Oka Receives McKnight Award

Yuki Oka, assistant professor of biology, has been named one of six recipients of the 2016 McKnight Scholars Award. The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience awards $75,000 per year for three years to support young scientists who are establishing their own laboratories and research centers. The award is only available to researchers in the first four years of a tenure-track faculty position.

 

"A McKnight Scholar Award is one of the most prestigious early-career honors that a young neuroscientist can receive," said Anthony Movshon, chair of the awards committee and professor at New York University, in a press release. "This year's Scholars are a superbly talented group, with as much promise as any selected in the past. … Their work will help us to understand the brain's function in health and in disease, and will shape the neuroscience of the future."

 

Oka studies the neural mechanisms controlling thirst. These mechanisms help the body maintain a healthy balance of water and salt. He is attempting to isolate exactly which circuits in the brain regulate thirst and to determine how those circuits are triggered by external signals. Understanding these key brain functions may lead to new treatments for appetite-related disorders.

 

The McKnight Foundation of Minneapolis, Minnesota has supported neuroscience research since 1977. It created the Endowment Fund in 1986 in honor of William L. McKnight, an early leader of the 3M Company who had a personal interest in neurological diseases and wanted his legacy to help find cures. Previous awardees from Caltech include Athanossios Siapas, professor of computation and neural systems, and Kai Zinn, professor of biology.

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A Feeling Touch

Using funding from the BRAIN Initiative, Caltech biologists are developing neuroprosthetics to bring tactile sensations to the users of robotic arms.

Caltech biologist Richard Andersen is working to incorporate a sense of touch into the neural prosthetics he has been helping develop for years—devices implanted in the brain that allow a paralyzed patient to manipulate a robotic arm.

Andersen and colleagues first reported success of their original implant in early 2015. The team, led by Andersen, placed their prosthesis in the posterior parietal cortex, an area that controls the intent to move rather than controlling movement directly as previous experiments had done. This allowed Erik Sorto, a 35-year-old man who has been paralyzed from the neck down for more than 10 years, to use a robotic arm placed next to his body to perform a fluid hand-shaking gesture, play rock-paper-scissors, and even grasp a bottle of beer and bring it to his mouth for a sip—something he had long dreamed of doing.

This research on how to make a robotic arm move resulted in a 2015 National Science Foundation grant to Andersen from President Obama's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnology—or BRAIN—Initiative, as well as seed money from the California Blueprint for Research to Advance Innovations in Neuroscience (Cal-BRAIN) program, the California complement to the federal initiative, which gave out its first-ever monetary awards last year to a group of researchers that included Andersen.

Andersen is now using those Cal-BRAIN funds—designed to bring together interdisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers from diverse fields for fundamental brain research—to take his team's work to the next level. His hope is to enable people using robotic arms to literally regain their sense of touch—their ability to feel an object in their "hands."

For more on Andersen's work, read A Feeling Touch on E&S+

 

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Caltech biologists are developing neuroprosthetics to bring tactile sensations to the users of robotic arms.

DNA Origami: Folded DNA as a Building Material for Molecular Devices

Living things use DNA to store the genetic information that makes each plant, bacterium, and human being unique. The reproduction of this information is made possible because DNA's nucleotides—A's and T's, G's and C's—fit together perfectly, like matching jigsaw puzzle pieces. Engineers can take advantage of the matching between long strands of DNA nucleotides to use DNA as a kind of molecular origami, folding it into everything from nanoscale smiley face artwork to serious drug-delivery devices.

On Wednesday, May 25, at 8 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium, Paul Rothemund (BS '94), the inventor of the DNA origami technique, will explain how his group and groups around the world are using DNA origami in applications ranging from potential cancer treatments to devices for computing. Rothemund is research professor of bioengineering, computing and mathematical sciences, and computation and neural systems in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech. Admission is free.

What do you do?

I use DNA and RNA as building materials to create shapes and patterns with a resolution of just a few nanometers. The smallest features in the DNA structures we make are about 20,000 times smaller than the pixels in the fanciest computer displays, which are each about 80 microns across. A large part of our work over the last 20 years has been just figuring out how to get DNA or RNA strands to fold themselves into a desired computer-designed shape. As we've mastered the ability to make whatever shape or pattern we desire, we've moved on to using these shapes as "pegboards" for arranging other nano-sized objects, such as protein enzymes, carbon-nanotube transistors, and fluorescent molecules.

Why is this important?

Every task in your body, from digesting food to moving your muscles to sensing light, is powered by tiny nanometer-scale biological machines, all built from the "bottom up" via the self-folding of molecules such as proteins and RNAs. The billions of transistors that make up the chips in our cell phones and computers are tens of nanometers in size, but they are built in a "top down" fashion using fancy printing processes in billion-dollar factories. Our goal is to learn how to build complex artificial devices the way biology builds natural ones—that is, starting from self-folding molecules that assemble together into larger more complex structures. In addition to vastly cheaper devices, this will enable completely new applications, such as man-made molecular machines that can make complex therapeutic decisions and apply drugs only where needed.

How did you get into this line of work?

As an undergraduate at Caltech, I had great difficulty trying to decide how to combine my diverse interests in computer science, chemistry, and biology. Fortunately, the late Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut introduced his computer science class to the hypothetical idea of building a DNA Turing machine—a very simple machine which can nevertheless run every possible computer program. He challenged us, suggesting that someone who knew about both biochemistry and computer science could come up with a concrete way to build such a DNA computer. For a project class in information theory with Yaser Abu-Mostafa, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, I came up with a pretty inefficient, yet possible, way to do this. At the time, I couldn't interest any Caltech professors in building my DNA computer, but shortly after, USC professor Len Adleman published a paper on a more practical DNA computer in Science. I joined Adleman's lab at USC as a graduate student, and I've been trying to use DNA to build computers or other complex devices ever since. I returned to Caltech as a postdoc in 2001 and became a research professor in 2008.

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A preview of Paul Rothemund's upcoming Watson Lecture.

When Beneficial Bacteria Knock But No One is Home

The community of beneficial bacteria that live in our intestines, known as the gut microbiome, are important for the development and function of the immune system. There has been growing evidence that certain probiotics—therapies that introduce beneficial bacteria into the gut—may help alleviate some of the symptoms of intestinal disorders such as Crohn's disease. By studying the interplay between genetic risk factors for Crohn's and the bacteria that populate the gut, researchers at Caltech have discovered a new potential cause for this disorder in some patients—information that may lead to advances in probiotic therapies and personalized medicine.

The results were published online in the May 5 edition of the journal Science.

Previously, scientists had found that patients with Crohn's disease often exhibit alterations in both their genome and their gut microbiome—the diverse collection of bacteria that reside in the intestine. More than 200 genes have been implicated as having a role in the susceptibility to Crohn's. For years, researchers in the field have believed that these are genes that normally function by sensing pathogenic bacteria and deploying an immune response to kill the unwanted microbes; when these genes are defective, the pathogenic bacteria survive, multiply in the gut, and lead to disease.

"While we believe that all of that is true, in this study we were curious to see if some of the genes that are important in sensing pathogenic bacteria may also be important in sensing beneficial bacteria to promote immune health," says the study's first author, Hiutung Chu, a postdoctoral scholar in biology and biological engineering at Caltech. "Typically, the signals from these beneficial commensal microbes promote anti-inflammatory responses that dampen inflammation in the gut. However, mutations in genes that sense and respond to pathogenic bacteria would also impair the response to the beneficial ones. So it's kind of a new spin on the existing dogma."

To figure this out, Chu and her colleagues in the laboratory of Sarkis Mazmanian, the Luis B. and Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology, designed several experiments to study how genetic mutations might interrupt the immune-enhancing effects of a known beneficial bacterium, Bacteroides fragilis. The researchers tested their new theory by using B. fragilis to treat mice that had nonfunctional versions of two genes known to play a role in Crohn's disease risk, called ATG16L1 and NOD2.

The researchers found that if just one of these two genes was absent, the mice were unable to develop disease-protective immune cells called regulatory T cells in response to B. fragilis—and that even after treatment with B. fragilis, symptoms in an ATG16L1-deficient mouse model of intestinal disease remained unchanged.

Chu and Mazmanian then obtained blood samples from both healthy patients and patients with Crohn's disease at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "We could see that certain patients' immune cells responded to Bacteroides fragilis, while immune cells from other patients didn't respond at all," Chu says. "Because the cells from Cedars had already been genotyped, we were able to match up our results with the patients' genotypes: immune cells from individuals with the protective version of ATG16L1 responded to the treatment, but cells from patients who had the mutated version of the gene showed no anti-inflammatory response to B. fragilis."

Mazmanian says the results suggest that the faulty versions of these genes may cause Crohn's disease in two different ways: by being unable to assist in destroying pathogenic bacteria and by preventing the beneficial immune signals usually elicited by "good" bacteria. "What Hiutung has shown is that there are specific bacteria in the human microbiome that appear to utilize the pathways that are encoded by these genes—genes normally involved in killing bacteria—to send beneficial signals to the host," he says.

This work reveals the important relationship between the genome and the microbiome—and it may also one day be used to improve the use of probiotics in clinical trials, Mazmanian says. "For example, our previous work has suggested using B. fragilis as a probiotic treatment for certain disorders. What this new study suggests is that there are certain populations that wouldn't benefit from this treatment because they have this genetic predisposition," he notes. "Right now, clinical trials don't do a good job of identifying which patients might respond best to treatment, but our experiments in mouse models suggest that, conceptually, you could design clinical trials that are more effective."

The research described in the paper, "Gene-Microbiota Interactions Contribute to the Pathogenesis of Inflammatory Bowel Disease," was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Cedars-Sinai F. Widjaja Foundation Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute, the Lupus Research Institute, the European Union, the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, and the Heritage Medical Research Institute.

In addition to Chu and Mazmanian, other Caltech coauthors include former graduate students Arya Khosravi (PhD '14) and Yue Shen (PhD '12); research technician assistants Indah Kusumawardhani and Alice Kwon; and Wei-Li Wu, a postdoctoral scholar in biology and biological engineering. Coauthors from other institutions include: Anilton Vasconcelos and Peter Ernst from UC San Diego; Larissa Cunha and Douglas Green from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis; Anne Mayer, Amal Kambal, and Herbert Virgin from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis; Stephan Targan and Dermot McGovern from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; and Ramnik Xavier from Harvard Medical School.

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Mapping Neurons to Improve the Treatment of Parkinson's

Because billions of neurons are packed into our brain, the neuronal circuits that are responsible for controlling our behaviors are by necessity highly intermingled. This tangled web makes it complicated for scientists to determine exactly which circuits do what. Now, using two laboratory techniques pioneered in part at Caltech, Caltech researchers have mapped out the pathways of a set of neurons responsible for the kinds of motor impairments—such as difficulty walking—found in patients with Parkinson's disease.

The work—from the laboratory of Viviana Gradinaru (BS '05), assistant professor of biology and biological engineering—was published on April 20 in the journal Neuron.

In patients with Parkinson's disease, gait disorders and difficulty with balance are often caused by the degeneration of a specific type of neuron—called cholinergic neurons—in a region of the brainstem called the pedunculopontine nucleus (PPN). Damage to this same population of neurons in the PPN is also linked to reward-based behaviors and disorders, such as addiction.

Previously, researchers had not been able to untangle the neural circuitry originating in the PPN to understand how both addictions and Parkinson's motor impairments are modulated within the same population of cells. Furthermore, this uncertainty created a barrier to treating those motor symptoms. After all, deep brain stimulation—in which a device is inserted into the brain to deliver electrical pulses to a targeted region—can be used to correct walking and balance difficulties in these patients, but without knowing exactly which part of the PPN to target, the procedure can lead to mixed results.

"The circuits responsible for controlling our behaviors are not nicely lined up, where this side does locomotion and this side does reward," Gradinaru says, and this disordered arrangement arises from the way neurons are structured. Much as a tree extends into the ground with long roots, neurons are made up of a cell body and a long string-like axon that can diverge and project elsewhere into different areas of the brain. Because of this shape, the researchers realized they could follow the neuron's "roots" to an area of the brain less crowded than the PPN. This would allow them to more easily look at the two very different behaviors and how they are implemented.

Cheng Xiao, a senior research scientist at Caltech and first author on the study, began by mapping the projections of the cholinergic neurons in the PPN of a rat using a technique developed by the Gradinaru lab called Passive CLARITY Technique, or PACT. In this technique, a solution of chemicals is applied to the brain; the chemicals dissolve the lipids in the tissue and render that region of the brain optically transparent—see-through, in other words—and able to take up fluorescent markers that can label different types of neurons. The researchers could then follow the path of the PPN neurons of interest, marked by a fluorescent protein, by simply looking through the rest of the brain.

Using this method, Gradinaru and Xiao were able to trace the axons of the PPN neurons as they extended into two regions of the midbrain: the ventral substantia nigra, a landmark area for Parkinson's disease that had been previously associated with locomotion; and the ventral tegmental area, a region of the brain that had been previously associated with reward.

Next, the researchers used an electrical recording technique to keep track of the signals sent by PPN neurons—confirming that these neurons do, in fact, communicate with their associated downstream structures in the midbrain. Then, the scientists went on to determine how this specific population of neurons affects behavior. To do this, they used a technique that Gradinaru helped develop called optogenetics, which allows researchers to manipulate neural activities—in this case, by either exciting or inhibiting the PPN neural projections in the midbrain—using different colors of light.

Using the optogenetic approach in rats, the researchers found that exciting the neuronal projections in the ventral substantia nigra would stimulate the animal to walk around its environment; by contrast, they could stop the animal's movement by inhibiting these same projections. Furthermore, they found that they could stimulate reward-seeking behavior by exciting the neuronal projections in the ventral tegmental area, but could cause aversive behavior by inhibiting these projections.

"Our results show that the cholinergic neurons from the PPN indeed have a role in controlling both behaviors," Gradinaru says. "Although the neurons are very densely packed and intermingled, these pathways are, to some extent, dedicated to very specialized behaviors." Determining which pathways are associated with which behaviors might also improve future treatments, she adds.

"In the past it's been difficult to target treatment to the PPN because the specific neurons associated with different behaviors are intermingled at the source—the PPN. Our results show that you could target the axonal projections in the substantia nigra for movement disorders and projections in the ventral tegmental area for reward disorders, as addiction is," Gradinaru says. In addition, she notes, these projections in the midbrain are much easier to access surgically than their source in the PPN.

Although this new information could inform clinical treatments for Parkinson's disease, the PPN is only one region of the brain and there are many more important examples of connectivity that need to be explored, Gradinaru says. "These results highlight the need for brain-wide functional and anatomical maps of these long-range neuronal projections; we've shown that tissue clearing and optogenetics are enabling technologies in the creation of these maps."

These results are published in a paper titled, "Cholinergic mesopontine signals govern locomotion and reward through dissociable midbrain pathways." In addition to Gradinaru and Xiao, other Caltech coauthors include Jounhong Ryan Cho, Chunyi Zhou, Jennifer Treweek, Ken Chan, Sheri McKinney, and Bin Yang. The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Heritage Medical Research Institute, the Pew Charitable Trust, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and the Sloan Foundation; the Beckman Institute supports the Resource Center on CLARITY, Optogenetics, and Vector Engineering (CLOVER) for technology development and broad dissemination.

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Caltech researchers have mapped out a circuit of neurons responsible for motor impairment in patients with Parkinson's disease.

Rerouting Cancer

Cancer is capable of rapidly developing resistance to therapeutic drugs, rendering those drugs harmless—often before they have a chance to work. Now, researchers at Caltech and their colleagues have identified how at least one brain cancer, called glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), adapts so fast—and they show that by formulating the right combination of drugs, doctors could potentially overcome this resistance and stop a tumor in its tracks.

The work appears in the April 12 issue of the journal Cancer Cell.

Some cancer drugs are designed to target a cell's chemical circuitry. This network of signaling pathways controls how a healthy cell functions, but in many cancers, the pathways are hyperactivated, directly leading to the aggressive nature of the disease. By blocking a key pathway, a drug can, in principle, stop the tumor from growing.

"The concept is that if you block a key node in the pathway, then the communication can't proceed and the cells can't get the signals to divide and multiply," explains Jim Heath, the Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor of Chemistry and co-corresponding author on the paper.

In reality, however, tumors can become resistant to a drug even if the drug works exactly as designed. With GBM, such resistance develops in almost every patient. "In some patients, you can treat with a drug that does everything you could want it to do, but you would never know that the drug hit the target because the tumor adapts so quickly," Heath says.

Some scientists have suspected that the cancer becomes resistant through Darwinian-type evolution, in a process similar to how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics. That is, the genetic differences of certain cancer cells may make those cells resistant to a drug. Nonresistant cells are killed by the drug and their death leaves room for the naturally resistant cells—and tumors—to grow and multiply.

However, this mechanism was not what Heath and his colleagues found in studies of tissue from glioblastoma patients. Instead, the researchers discovered that the cancer cells that developed resistance to a drug were the same cells that had responded to the drug. When the drug blocks a signaling pathway in a cancer cell, they realized, the cell simply finds a detour, like a GPS navigator that reroutes to avoid traffic.

"You can block a key part," Heath says, "and the cells will respond to route around that part you blocked."

This notion of shifting pathways is not new, but the work is the first to show that the process can happen in as little as two days. In particular, the researchers found that the changes occur with a specific drug (CC214‑2) that targets a central GBM signaling-protein called mTOR. When mTOR is inhibited, certain GBM signaling pathways are repressed, but others are activated.

To map the detours, the researchers separated individual GBM cells from patient tumors and measured the levels of several key proteins in the cells. These proteins—called phosphoproteins because they are activated by the addition of a phosphoryl group to a molecule—carry signals throughout the cell. Measurements of the abundance of the proteins showed that the drug was effective.

The story was different at the single-cell level, at which Heath and his colleagues not only measured the levels of proteins in individual cells, but also the signaling between those proteins. For example, if protein A signals protein B, then the levels of A, as measured across many single cells, will correlate with the levels of B.  By measuring the presence of several such proteins, the researchers could infer the structure of the protein signaling network.

They discovered that after the drug was introduced, the cell activated new pathways that previously had been dormant. This drug-induced pathway activation suggested several combination therapies that might halt the development of drug resistance, as well as drugging strategies that would have no effect.

In mice, Heath and his team tested seven therapies or therapy combinations that they predicted would—or would not—halt resistance development. The four that they predicted would not work were, indeed, ineffectual; the three they thought would work, did. The researchers then showed that they could see similar effects in GBM patient tissues, as well as in melanoma tumor models. This kind of rapid drug adaptation by tumors may occur in many cancer types, and helps explain how cancers can develop resistance to targeted drugs so quickly, Heath says.

The good news is that, by identifying the drug-activated signaling pathways, one may be able to find drug combinations that will suppress resistance, Heath says. Eventually, he says, clinicians may be able to analyze a patient's tumor at the single-cell level to determine the best therapy strategy.

These kinds of drug combinations would likely remain a secondary therapy against cancer—used when treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery fail. But, Heath says, they are essential for staving off the resistance that has severely limited the benefits that patients currently receive from targeted therapies.

The first authors of the Cancer Cell paper, titled "Single cell phosphoproteomics resolves adaptive signaling dynamics and informs targeted combination therapy in glioblastoma," are Wei Wei (PhD '14), a visitor in chemistry at Caltech and assistant professor at UCLA, and Young Shik Shin (MS '06, PhD '11), who now works at a biotech startup. Both are former graduate students of Heath's. A third key contributor to the work was Beatrice Gini, formerly a member of the UC San Diego (UCSD) laboratory of co-corresponding author Paul Mischel and now at UC San Francisco. Other Caltech authors include Min Xue and Kiwook Hwang (PhD '13) and graduate students Jungwoo Kim and Yapeng Su. Authors also include researchers from UCSD, the University of Verona in Italy, Northwestern University, and the Celgene Corporation. Heath is board member of and holds a financial interest in IsoPlexis, a company that is commercializing a microchip technology similar to what was used for single-cell analyses in the research described. 

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A new strategy may help overcome cancer cells' drug resistance.

Midnight Blue: A New System for Color Vision

The swirling skies of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night illustrate a mystery that has eluded biologists for more than a century—why do we perceive the color blue in the dimly lit night sky? A newly discovered mechanism of color vision in mice might help answer this question, Caltech researchers say.

The work, which was done in the laboratory of Markus Meister, Anne P. and Benjamin F. Biaggini Professor of Biological Sciences, will be published on April 14 in the print edition of the journal Nature.

In humans, vision is enabled by two types of light-sensitive photoreceptor cells called rods and cones. When these photoreceptors detect light, they send a signal to specialized neurons in the retina called retinal ganglion cells, or RGCs, which then transmit visual information to the brain by firing electrical pulses along the optic nerve.

A standard biology textbook would likely explain that vision in dim light is enabled by rods—sensitive light detectors that are only capable of producing black and white vision. Color vision, on the other hand, is enabled by cones, which are active in bright light. Humans have three types of cones, and each cone contains a different light-sensitive chemical, or pigment, that reacts to different colors, or wavelengths, of light. We have red-, green-, and blue-sensitive cones, and the brain perceives color by comparing the different signals it receives from nearby cones of each type.

To explore whether or not there were other modes of color vision, Meister and his team studied another mammal: the mouse. Previous behavioral studies indicated that mice are indeed capable of some form of color vision. As in humans, that vision is dependent on light signals picked up by cones. Mice have two types of cones—one that is sensitive to medium-wavelength green light and one that is sensitive to short-wavelength ultraviolet light (UV).

"The odd thing about the mouse is that these two kinds of cones are actually located in different parts of the retina," Meister says. "Mice look at the upper part of the visual field with their UV cones and the lower part with their green cones. We wanted to know how a mouse perceives color when any given part of the image is analyzed with only one cone or the other cone—meaning the brain can't compare the two cone signals to determine a color."

The researchers discovered that a certain type of neuron in the mouse retina, called a JAMB retinal ganglion cell (J-RGC), was critical. These J-RGCs can signal color to the brain because they fire faster in response to green light and stop firing in response to ultraviolet light. Curiously, the J-RGCs were turned on by green light even in the upper part of the visual field, which contained no green cones.

Through additional experiments, Meister and his team discovered how the J-RGC compares signals from the ultraviolet cones to signals from rods, which are also sensitive in the green part of the spectrum. This revealed, for the first time, an essential antagonistic relationship between the rods and the cones of the retina. Rods excite a neuron called a horizontal cell, which then inhibits the ultraviolet cones.

Meister and his colleague, first author Maximilian Joesch from Harvard University, wanted to determine how this color vision system would be helpful to a mouse in its natural environment. To find out, they fitted a camera with filters that would replicate the wavelengths detected by the mouse rods and cones and used it to take images of plants and materials that a mouse might encounter in nature.

Their photographic scavenger hunt yielded two materials—seeds and mouse urine—that were much more visible through the mouse's green and ultraviolet system than through human color vision. The researchers speculate that because mice need seeds for sustenance and use urine for social communication—via "urine posts," a form of territorial marking—they might use this mechanism to find food and spot neighbors.

Meister says there is reason to believe that this same pathway—from rods to horizontal cells to cones—is responsible for the human perception of the color blue in dim light. In the human retina, the horizontal cell preferentially inhibits the red and green cones, but not the blue cones.

"In really dim light, our cones don't receive enough photons to work, but they continue to emit a low-level baseline signal to the rest of the retina that is independent of light," he explains. "The rods are active, however, and through the horizontal cell they inhibit both the red and green cones. Because this baseline signal from the red and green cones is suppressed, it looks like the blue cones are more active. To the rest of the retina, it seems like everything in the field of vision is blue."  

So, perhaps Van Gogh's color choice for the night sky was a biological decision as well as an artistic one. "Color has intrigued scientists, artists, and poets throughout human civilization. Our paper adds to the understanding of how this quality of the world is perceived," Meister says.

Meister's work was published in a paper titled "A neuronal circuit for color vision based on rod-cone opponency." Funding for the work was provided by the National Institutes of Health and The International Human Frontier Science Program Organization.

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A newly discovered mechanism of color vision in mice might help answer why the dimly lit night sky has a bluish cast.

Biochemists Solve the Structure of Cell's DNA Gatekeeper

Caltech scientists have produced the most detailed map yet of the massive protein machine that controls access to the DNA-containing heart of the cell.

In a new study, a team led by André Hoelz, an assistant professor of biochemistry, reports the successful mapping of the structure of the symmetric core of the nuclear pore complex (NPC), a cellular gatekeeper that determines what molecules can enter and exit the nucleus, where a cell's genetic information is stored.

The study appears in the April 15, 2016 issue of the journal Science, featured on the cover.

The findings are the culmination of more than a decade of work by Hoelz's research group and could lead to new classes of medicine against viruses that subvert the NPC in order to hijack infected cells and that could treat various diseases associated with NPC dysfunction.

"The methods that we have been developing for the last 12 years open the door for tackling other large and flexible structures like this," says Hoelz. "The cell is full of such machineries but they have resisted structural characterization at the atomic level."

The NPC is one of the largest and most complex structures inside the cells of eukaryotes, the group of organisms that includes humans and other mammals, and it is vital for the survival of cells. It is composed of approximately 10 million atoms that together form the symmetric core as well as surrounding asymmetric structures that attach to other cellular machineries. The NPC has about 50 times the number of atoms as the ribosome—a large cellular component whose structure was not solved until the year 2000. Because the NPC is so big, it jiggles like a large block of gelatin, and this constant motion makes it difficult to get a clear snapshot of its structure.

In 2004, Hoelz laid out an ambitious plan for mapping the structure of the NPC: Rather than trying to image the entire assembly at once, he and his group would determine the crystal structures of each of its 34 protein subunits and then piece them together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. "A lot of people told us we were really crazy, that it would never work, and that it could not be done," Hoelz says.

Last year, the team published two papers in Science that detailed the structures of key pieces of the NPC's inner and outer rings, which are the two primary components of the NPC's symmetric core. The donut-shaped core is embedded in the nuclear envelope, a double membrane that surrounds the nucleus, creating a selective barrier for molecules entering and leaving the nucleus.

By being able to piece these crystal structures into a reconstruction of the intact human NPC obtained through a technique called electron cryotomography—in which entire isolated nuclei are instantaneously frozen, with all of their structures and molecules locked into place, and then probed with a transmission electron microscope to produce 2-D images that can be reassembled into a 3-D structure—"we bridged for the first time the resolution gap between low-resolution electron microscopy reconstructions that provide overall shape and high-resolution crystal structures that provide the precise positioning of all atoms," Hoelz says.

With these structures known, the mapping of the rest of the NPC's symmetric core came quickly. "It is just like when solving a puzzle," he says. "By placing the first piece confidently, we knew that we would eventually be able to place all of them."

As described in the new paper, Hoelz's research group now has solved the crystal structures of the last remaining components of the symmetric core's inner ring and determined where all of the rings' pieces fit in the NPC's overall structure.

To do this, the team had to first generate a complete "biochemical interaction map" of the entire symmetric core. Akin to a blueprint, this map describes the interconnections and interactions of all of the proteins, as part of a larger cellular machine. The process involved genetically modifying bacteria to produce purified samples of each of the 19 different protein subunits of the NPC's symmetric core and then combining the fragments two at a time inside a test tube to see which adhered to each other.

The team then used the completed interaction map as a guide for identifying the inner ring's key proteins and employed X-ray crystallography to determine the size, shape, and position of all of their atoms. X-ray crystallography involves shining X-rays on a crystallized sample and analyzing the pattern of rays reflected off the atoms in the crystal. The team analyzed thousands of samples at Caltech's Molecular Observatory—a facility developed with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation that includes an automated X-ray beam line at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory that can be controlled remotely from Caltech—and the GM/CA beam line at the Advanced Photon Source at the Argonne National Laboratory.

"We now had a clear picture of what the key jigsaw pieces of the NPC looked like and how they fit together," says Daniel Lin, a graduate student in Hoelz's lab and one of two first authors on the study.

The next step was to determine how the individual pieces fit into the larger puzzle of the NPC's overall structure. To do this, the team took advantage of an electron microscopy reconstruction of the entire human NPC published in 2015 by Martin Beck's group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. The images from Beck's group were relatively low resolution and revealed only a rough approximation of the NPC's shape, but they still provided a critical framework onto which Hoelz's team could overlay their atomic high-resolution images, captured using X-ray crystallography. The NPC is the largest cellular structure ever pieced together using such an approach.

"We were able to use the biochemical interaction map we created to solve the puzzle in an unbiased way," Hoelz says. "This not only ensured that our pieces fit in the electron microscopy reconstruction, but that they also fit together in a way that made sense in the context of the interaction map."

Hoelz said his team is committed to solving the remaining asymmetric parts of the NPC, which include filamentous structures that serve as docking sites for so-called transport factors that ferry molecules safely through the pore and other cellular machineries that are critical for the flow of genetic information from DNA to RNA to protein.

"I suspect that things are going to move very quickly now," Hoelz says. "We know exactly what we need to do. It's like we're climbing Mount Everest for the first time, and we've made it to Camp 4. All that's left is the sprint to the summit."

Along with Hoelz and Lin, additional Caltech authors on the paper, "Architecture of the symmetric core of the nuclear pore," include research technician Emily Rundlet; Thibaud Perriches, George Mobbs, and Karsten Thierbach, all postdoctoral scholars in chemistry working in the Hoelz lab; and graduate students Ferdinand Huber and Leslie Collins. Other coauthors on the paper include former Hoelz lab member Tobias Stuwe—the second cofirst author of the paper—as well as former lab members Sandra Schilbach, Yanbin Fan, Andrew Davenport (PhD '15), and Young Jeon.

The work was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences; the Caltech-Amgen Research Collaboration; the German Research Foundation; the Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds; the China Scholarship Council; Caltech startup funds; an Albert Wyrick V Scholar Award from the V Foundation for Cancer Research; a Mallinckrodt Scholar Award from the Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. Foundation; a Kimmel Scholar Award from the Sidney Kimmel Foundation; and a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award from the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation. Hoelz is also an inaugural Heritage Principal Investigator of the Heritage Medical Research Institute for the Advancement of Medicine and Science at Caltech.

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Solved: Structure of the Cell's DNA Gatekeeper
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The detailed map is the first to determine the structure of a massive protein machine with near-atomic resolution.
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
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An Up-Close View of Bacterial "Motors"

Bacteria are the most abundant form of life on Earth, and they are capable of living in diverse habitats ranging from the surface of rocks to the insides of our intestines. Over millennia, these adaptable little organisms have evolved a variety of specialized mechanisms to move themselves through their particular environments. In two recent Caltech studies, researchers used a state-of-the-art imaging technique to capture, for the first time, three-dimensional views of this tiny complicated machinery in bacteria.

"Bacteria are widely considered to be 'simple' cells; however, this assumption is a reflection of our limitations, not theirs," says Grant Jensen, a professor of biophysics and biology at Caltech and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). "In the past, we simply didn't have technology that could reveal the full glory of the nanomachines—huge complexes comprising many copies of a dozen or more unique proteins—that carry out sophisticated functions."

Jensen and his colleagues used a technique called electron cryotomography to study the complexity of these cell motility nanomachines. The technique allows them to capture 3-D images of intact cells at macromolecular resolution—specifically, with a resolution that ranges from 2 to 5 nanometers (for comparison, a whole cell can be several thousand nanometers in diameter). First, the cells are instantaneously frozen so that water molecules do not have time to rearrange to form ice crystals; this locks the cells in place without damaging their structure. Then, using a transmission electron microscope, the researchers image the cells from different angles, producing a series of 2-D images that—like a computed tomography, or CT, scan—can be digitally reconstructed into a 3-D picture of the cell's structures. Jensen's laboratory is one of only a few in the entire world that can do this type of imaging.

In a paper published in the March 11 issue of the journal Science, the Caltech team used this technique to analyze the cell motility machinery that involves a structure called the type IVa pilus machine (T4PM). This mechanism allows a bacterium to move through its environment in much the same way that Spider-Man travels between skyscrapers; the T4PM assembles a long fiber (the pilus) that attaches to a surface like a grappling hook and subsequently retracts, thus pulling the cell forward.

Although this method of movement is used by many types of bacteria, including several human pathogens, Jensen and his team used electron cryotomography to visualize this cell motility mechanism in intact Myxococcus xanthus—a type of soil bacterium. The researchers found that the structure is made up of several parts, including a pore on the outer membrane of the cell, four interconnected ring structures, and a stemlike structure. By systematically imaging mutants, each of which lacked one of the 10 T4PM core components, and comparing these mutants with normal M. xanthus cells, they mapped the locations of all 10 T4PM core components, providing insights into pilus assembly, structure, and function.

"In this study, we revealed the beautiful complexity of this machine that may be the strongest motor known in nature. The machine lets M. xanthus, a predatory bacterium, move across a field to form a 'wolf pack' with other M. xanthus cells, and hunt together for other bacteria on which to prey," Jensen says.

Another way that bacteria move about their environment is by employing a flagellum—a long whiplike structure that extends outward from the cell. The flagellum is spun by cellular machinery, creating a sort of propeller that motors the bacterium through a substrate. However, cells that must push through the thick mucus of the intestine, for example, need more powerful versions of these motors, compared to cells that only need enough propeller power to travel through a pool of water.

In a second paper, published in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on March 14, Jensen and his colleagues again used electron cryotomography to study the differences between these heavy-duty and light-duty versions of the bacterial propeller. The 3-D images they captured showed that the varying levels of propeller power among several different species of bacteria can be explained by structural differences in these tiny motors.

In order for the flagellum to act as a propeller, structures in the cell's motor must apply torque—the force needed to cause an object to rotate—to the flagellum. The researchers found that the high-power motors have additional torque-generating protein complexes that are found at a relatively wide radius from the flagellum. This extra distance provides greater leverage to rotate the flagellum, thus generating greater torque. The strength of the cell's motor was directly correlated with the number of these torque-generating complexes in the cell.

"These two studies establish a technique for solving the complete structures of large macromolecular complexes in situ, or inside intact cells," Jensen says. "Other structure determination methods, such as X-ray crystallography, require complexes to be purified out of cells, resulting in loss of components and possible contamination. On the other hand, traditional 2-D imaging alone doesn't let you see where individual protein pieces fit in the complete structure. Our electron cryotomography technique is a good solution because it can be used to look at the whole cell, providing a complete picture of the architecture and location of these structures."

The work involving the type IVa pilus machinery was published in a Science paper titled "Architecture of the type IVa pilus machine." First author Yi-Wei Chang is a research scientist at Caltech; additional coauthors include collaborators from the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology, in Marburg, Germany, and from the University of Utah. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), HHMI, the Max Planck Society, and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Work involving the flagellum machinery was published in a PNAS paper titled "Diverse high-torque bacterial flagellar motors assemble wider stator rings using a conserved protein scaffold." Additional coauthors include collaborators from Imperial College London; the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The study was supported by funding from the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and from HHMI and NIH.

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