depicting the intersection of science and journalism.

The importance of the interface between science and journalism is increasingly visible with scientific topics appearing on the national news more frequently due to COVID-19, climate change, and diseases like cancer. So, where can journalists go to learn best practices for interviewing scientists and writing about scientific topics? Promega GmbH offers a platform in which scientists and journalists come together and learn from each other in a constructive exchange. In this workshop setting, scientists speak about a certain topic, and journalists from all kinds of backgrounds can ask questions. When the journalist authors an article about what they learned in that workshop, both sides benefit. The scientists’ work becomes visible, and society learns more about scientific research and discovery that can help all of us to better understand the world and contribute to a brighter future.

Here we describe several common themes that have emerged from these science journalism workshops that may help you the next time you find yourself trying to explain your research to someone unfamiliar with your field.

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HPK1 Identified as Emerging Immuno-oncology Drug Target

Antibody-based immune checkpoint inhibitors remain a major focus of immuno-oncology drug research and development efforts because of their recent success in providing long-term anti-tumor responses. However, the range of response of different tumor types to these drugs is hugely varied. Small molecule kinase inhibitors that block signaling pathways involved in regulation of tumor immunity at multiple points in the “cancer immunity cycle” may provide alternate, effective therapeutics. One kinase that may be a target for such small molecule inhibitors is Hematopoietic Progenitor Kinase 1 or HPK1; the potential of this kinase as a therapeutic target was reviewed by Sawasdikosol and Burakoff (1). HPK1, also known as MAP4K1, is a member of the MAP kinase protein kinase family that negatively regulates signal transduction in T-cells, B-cells and dendritic cells of the immune system.

Artist rendering of what target engagement might look like for kinases like HPK1.
NanoBRET™ Target Engagement Assay (artist rendering)
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The Work of Emmett Chappelle: Lighting Up the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

What do the workings of red blood cells, ensuring breathable air for astronauts, and scraping soil off NASA’s Viking spacecraft have in common? The sharp thinking of biochemist Emmett Chappelle.

Image of Emmett Chappelle working with other scientists.
Emmett Chappelle conducting research.

February is Black History Month in the US—a time to reflect on the contributions of African Americans in all fields and celebrate their accomplishments while recognizing the adversity they had to overcome in American society.

2021 also marks 30 years since the first firefly luciferase reporter vectors and detection reagents became available as products. There’s no better person to highlight this month than Emmett Chappelle, whose work with the luciferase reaction is still used for many applications today.

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Screen Media in the Time of COVID-19: Should You Be Reading this Blog?

Screen Media. Cell phones. Social media accounts. If you are a parent, you have probably discussed rules of engagement with your children about these things. All of our modern social media platforms are designed to keep us engaged with them by showing us the latest post, the next video or the people now online. Work emails give us notifications when something arrives in our Inbox. Business software platforms like Microsoft Teams send us notifications whenever someone comments in a conversation we have ever been part of. There are many siren signals pulling us toward our screens.

Enter COVID-19, the flu-like illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has already claimed the lives of 210,000 people in the United States, and leaving countless others permanently affected by other long-term health consequences. Spread by aerosol, COVID-19 is most dangerous in places where lots of people congregate in a small area, particularly if they are talking to each other. Consequently, office buildings are empty as many of us work or go to school remotely.

Before COVID-19, if I had a day full of meetings at work, I was running from conference room to conference room, two miles, uphill, in the snow between buildings. Now, a day full of meetings means sitting in front of a computer monitor, trying to figure out how I will get any kind of break between calls. The average number of steps recorded by my pedometer has decreased markedly since March when our remote work started.

Technology has been an incredible blessing during this pandemic—allowing us to continue to work and stay connected with friends and family. Technology is the only way that some people can connect with loved ones in long-term care facilities. It allows students to continue learning through remote classrooms and chats.

But what has been the effect of the increased time spent on screens during this pandemic?

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Maximize Your Time in the Lab: Improve Experimental Reproducibility with Thaw-and-Use Cells

Many cell biology researchers can name their department’s  or institutions’s “cell culture wizard”—the technician with 20+ years of experience whose cell cultures are always free from contamination, exhibit reliable doubling rates and show no phenotype or genotype weirdness. Cell culture takes skill and experience. Primary cell culture can be even more difficult still, and many research and pharmaceutical applications require primary cells.

Yet, among the many causes of failure to replicate study results, variability in cell culture stands out (1). Add to the normal challenges of cell culture a pandemic that shut down cell culture facilities and still limits when and how often researchers can monitor their cell culture lines, and the problem of cell culture variability is magnified further.

Treating Cells as Reagents

A good way to reduce variability in cell-based studies is to use the thaw-and-use frozen stock approach. This involves freezing a large batch of “stock” cells, then performing quality control tests to ensure they respond appropriately to treatment. Then whenever you need to perform an assay, just thaw another vial of cells from that batch and begin your assay—just like an assay reagent! This approach eliminates the need to grow your cells to a specific stage, which could take days and introduce more variability.

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The Path Brightens for Vaccine Researchers: Luminescent Reporter Viruses Detect Neutralizing Antibodies

Developing a vaccine that is safe, effective, easily manufactured and distributed is a daunting task. Yet, that is exactly what is needed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vaccine development, safety and efficacy testing take time. The mumps vaccine is thought to be the quickest infectious disease vaccine ever produced, and its development required four years from sample collection to licensing (2). However, there are many reasons to anticipate quicker development for a COVID-19 vaccine: Researchers are collaborating in unprecedented ways, and most COVID-19 scientific publications are free for all to access and often available as preprints. As of August 11, 2020, researchers around the globe have more than 165 vaccine candidates in development, 30 of which are in some phase of human clinical trials (1). The range of vaccine formulations available to scientists has expanded to include RNA and DNA vaccines, replication-defective adenovirus vaccines, inactivated or killed vaccines and subunit protein vaccines. Equally important is that vaccine developers and researchers have greater access to powerful molecular biology tools like bioluminescent reporters that enable quicker testing and development.

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An art award for a picture of a rock? A decade of the UW-Madison Cool Science Image Contest

Celebrating the art of science is something the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cool Science Image Contest has been doing since its inception 10 years ago as part of The Why Files. The 2020 winning images include entries as diverse as videos of neural stem cells, eye-ball licking geckos and yes, even a picture of rock: actually a thin section of tractolite, an igneous rock composed of feldspar and olivine  collected near Duluth Minnesota form the Proterozoic Mid-continent Rift. This image was collected by Natalie Betz, PhD, Associate Director of the UW-Madison Master of Science in Biotechnology program and her daughter Anya Wolterman, a recent graduate of Macalester College with degrees in Geology and Physics. Natalie has a long-time connection with Promega and the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute, so we reached out to her to get the perspective of a contest entrant.  Natalie is answering for both her and her daughter while her daughter is away doing some trail maintenance in the Rockies and is not available for comment.

This thin section of troctolite, an igneous rock composed of feldspar and olivine, was collected near Duluth, Minnesota, from the Proterozoic Midcontinent Rift. The rift is a tear in the Earth’s crust caused by continental plates colliding in the Lake Superior region. Polarized light accentuates vivid colors.

Promega Connections: Why did you decide to enter the UW Cool Science Image contest?

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Celebrating the Work of Women Scientists on the 100th Anniversary of Rosalind Franklin’s Birth

Photo 51 is the now-famous X-ray diffraction picture that allowed Watson and Crick to crystalize centuries work of scientific study (from Mendel to Chargaff) into a viable structural model that explained how DNA could serve as the material of the gene. The photo was painstakingly produced by Dr. Rosalind Franklin, a contemporary of Watson and Crick. Although she and her colleague R.G. Gosling did publish their work in the same issue of Nature as the Watson and Crick paper (1,2), their work did not receive the same public accolades of that of Watson and Crick.

Applications Scientists help partners and customers apply existing technology to new questions. Read more about their work.

Women scientists have been contributing to our understanding of the world around us throughout history. On this 100th anniversary of Dr. Rosalind Franklin’s birth, we want to take a little time to recognize the work that women scientists are doing at Promega.

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Antibodies, Immunity and Vaccines: A Short Primer on the Adaptive Immune Response

MERS-CoV credit: NIAID

Our skin, respiratory system and gastrointestinal tract are continually bombarded by environmental challenges from potential pathogens like SARS-CoV-2. Yet, these exposures do not often cause illness because our immune system protects us. The human immune system is complex. It has both rapid, non-specific responses to injury and disease as well as long-term, pathogen-specific responses. Understanding how the immune response works helps us understand how some pathogens get past it and how to stop that from happening. It also provides key information to help us develop safe and effective vaccines.

The immune response involves two complementary pathways: Innate Immunity and Adaptive Immunity. Innate immunity is non-specific, rapid and occurs quickly after an injury or infection. As a result of the innate immune response, cytokines (small signaling molecules) are secreted to recruit immune cells to an injury or infection site.  Innate immunity does not develop “memory” of an antigen or confer long-term immunity.

The immune response involves to complementary pathways: Innate Immunity and Adaptive Immunity.

Unlike innate immunity, adaptive immunity is both antigen-dependent and antigen-specific, meaning that adaptive immune response requires the presence of a triggering antigen—something like a spike protein on the surface of a virus. The adaptive immune response is also specific to the antigen that triggers the response. The adaptive immune response takes longer to develop, but it has the capacity for memory in the form of memory B and T cells. This memory is what enables a fast, specific immune response (immunity) upon subsequent exposure to the antigen.

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