The Surprising Life of Bones

Schematic of bone producing and reducing cells osteoblasts and osteoclasts.
The cells that make and degrade bone.

Standing, walking, running. When was the last time you gave your skeleton a second thought? How about when that car barely missed you in the parking lot? Or a deer ran in front of you? Maybe you just missed a car door opening on your bike ride today?

Your bones were involved in your response to that sudden shock/surprise, but not the way you think.

You may have jumped, swerved or hit the brake pedal (congratulations on the excellent reflexes) and yes, bones were involved in all of those actions. But a new article in Cell Metabolism reveals that bone is the essential component in initiation of that response.

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Striking Fear into the Heart of Cardiovascular Disease Using Zebrafish and NanoLuc® Luciferase

Representative images of ApoB-LP localization in zebrafish across developmental, genetic, pharmacological and dietary manipulations.
Credit: Figure 5.D of The LipoGlo reporter system for sensitive and specific monitoring of atherogenic lipoproteins by James Thierer, Stephen C. Ekker and Steven A. Farber.
Article licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Cardiovascular diseases, or CVDs, are collectively the most notorious gang of cold-blooded killers threatening human lives today. These unforgiving villains, including the likes of coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and pulmonary embolisms, are jointly responsible for more deaths per year than any other source, securing their seat as the number one cause of human mortality on a global scale.

One of the trademarks of most CVDs is the thickening and stiffening of the arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is characterized by the accumulation of cholesterol, fats and other substances, which together form plaques in and on the artery walls. These plaques clog or narrow your arteries until they completely block the flow of blood, and can no longer supply sufficient blood to your tissues and organs. Or the plaques can burst, setting off a disastrous chain reaction that begins with a blood clot, and often ends with a heart attack or stroke.

Given the global prevalence and magnitude of this problem, there is a significant and urgent demand for better ways to treat CVDs. In a recent study published in Nature Communications, researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Johns Hopkins University and Mayo Clinic are taking the fight to CVDs through the study of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), the particles responsible for shuttling bad cholesterol throughout the bloodstream.

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Delving into the Diversity of The Plague of Justinian

Wayson stain of Yersinia pestis showing the characteristic
Yersinia pestis. U.S. Center for Disease Control [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Human teeth play a key role in our understanding of how organisms evolve. Whenever a possible new member of the hominid family is uncovered, the shape and number of teeth are used to place that individual in the family tree. Teeth also harbor information about pathogens that have plagued humans for millennia. Because bacteria use our bloodstream as a transport system, protected places that can preserve DNA—like the pulp of teeth—are a rich medium for uncovering information about humans and the microbes that infected them.

Teeth have been the choice for identifying the infectious agent behind the Plague of Justinian in the sixth century and the Black Plague in the 14th century. In fact, Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for these plagues, has infected humans as far back as the Neolithic. But what can we learn about the pandemic strain or strains of Y. pestis described in historical records? A team of researchers from Europe and the US, many of whom have been delving into the history of Y. pestis for the last decade, wanted to further investigate the Plague of Justinian. They studied bacterial DNA extracted from human remains found in Western European communal graves that were dated to around 541–750, the period of the historically documented Plague of Justinian. Their investigation examined the bacteria’s diversity and how far it spread during this “First Pandemic” of plague. Continue reading “Delving into the Diversity of The Plague of Justinian”

CRISPR/Cas9, NanoBRET and GPCRs: A Bright Future for Drug Discovery


G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) are a large family of receptors that traverse the cell membrane seven times. Functionally, GPCRs are extremely diverse, yet they contain highly conserved structural regions. GPCRs respond to a variety of signals, from small molecules to peptides and large proteins. Many GPCRs are involved in disease pathways and, not surprisingly, they present attractive targets for both small-molecule and biologic drugs.

In response to a signal, GPCRs undergo a conformational change, triggering an interaction with a G protein—a specialized protein that binds GDP in its inactive state or GTP when activated. Typically, the GPCR exchanges the G protein-bound GDP molecule for a GTP molecule, causing the activated G protein to dissociate into two subunits that remain anchored to the cell membrane. These subunits relay the signal to various other proteins that interact with or produce second-messenger molecules. Activation of a single G protein can result, ultimately, in the generation of thousands of second messengers.

Given the complexity of GPCR signaling pathways and their importance to human health, a considerable amount of research has been devoted to GPCR interactions, both with specific ligands and G proteins. Continue reading “CRISPR/Cas9, NanoBRET and GPCRs: A Bright Future for Drug Discovery”

Activating the Inflammasome: A New Tool Brings New Understanding

Innate immunity, the first line of immune defense, uses a system of host pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) to recognize signals of “danger” including invariant pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) and damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs). These signals in turn recruit and assemble protein complexes called inflammasomes, resulting in the activation of caspase-1, the processing and release of the pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-1ß and IL-18, and the induction of programmed, lytic cell death known as pyroptosis.

Innate immunity and the activity of the inflammasome are critical for successful immunity against a myriad of environmental pathogens. However dysregulation of inflammasome activity is associated with many inflammatory diseases including type 2 diabetes, obesity-induced asthma, and insulin resistance. Recently, aberrant NLRP3 inflammasome activity also has been associated with age-related macular degeneration and Alzheimer disease. Understanding the players and regulators involved in inflammasome activity and regulation may provide additional therapeutic targets for these diseases.

Currently inflammasome activation is monitored using antibody-based techniques such as Western blotting or ELISA’s to detect processed caspase-1 or processed IL-1ß. These techniques are tedious and are only indirect measures of caspase activity. Further, gaining information about kinetics—relating inflammasome assembly, caspase-1 activation and pyroptosis in time—is very difficult using these methods. O’Brien et al. describe a one-step, high-throughput method that enables the direct measurement of caspase-1 activity. The assay can be multiplexed with a fluorescent viability assay, providing information about the timing of cell death and caspase-1 activity from the same sample. Continue reading “Activating the Inflammasome: A New Tool Brings New Understanding”

Obesity: Can Simple Approaches Reduce Complex Risks?

Obesity Prevalance 2017
Prevalence of Self-Reported Obesity Among U.S. Adults by State and Territory, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) 2017. Prevalence estimates reflect BRFSS methodological changes started in 2011. These estimates should not be compared to prevalence estimates before 2011. Source: BRFSS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Obesity Epidemic

For over a decade, obesity has been called an “epidemic”, both in the popular and scientific literature. Traditionally, the term “epidemic” is associated with a highly contagious disease that carries with it a significant risk of mortality. A comprehensive review of observational studies (1) suggested that obesity did not fit this definition, despite the use of the term in a widely disseminated report by the World Health Organization in 2002.

Regardless of the etymological fine points, the worldwide prevalence of obesity and its associated health risks are clear. These risks include type 2 diabetes, hypertension, several cancers, gall bladder disease, coronary artery disease and stroke (2). Yet, the debate over obesity and options for reducing its risks has become increasingly polarized. As a result, some health researchers are advocating a “health at every size” (HAES) approach to address the social, cultural and lifestyle implications of obesity (2).

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PROTACs, PHOTACs and LYTACs: How to Target a Protein for Degradation

PROTACs for Targeted Protein Degradation
An illustration of PROTAC structure and the proteins it binds.

Targeting a single protein and making it disappear from the cell is quite the magic trick, and there are various molecular tools available for this task. You can use RNA interference, which prevents a protein from being made, inhibitors that bind the protein, rendering it unavailable for use or even gene editing tools like CRISPR that can remove it from the genome. But did you know that you can target an existing protein for destruction, using the cell’s own garbage disposal system to degrade the protein? All you need is a molecule that can connect your protein to one with a role in cellular protein degradation and your protein can be destroyed. Continue reading “PROTACs, PHOTACs and LYTACs: How to Target a Protein for Degradation”

When Proteins Get Together: Shedding (Blue) Light on Cellular LOV

NanoBRETNo protein is an island. Within a cell, protein-protein interactions (PPIs) are involved in highly regulated and specific pathways that control gene expression and cell signaling. The disruption of PPIs can lead to a variety of disease states, including cancer.

Two general approaches are commonly used to study PPIs. Real-time assays measure PPI activity in live cells using fluorescent or luminescent tags. A second approach includes methods that measure a specific PPI “after the fact”; popular examples include a reporter system, such as the classic yeast two-hybrid system.

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Evaluating CAR NK Immunotherapy in Patient-Derived Colorectal Organoids

In recent years, great advances have been made in the field of immunotherapy to treat cancer. One of the most promising treatments involves engineering immune cells to express chimeric antigen receptors (CAR). These receptors are carefully designed to recognize antigens expressed on the surface of tumor cells. Once the target is recognized, the CAR-engineered immune cells can attack and kill the tumor cells. CAR T cells have been successfully used to treat certain blood cancers—three CAR T therapies for lymphoma and leukemia have gained US FDA approval. In these cases, T cells were taken from individual patients, grown and genetically-altered in the lab, then reintroduced into the same patient. Continue reading “Evaluating CAR NK Immunotherapy in Patient-Derived Colorectal Organoids”

Studying Autophagy in Flies Using CRISPR


Transcribed RNA can be used to study RNA structure and how it relates to function or how proteins and RNA interact. It can also be used for gene silencing using RNAi (studied more often as a possible therapeutic option) or simply serve as a molecular standard in Real-time RT-PCR. Transcribed RNA is also used in Class 2 Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat systems, or CRISPR.

The CRISPR system, which is naturally occurring in bacteria, has been manipulated to perform gene editing in a laboratory environment. To perform CRISPR in the laboratory environment, you need two main reagents:

  1. The Brains: Guide RNA (gRNA or sgRNA) – Small piece of RNA containing a nucleotide sequence that is capable of binding the chosen Cas Protein, and contains a portion of the sequence that can bind the DNA the researcher intends to modify – the target DNA.
  2. The Brawn: CRISPR-associated endonuclease (Cas Protein) – The protein that cleaves the target DNA; the most popular Cas protein is called Cas9. The Cas protein is guided by the (gRNA).

Recently, Guo et al. used Promega’s RiboMAX™ Large-Scale RNA Production System to produce gRNA to be used in CRISPR for their study to determine the effects of the loss of, or mutations in, a specific gene in fruit flies (1).  Atg101 is a gene that plays an important role in autophagy, an intracellular pathway for removing toxins or damaged parts of cells. Continue reading “Studying Autophagy in Flies Using CRISPR”