The Pan-Cancer Atlas: “The End of the Beginning”

Yesterday, a series of 27 papers representing the most comprehensive genomic analysis of human cancers to date was published in Cell Press journals.

The collection constitutes the final outputs from the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) project, a collaboration between the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) involving analysis of over 11,000 tumors representing 33 different cancers. The many research teams involved analyzed tumor DNA, mRNA, miRNA and chromatin, comparing them to matched normal cellular genomes to perform a complete molecular characterization of cancer-specific changes. The results have been presented with much hope that open access to this type of comprehensive analysis will build on recent advances in understanding tumor biology and spur further progress in developing new approaches to treatment. (See this news item for more detail).

The Pan-Cancer Atlas results are collected on a cell.com portal, where they are presented in three collections grouped by topic: Cell of Origin, Oncogenic Processes and Signaling Pathways. Each collection is accompanied by a “Flagship” paper introducing the topic and summarizing the findings. It seems fitting that these findings have been published in #HumanGenomeMonth. This comprehensive analysis of the genomic and metagenomic profiles of tumors illustrates one powerful application of the type of genomic analysis pioneered by the original Human Genome Project, and shows just how much has been made possible since the initial publication of the human genome fifteen years ago. Continue reading

Counting Crows: Evidence for Hard-Wired, Inborn Ability to Detect Numerical Sets

“The Great Book of Nature is written in mathematical language” –Galileo Galilei (1)

carrion crow (corvus corone) headshot portrait against a blue background

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

If mathematics is the language of the universe, might we find the ability to do math hard-wired in species?

Research in primates has demonstrated that even without training, humans and monkeys possess numerosity, the ability to assess the number of items in a set (2,3).

A paper in Current Biology from Wagener and colleagues provides evidence that crows are born with a subset of neurons that are “hard wired” to perceive the number of items in a set (4). This work provides yet more evidence supporting a hypothesis of an innate “number sense” that is provided by a specific group of “preprogrammed” neurons.

In this study, Wagener’s group measured the responses of single neurons in two “numerically naïve” crows to color dot arrays. They measured neurons in the endbrain region known as the niopallium caudolaterale (NCL), which is thought to be the avian analog of the primate prefrontal cortex. They found that 12% of the neurons in NCL specifically responded to numbers and that specific neurons responded to specific numbers of items with greater or lesser activity.

This is the first such study to investigate the idea of an innate “sense of number” in untrained vertebrates that are not primates, and as such it suggests that a hard-wired, innate “sense of number” is not a special feature of the complex cerebral cortex of the primate brain but is an adaptive property that evolved independently in the differently structured and evolved end brains of birds.

Many questions remain. Are there similarities in the actual neurons involved? What does learning do on a physiological level to these neurons: Increase their number, increase connections to them?  What other vertebrates have similar innate mechanisms for assessing numbers of items? What about other members of the animal kingdom that need to have a sense of number for social or foraging behavior? How is it accomplished?

And finally, one last burning question, if birds are dinosaurs, does that mean that dinosaurs perished because they didn’t do their math homework? Asking for an eleven-year-old I know.

  1. Tyson, Peter. (2001) Describing Nature with math. NOVA  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/describing-nature-math.html 
  2. Izard, V. et al. (2009) Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers PNAS USA 106, 10382–85.
  3. Viswanahtan, P. and Neider, A. (2013) Neuronal correlates of a visual “sense of number” in primate parietal and prefrontal cortices. PNAS USA 110, 1118–95.
  4. Wagnener, L. et al. (2018) Neurons in the endbrain of numerically naïve crows spontaneously encode visual numerosity Cur. Biol. 28, 1–5.

A Surprising New Role for Body Fat?

This cloaked fat cell just might be a superhero.

Forty-some years ago fat was just fat. And it was regarded with disdain, to say the least.

An entire industry existed to help get rid of fat, using what was then the latest mass media technology, television. If you wanted to get rid of fat you could exercise with Jack LaLanne as he worked out on television. We exercised in elementary school PE class to a vinyl recording of “Chicken Fat”. You could strap into a device that employed shaking to get rid of the fat from your “hips”, or eat a piece of chocolate fudge with a hot beverage before meals to curb your appetite.

Fat was not our friend. We knew long before the current diabetes epidemic that being overweight was not good for our health.

Fast forward to the 21st century, where we’ve learned that some forms of fat are actually good for you–important in metabolism, growth and immunity. The variety of types of mammalian fat include brown adipose tissue, beige adipose tissue and white adipose tissue, and it’s possible to convert one to the other under certain conditions. For details on these types of adipose tissue, read this article —after you finish this blog. Continue reading

Characterizing Multi-Subunit Protein Complexes Using Cell-Free Expression

artist's concept of a cell membraneMulti-subunit protein complexes control membrane fusion events in eukaryotic cells (1). CORVET and HOPS are two such multi-subunit complexes, both containing the Sec1/Munc18 protein subunit VPS33A (2). Metazoans additionally possess VPS33B, which has considerable sequence similarity to VPS33A but does not integrate into CORVET or HOPS complexes and instead stably interacts with VIPAR. Recent research suggests that VPS33B and VIPAR comprise two subunits of a novel multi-subunit complex analogous in configuration to CORVET and HOPS (3).

In a recent publication (4), Hunter and colleagues, further characterized the VPS33B and VIPAR complex. Using co-immunoprecipitation and proximity-based ligation assay, they identified two novel VPS33B-interacting proteins, VPS53 and CCDC22.

In vitro binding experiments, VPS33B and GST-VIPAR were co-expressed in Escherichia coli and purified by GSH affinity. The VPS33B/GSTVIPAR complex was used as bait in pulldown experiments, with myc-CCDC22 and myc-VPS53 expressed by cell-free in vitro transcription/translation in wheat germ lysate. Myc-CCDC22 was very efficiently pulled down by VPS33B/GST-VIPAR, whereas myc-VPS53 was not .The interaction between VPS53 and the VPS33B-VIPAR complex was either indirect, requires other proteins contribute to the interaction, or requires a post-translational modification not conferred in the plant cell-free expression system (wheat germ). Pull-down experiments with individual subunits or expressing as complexes, was inefficient and did not result in binding to VPS33B/GST-VIPAR.

To further understand how VPS33B-VIPAR may interact with CCDC22, Hunter and colleagues attempted to refine the region of CCDC22 that interacts with VPS33B/GST-VIPAR by generating a series of truncated forms of CCDC22. However, none of five CCDC22 truncations were able to bind to VPS33B/GST-VIPAR. The hypothesis was that truncated forms of CCDC22 are unstable and unable to fold correctly in this assay system.

Additional experiments noted that the protein complex in HEK293T cells which contained VPS33B and VIPAR was considerably smaller than CORVET/HOPS, suggesting that, unlike VPS33A, VPS33B does not assemble into a large stable multi-subunit protein complex.

 

  1. D’Agostino, M. et. al. (2017) A tethering complex drives the terminal stage of SNARE-dependent membrane fusion. Nature 551, 634–638.
  2. Balderhaar, H. J. K. and Ungermann, C. (2013) CORVET and HOPS tethering complexes – coordinators of endosome and lysosome fusion. J. Cell Sci. 126, 1307–16.
  3. Spang, A. (2016) Membrane Tethering Complexes in the Endosomal System. Front. Cell Dev. Biol. 4, 35.
  4. Hunter, M.  et. al.  (2017) Proteomic and biochemical comparison of the cellular interaction partners of human VPS33A and VPS33B. [Internet bioRxiv http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/236695  Accessed 3/12/2018]

A Better Way to Understand How and Why Cells Die

Real-time, up-to-the-minute access to information provides new opportunities for scientists to monitor cellular events in ever more meaningful ways. Real-time cytotoxicity and cell viability assay reagents now allow constant monitoring of cell health status without the need to lyse or remove aliquots from plates for measurement. With a real-time approach, data can be collected from cell cultures or microtissues at multiple time points after addition of a drug compound or other event, and the response to treatment continually observed.

The CellTox™ Green assay is a real-time assay that monitors cytotoxicity using a fluorescent DNA binding dye, which binds DNA released from cells upon loss of membrane integrity. The dye cannot enter intact, live cells and so fluorescence only occurs upon cell death, correlating with cytotoxicity. Here’s a quick overview showing how the assay works:

More Data Using Fewer Samples and Reagents
The ability to continually monitor cytotoxicity in this way makes it easy to conduct more than one type of analysis on a single sample. Assays can be combined to determine not only the timing of cytotoxicity, but to also understand related events happening in the same cell population. As long as the readouts can be distinguished from one another multiple assays can be performed in the same well, providing more informative data while using less cells, plates and reagents.

Combining assays in this way can reveal critical information regarding mechanism of cell death. For example, assay combinations can be used to determine whether cells are dying from apoptosis or necrosis, or to distinguish nonproliferation from cell death. Combining CellTox Green with an endpoint luminescent caspase assay or a real-time apoptosis assay allows you to determine whether observed cytotoxic effects are due to apoptosis. Cytotoxic and anti-proliferative effects can be distinguished by combining the cytotoxicity assay with a luminescent or fluorescent cell viability assay. Continue reading

A Cell Viability Assay for Today

Valued for ease of use and scalability, plate-based, bioluminescent cell viability assays are widely used to support research in biologics, oncology and drug discovery.

Cell viability assays are a bread-and-butter method for many researchers using cultured cells —everyday lab tools that are a part of many newsworthy papers, but rarely make news themselves.

Over time, cell viability assays have become easier to use and more “plug ‘n play”. Among modern assays, luminescent plate-reader based systems have been a favorite for several years because of their superior sensitivity, robustness, simple protocols and uncomplicated equipment requirements (all you need is a plate-reading luminometer). These qualities combine to allow easy scalability and adaptability from bench research to high throughput applications.

CellTiter-Glo® Luminescent Cell Viability Assay is an accepted go-to viability assay for many researchers. The assay measures ATP as an indicator of metabolically active cells. A quick search on Google Scholar returns 3,990 CellTiter-Glo results for 2017 and over 500 so far in January and February of 2018. A sampling of these recent publications gives a snapshot of some of the ways the CellTiter-Glo assay is used to support key areas of research today.

Does a treatment kill cells?

The obvious application of a cell viability assay is to understand whether cells are alive. In cancer research, the CellTiter-Glo assay is often used to confirm killing of tumor cells and to verify that normal cells survive. Therefore, these assays are a key part of the evaluation and screening of drug candidates and other therapies for cancer. Many papers reporting use of CellTiter-Glo are developing and evaluating the effectiveness of novel anti-cancer treatments. Continue reading

Mass Spec Analysis of PTMs Using Minimal Sample Material

DNA is organized by protein:DNA complexes called nucleosomes in eukaryotes. Nucleosomes are composed of 147 base pairs of DNA wrapped around a histone octamer containing two copies of each core histone protein. Histone proteins play significant roles in many nuclear processes including transcription, DNA damage repair and heterochromatin formation. Histone proteins are extensively and dynamically post-translationally modified, and these post-translational modifications (PTMs) are thought to comprise a specific combinatorial PTM profile of a histone that dictates its specific function.  Abnormal regulations of PTM may lead to developmental disorders and disease development such as cancer.

Antibodies have been widely used to characterize histones and histone PTMs. However, antibody-based techniques have several limitations. Mass spectrometry (MS) has therefore emerged as the most suitable analytical tool to quantify proteomes and protein PTMs.  The most commonly used strategy is still bottom-up MS, and the most widely adopted protocol includes derivatization of lysine residues in histones to allow trypsin to generate Arg-C like peptides (4–20 aa). However, samples such as primary tissues, complex model systems, and biofluids are hard to retrieve in large quantities. Because of this, it is critical to know whether the amount of sample available would lead to an exhaustive analysis if subjected to MS.

In a recent publication, Guo, et al. examined (1) the reproducibility in quantification of histone PTMs using a wide range of starting material: from 50,000 to 5,000,000 cells. They used four different cell lines: HeLa, 293T, human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), and myoblasts. Their results demonstrated that an accurate quantification of abundant histone PTMs can be efficiently obtained by using low-resolution MS and as low as 50,000 cells as starting material Low abundance histone marks showed more variability in quantification when comparing different amounts of starting material, so a larger amount of starting material (at least 500,000 cells) is recommended.

Reference

Guo, Q. et al. (2017) Assessment of Quantification Precision of Histone Post-Translational Modifications by Using an Ion Trap and down To 50,000 Cells as Starting Material. J. Proteome Res. 17, 234–42.

A Virus-like Neural Pathway Hints at the Origins of the Mammalian Brain

The mammalian brain is extremely complex. We know that it processes and stores information through synaptic connections within a complicated neural network. But how exactly do neurons communicate with each other? And how did this neural network come to exist? A recent paper published in Cell may provide some answers. It describes a previously unknown signaling pathway–with surprising origins–that transports RNA between neurons. Continue reading

Two Epigenetic Targets Are More Effective Than One

Lysine-specific histone demethylase 1 (LSD1) via Wikimedia Commons

Epigenetics is a new and exciting territory to explore as we understand more about the role it plays in gene silencing and expression. Because epigenetic regulation of gene expression is caused by specific modification of histone proteins (e.g., methylation) that play a role in disease states like cancer, enzymes like histone deacetylases (HDACs) become viable drug targets. One drawback to inhibiting proteins that modify histones is even when selectively targeting HDACs, the effects can be far ranging with multiple HDAC-containing protein complexes found throughout the cell. These broad effects minimize the effectiveness of an inhibitor, caught between efficacy and toxicity. A recent article in Nature Communications explored how using a single compound to target two epigenetic enzymes was more effective than any individual inhibitor or combination of inhibitors. Continue reading

Top 5 Most Read Promega Papers in 2017

It’s always nice to know that someone is reading your paper. It’s a sign that your research is interesting, useful and actually has an impact on the scientific community. We were thrilled to learn that papers published by Promega scientists made the top 10 most read papers of 2017 in the journal ACS Chemical Biology. In fact, Promega scientists authored five of the top six most read papers! Let’s take a look at what they are.

#5 CRISPR-Mediated Tagging of Endogenous Proteins with a Luminescent Peptide

Publication Date (Web): September 11, 2017

This 2017 paper introduces our newest star: HiBiT, a tiny 11aa protein tag. To any scientist studying endogenous protein expression, the HiBiT Tagging System is your dream come true. It combines quantitative and highly sensitive luminescence-based measurement with a tiny-sized tag that can be easily inserted into endogenous protein via CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing with little impact on native protein function. The HiBiT Tagging System has been listed as a 2017 Top 10 Innovation by The Scientist, and it will drastically change how we study endogenous protein expression. Continue reading