Today’s guest blog was written in collaboration with Melissa Martin, a former global marketing intern with Promega. She is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she is double majoring in zoology and life sciences communication, with a certificate in environmental studies.
Schools, businesses and organizations across the globe are increasingly implementing sustainable practices within their workspaces. From large-scale projects like installing solar arrays to behind-the-scenes initiatives like composting cafeteria food waste, “going green” is a reality of the modern workplace.
But one workspace otherwise known for being cutting edge and innovative is still struggling to implement the practices and culture of sustainability.
In her role as a teaching lab coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Nanobiotechnology (INTB), Christine Duke noticed a contrast between campus-wide sustainability initiatives and research labs:
“There is something missing here. Why aren’t we doing anything in the labs?”
Scientists investigating the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) have learned much about the retrovirus’s lifecycle, but their ultimate goals were to discover a cure and prevent infection. In the decades since HIV was discovered, basic research and pharmaceutical drug development have expanded the antiviral toolbox, but these HIV treatments do not provide a functional cure, only manage the infection. However, two techniques may offer a potential cure for HIV infection using CRISPR and a possible vaccine using mRNA.
Soon after Amanda Capes-Davis started working with CellBank Australia, she received a request from an exasperated graduate student:
This cell line was handed down to me for my project, but I’m getting strange experimental results with the cells.Can you authenticate the cell line?
After performing genetic analyses, Capes-Davis soon had the answer to the student’s experimental woes: the cells did not come from the human tissue type the student was studying. They weren’t even human—they were mouse cells.
“She’d been given this cell line that was behaving differently than expected, and people thought ‘wow, this is an exciting new variant,’ it could tell her more about a particular disease,” Capes-Davis said. “But no, it was a more sinister reason, unfortunately.”
The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed the entire conference and tradeshow industry. Although plans for many in-person conferences were paused, this month the 32nd International Symposium on Human Identification offered the best of both worlds: an in-person symposium in Orlando, Florida (September 12–16), and a virtual conference where registrants could view the session recordings online. At the symposium, exhibits and poster presentations offered attendees the opportunity to reconnect in person after long absences, while various networking events gave attendees a chance to catch up and socialize.
As usual, workshops were held before and after the main symposium. In a sign of the changing times, Rachel Oefelein and Tarah Nieroda (DNA Labs International) presented a talk on the unique challenges and opportunities associated with virtual courtroom testimony.
The weekend before the symposium was marked by an event of great significance across the world: the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the attempt on the U.S. Capitol that was thwarted by the brave sacrifice of the passengers and crew on board United Airlines Flight 93. In particular, the DNA forensics community was reminded of how much technology has evolved over the years, in the efforts—still ongoing—to identify the victims of the attacks.
The pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 has brought the world to its knees. There have been many deaths, many persons with lingering disease (long COVID) and the inability to vaccinate everyone quickly, for starters. SARS-CoV-2 has not only been a tricky adversary in terms of treatment options to save lives, it’s also been a wily opponent to researchers studying the virus.
Contributing to the existing studies, with their review of the role of inflammasomes in COVID-19, Vora et al. recently published “Inflammasome activation at the crux of severe COVID-19” in Nature Reviews Immunology. In this paper they detail evidence of inflammasome activation and its role in SARS-CoV-2 infections.
Contributions of Those Lost in the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic I’d like to take a moment to note the uniquely awful nature of the virus at the center of this blog and the paper it reviews. Many of the papers we blog about describe research involving cell lines, mice or another animal model. The closest most reports get to human research subjects is the use of human cells lines. In the Vora et al. report, serum and tissue samples are from actual human patients, some that survived and many that did not survive COVID-19. It’s not lost on us, Dear Reader, the contributions of those that suffered and died due to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Many persons with severe or fatal COVID-19 have made a significant contribution to our understanding of this virus and its treatment options. We owe them, as well as the researchers that have studied SARS-CoV-2, our sincerest gratitude.
Why the Interest in Inflammasomes? For detailed information on inflammasomes you can read Ken’s blog, here. You will find background information there and on our inflammasome web page.
In their paper, Vora et al. provide evidence of inflammasome activation, both direct and indirect, in COVID-19. The authors note:
“Key to inflammation and innate immunity, inflammasomes are large, micrometrescale multiprotein cytosolic complexes that assemble in response to pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) or damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) and trigger proinflammatory cytokine release as well as pyroptosis, a proinflammatory lytic cell death.”
The BioPhamaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute) is a non-profit organization that provides opportunities for people of all ages to learn about life science and biotechnology. This summer, BTC Institute hosted a variety of programs supporting teachers, potential first-generation college students, and many other groups. Each program supports an overall goal to support scientific understanding in our community.
A Celebration of Life: Being Healthy on Earth and In Space
BTC Institute has collaborated with the African American Ethnic Academy in Madison, WI for over 25 years to offer a summer science program for upper elementary and middle school students. This year, A Celebration Of Life XXVIwelcomed 13 students from grades 4-8 every morning for two weeks. Students made ice cream, engineered water filtration devices, and used bioluminescence to learn about preventing the spread of germs. Outside the lab, the students learned tai chi from a Promega employee and toured the Promega culinary garden. Along the way, students learned about historic and contemporary STEM professionals of color associated with each focus area, including astronaut Victor J. Glover and teen entrepreneur Nabil Hamdan.
Glioblastoma (GBM) is an aggressive type of brain tumor, and one of the deadliest cancers. GBM is often treated with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but even if the initial treatment is successful, a majority of patients relapse within months. One reason why GBM is so difficult to treat is the hypoxic (low-oxygen) tumor environment. It is known that hypoxic cells are resistant to radiotherapy; the greater the number of tumor stem cells in a hypoxic environment, the less efficient radiotherapy is at controlling tumor growth.
A new therapeutic approach aims to remove the hypoxic environment in GBM by administering pure oxygen to patients at high pressure, known as “hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) therapy”. Previous studies have shown that HBO improves the efficacy of radiotherapy in GBM patients. However, the therapeutic mechanism of HBO was largely unknown. That is, until now.
Wearing blue surgical gowns and white respirator hoods, research scientist Pradeep Uchil and post-doctoral fellow Irfan Ullah carry an anesthetized mouse to the lab’s imaging unit. Two days ago, the mouse was infected with a SARS-CoV-2 virus engineered to produce a bioluminescent protein. After an injection of a bioluminescence substrate, a blue glow starts to emanate from within the mouse’s nasal cavity and chest, visible to the imaging unit’s camera and Uchil’s eyes.
“We were never able to see this kind of signal with retrovirus infections.” Uchil is a research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine whose work focuses on the in vivo imaging of retroviral infections. Normally, the mouse would have to be sacrificed and “opened up” for viral bioluminescent signals from internal tissues to be imaged directly.
In the summer of 2000, Promega research scientist Allan Tereba was asked to develop an automated protocol for purifying DNA for forensics. His team had recently launched DNA IQ, the first Promega kit for purifying forensic DNA using magnetic beads. This was before the Maxwell® instruments, and before Promega purification chemistries were widely adaptable to high-throughput automation.
“I had my doubts about being able to do that,” Allan says. “When you’re working with STRs, small amounts of contaminant DNA are going to mess up your results. But I went ahead and tried it, and it was a challenge.”
A little over a year later, Allan was in his office when he heard on the radio that a plane had struck the North tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Shortly after, he heard the announcement that a second plane had hit the South tower.
By that point, Allan and his colleagues had successfully adapted DNA IQ to be used on the deck of a robot. Within days of the attacks, Promega scientists were supporting the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) and New York State Police in their work to identify human remains that were recovered from Ground Zero.
Thanks to the work of Allan and many other Promega scientists, Promega was prepared to offer unique solutions to urgent needs. In their own words, here are some of those scientists’ reflections.
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.
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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