Growing Unknown Microbes One by One

A new technique developed at Caltech helps grow individual species of the unknown microbes that live in the human body.

Trillions of bacteria live in and on the human body; a few species can make us sick, but many others keep us healthy by boosting digestion and preventing inflammation. Although there's plenty of evidence that these microbes play a collective role in human health, we still know very little about most of the individual bacterial species that make up these communities. Employing the use of a specially designed glass chip with tiny compartments, Caltech researchers now provide a way to target and grow specific microbes from the human gut—a key step in understanding which bacteria are helpful to human health and which are harmful.

The work was published the week of June 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although a few bacterial species are easy to grow in the laboratory, needing only a warm environment and plenty of food to multiply, most species that grow in and on the human body have never been successfully grown in lab conditions. It's difficult to recreate the complexity of the microbiome—the entire human microbial community—in one small plate (a lidded dish with nutrients used to grow microbes), says Rustem Ismagilov, Ethel Wilson Bowles and Robert Bowles Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech.

There are thousands of species of microbes in one sample from the human gut, Ismagilov says, "but when you grow them all together in the lab, the faster-growing bacteria will take over the plate and the slow-growing ones don't have a chance—leading to very little diversity in the grown sample." Finding slow-growing microbes of interest is like finding a needle in a haystack, he says, but his group wanted to work out a way to "just grow the needle without growing the hay."

To do this, Liang Ma, a postdoctoral scholar in Ismagilov's lab, developed a way to isolate and cultivate individual bacterial species of interest. He and his colleagues began by looking for bacterial species that contained a set of specific genetic sequences. The targeted gene sequences belong to organisms on the list of "Most Wanted" microbes—a list developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Microbiome Project. The microbes carrying these genetic sequences are found abundantly in and on the human body, but have been difficult to grow in the lab.

To grow these elusive microbes, the Caltech researchers turned to SlipChip, a microfluidic device previously developed in Ismagilov's lab. SlipChip is made up of two glass slides, each the size of a credit card, that have tiny etched grooves which become channels when the grooved surfaces are stacked atop one another. When a sample—say, a jumbled-up assortment of bacteria species collected from a colonoscopy biopsy—is added to the interconnected channels of the SlipChip, a single "slip" of the top chip will turn the channels into individual wells, with each well ideally holding a single microbe. Once sequestered in an isolated well, each individual bacterium can divide and grow without having to compete for resources with other types of faster-growing microbes.

The researchers then needed to determine which compartment of the SlipChip contained a colony of the target bacterium—which is not a simple task, says Ismagilov. "It's a Catch-22—you have to kill the organism in order to find its DNA sequence and figure out what it is, but you want a live organism at the end of the day, so that you can grow and study this new microbe," he says. "Liang solves this in a really clever way; he grows a compartment full of his target microbe in the SlipChip, then he splits the compartment in half. One half contains the live organism and the other half is sacrificed for its DNA to confirm that the sequence is that of the target microbe."

The method of creating two halves in each well in the SlipChip will be published separately in an upcoming issue of the journal Integrative Biology.

To validate the new methodology, the researchers isolated one specific bacterium from the Human Microbiome Project's "Most Wanted" list. The investigators used the SlipChip to grow this bacterium in a tiny volume of the washing fluid that was used to collect the gut bacteria sample from a volunteer. Since bacteria often depend on nutrients and signals from the extracellular environment to support growth, the substances from this fluid were used to recreate this environment within the tiny SlipChip compartment—a key to successfully growing the difficult organism in the lab.

After growing a pure culture of the previously unidentified bacterium, Ismagilov and his colleagues obtained enough genetic material to sequence a high-quality draft genome of the organism. Although a genomic sequence of the new organism is a useful tool, further studies are needed to learn how this species of microbe is involved in human health, Ismagilov says.

In the future, the new SlipChip technique may be used to isolate additional previously uncultured microbes, allowing researchers to focus their efforts on important targets, such as those that may be relevant to energy applications and the production of probiotics. The technique, says Ismagilov, allows researchers to target specific microbes in a way that was not previously possible.

The paper is titled "Gene-targeted microfluidic cultivation validated by isolation of a gut bacterium listed in Human Microbiome Project's Most Wanted taxa." In addition to Liang and Ismagilov, other coauthors include, from Caltech, associate scientist Mikhail A. Karymov, graduate student Jungwoo Kim, and postdoctoral scholar Roland Hatzenpichler, and, from the University of Chicago department of medicine, Nathanial Hubert, Ira M. Hanan, and Eugene B. Chang. The work was funded by NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute. Microfluidic technologies developed by Ismagilov's group have been licensed to Emerald BioStructures, RanDance Technologies, and SlipChip Corporation, of which Ismagilov is a cofounder.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Intro to Course Design Workshop

Jacqueline Barton Receives Priestley Medal from ACS

On June 10, the American Chemical Society (ACS) announced that in 2015 it will award its highest honor, the Priestley Medal, to Jacqueline K. Barton. Barton is Caltech's Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Chemistry, and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

The ACS awards the Priestley Medal annually to a single individual for "distinguished services to chemistry."

Barton is being recognized for her work on the chemistry of DNA.  Madeleine Jacobs, executive director and chief executive officer of the ACS, describes Barton as "an outstanding choice to be the 2015 Priestley Medalist. She combines path-breaking research with service to the chemical profession in many arenas. She has also been a superb role model, not just for young women but for all young scientists, in her ability to balance her professional and personal life."

Caltech welcomed Barton in 1989. Prior to her appointment at Caltech, Barton was a professor at Columbia University, where she completed her PhD in 1978.

"This is really an extraordinary honor for me," says Barton. "It is also very special to be able to highlight and honor my students and coworkers. It has been a privilege for me to work with them. They are the ones who have had the courage to ask tough questions and carry out hard experiments to unravel new things about the chemistry of DNA."

Barton's research group is focused on the recognition and reactions of DNA.  Her laboratory has designed transition metal complexes as luminescent and photoactive probes of DNA. She has shown how electrons can be transported through DNA, and how this chemistry may be used for DNA damage and for its repair. This chemistry has been applied in the development of DNA-based electrochemical sensors and explored in the context of long range signaling within the cell.

In addition to the Priestley Medal, Barton has received many awards, among them the ACS's Award in Pure Chemistry, a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Science Foundation's Waterman Award, and the National Medal of Science. She has also served on the board of directors of the Dow Chemical Company since 1993.

The Priestley Medal commemorates the life of British scientist Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen in 1774 and spent the last 10 years of his life in the United States. Previous recipients include Caltech chemistry professors George S. Hammond (1976), Linus Pauling (1984), John D. Roberts (1987), Harry B. Gray (1991), and Ahmed H. Zewail (2011).

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Cynthia Eller
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40-Year Service Awardees

Caltech Staff Service Awards 2014

The 59th Annual Staff Service Awards will be presented in Beckman Auditorium on Monday, June 2, at 10 a.m. During the ceremony, more than 250 staff members whose service ranges from 10 to 50 years will be honored. A full list of awardees can be found here.

This week we are featuring Caltech staff members who will be recognized for 40 and 45 years of service to the Institute.

 

The honorees include three 40-year staff members: Eugene Akutagawa, a senior scientist in biology and a member of the professional staff; Susi Martin, assistant to the Board of Trustees; and Steve Vass, a senior instrument specialist at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO).

 

Eugene Akutagawa graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in microbiology; a help-wanted ad in the Los Angeles Times for a lab assistant brought him to Caltech, where "I was standing in the hallway, waiting to be interviewed, and there's [Nobel Laureate] Max Delbrück coming out of the lab. To me, a microbiologist, he was like a god, and there he was, right in my face—so I knew this place was going to be great. And I liked its smallness, especially contrasted with UCLA, where undergraduate biology classes were 700 or 800 people spilling into the aisles."

Nevertheless, his first job proved unrewarding. "I was implanting electrodes in rats and watching them press the lever until they pooped out," Akutagawa recalls. (The lab belonged to Research Associate Marianne Olds, whose husband, Bing Professor of Behavioral Biology James Olds, had discovered the brain's pleasure center more than two decades earlier.) "Then one day, I was sitting in the parking lot eating my lunch, and a mockingbird landed on a bush and started singing his heart out. I thought, 'I know he's not really singing words, but he's communicating. It would be interesting to study that.' And lo and behold, within a few months Mark Konishi [now the Bing Professor of Behavioral Biology, Emeritus] came here from Princeton."

Konishi had already made a name for himself studying songbirds and owls, so Akutagawa changed labs. The job interview was informal, Akutagawa recalls. "Mark said, 'What experience do you have?' And I said, 'Well, when I was growing up in Hawaii, I tried to save nestlings that had fallen out of their nests.' And he looked at me very sternly and said, 'What did you feed them?' I said, 'Rice. And water.' 'Did any of them live?' 'Nope. They all died.' I think he appreciated my honesty. He never told me I got the job, but he went over to the chalkboard and drew a football shape. He said, 'That's canary seed. That goes to canaries and white-crowned sparrows.' And he drew a little circle, and he says, 'That's millet. That goes to the finches.'"

Within a decade Akutagawa had become a full-fledged collaborator, doing the meticulous microscopy needed to trace fine neural circuitry. In 1985, Konishi and Akutagawa published a paper that showed why male zebra finches sing and females don't: specialized neurons in the male's brain flourish and develop many connections, but in females they atrophy and die. Says Akutagawa, "Our relationship eventually evolved into me doing my own independent research. It's been quite a ride, I must say." The ride, however, is nearing its end; Konishi has retired, and Akutagawa will be following suit.

"I love this job," Akutagawa continues. "It's more like a hobby. It's just an amazing place to work, in large part because Mark was just an incredible supervisor. He gave us a lot of freedom, which spurs a lot of good science."

 

Susi Martin works in the Caltech president's office as assistant to the Board of Trustees. The Board has 85 members and meets five times a year, and Martin manages their comings and goings. She says, "I arrange transportation to and from the airport, hotels, whatever assistance they need. It could be anything." During her tenure, she's moved from a Selectric typewriter to a Filemaker Pro database to the Internet; from three-ring binders to PDFs.

Martin began her Caltech career in the procurement division at JPL before joining the office of then-director Bruce Murray. After a special assignment supporting the Seasat mission's Failure Review Board in 1978, she moved on to one of JPL's early biomedical technology projects before transferring to the Lab's office of planning and review. It was there in April, 1981 that Hardy Martel (BS '49, PhD '56), an electrical engineering professor and the secretary to Caltech's Board of Trustees, called to inquire whether she'd consider moving to campus. One of Martin's former colleagues in the director's office, Mary Webster, had joined the staff of Caltech president Marvin Goldberger earlier that year; when Martel became in need of an assistant, Webster had recommended Martin.

From 1988 to 1994, Martin also served first as assistant secretary and then secretary to the board of directors of the California Association for Research in Astronomy (CARA), a partnership set up by Caltech and the University of California to build and operate the W. M. Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea.

"I love working with the trustees," Martin says. "It is an honor and a delight—they are a truly remarkable group of individuals, and it is a privilege to facilitate their work on behalf of Caltech." Over the past 33 years, no two days have been the same, she says. "The challenges have been interesting, but the rewards have been awesome and tremendously diverse." For example, Martin was at JPL for the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, staffing one of the rooms set up for the trustees. "Seeing that first image of the rover's shadow cast on the surface was just amazing," she recalls. "To see something nobody else had ever seen—to be a part of that history—was so cool."

 

While Akutagawa and Martin have essentially stayed put, Steve Vass has occupied eight different offices in three of Caltech's academic divisions. Vass was born and raised in Hungary, where he learned electronics at a trade school. "I had some college but not too much." He eventually came to the United States, where he landed a job in Caltech's biology division in the laboratory of then-professor Leroy Hood (BS '60, PhD '68). Vass helped Hood and postdoc Michael Hunkapiller (PhD '74) build the protein sequenator, which automatically determines the sequence of amino acids that make up a protein. Two decades later, this machine and the other ones developed in the Hood lab—the protein synthesizer, the DNA synthesizer, and the DNA sequenator—would spark the biotech revolution of the 1990s.

In the early 1980s, Vass moved to the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, where he built X-ray diffractometers for physical chemist Richard Dickerson. Dickerson used them to make high-precision measurements of DNA's crystal structure—both its usual right-handed spiral and the less common left-handed form.

In 1987, Vass moved again—to the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy and the LIGO project. LIGO searches for the gravitational waves that Einstein predicted would be generated by the motions of extremely massive bodies—colliding black holes being an oft-cited example. The detector consists of twin interferometers, each with a perpendicular set of 4-kilometer-long arms, that were built in Louisiana and Washington in the late 1990s. When Vass joined the project, the design's details were being worked out in a prototype interferometer with 40-meter arms that had been built on the Caltech campus. Nearly two decades later, the 40-meter prototype remains the proving ground for next-generation ideas.

Vass describes how LIGO changed his perspective: "In biology, people said, 'Oh, if we only had a good chemist, we would hit it out of the park.' Then in chemistry they said, 'Oh, if we had a really good electronics guy, we would be just the best.' But in physics, they say, 'We know everything. We can do it ourselves.'"

"Basically, I run the lab, but the fun part is you get to do everything. This morning, I've been hunting for 'ground loops.' The east end of the interferometer has a 60-Hertz hum, which is line current, and it's ruining the spectrum. So I'm going around with an ohmmeter looking for something disconnected—or something connected that shouldn't be. My job is to prepare the best possible environment to get good science done."

LIGO measures the distance between suspended mirrors to within a billionth of the diameter of an atom by bouncing a laser beam between them, so Vass begins his mornings making sure the interferometer hasn't lost lock. "If people stayed really late the night before, things will be fine," he says. "But if they left at 10 p.m., everything will have drifted a little. And earthquakes affect the machine. It's much better designed against quakes now, but in earlier days if we had a local magnitude 4, our precious glass might have fallen and gotten chipped, or our mirror coating could have been ruined. Back then it was a baby, and I've seen it grow up with my kids. I have grandkids now, and someday LIGO will produce something, too—some cosmic event will happen close by, and we'll see it."

"I have to say thank you to all the people who've helped me grow," Vass concludes. "I've learned a lot here and had a lot of fun doing it."

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Douglas Smith
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Chemical Engineer Mark Davis Wins Prince of Asturias Award

Mark E. Davis, the Warren and Katharine Schlinger Professor of Chemical Engineering at Caltech, has been named one of three recipients of the 2014 Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research. Davis was recognized, along with Avelino Corma Canós of the Institute of Chemical Technology in Spain and Galen D. Stucky of UC Santa Barbara, for contributions to the development of microporous and mesoporous materials and various applications of these materials from the petrochemical industry to health care.

Microporous materials are characterized by pores that are less than 2 nanometers in diameter, while mesoporous materials have larger pores that can be up to 50 nanometers across.

Each year the Prince of Asturias Foundation selects awardees in eight categories to "encourage and promote the scientific, cultural, and humanistic values that form part of mankind's universal heritage." The foundation's citation for this year's awardees in the Technical and Scientific Research category says, in part, "The scientific and technical contributions of these three chemists have opened up very important lines of research that are on the frontiers of current knowledge, with direct applications in the reduction of pollutant emissions from vehicles and factories as well as in the processes of refining petroleum and in the chemical industry in general."

"It gives me great pleasure to receive the 2014 Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research with my esteemed colleagues Professor Corma and Stucky," says Davis. "It is gratifying to receive recognition for work on microporous and mesoporous solids, as these types of materials are the basis of significant technology that has greatly improved quality of life throughout the world."

"Mark's achievements in the development of new materials as selective catalysts and for applications in medicine have been impressive," says Jacqueline Barton, chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech. "It is outstanding to see his contributions being recognized through this award."

Davis has worked on microporous crystalline oxides, called zeolites, and zeolite-like materials since the 1980s. These materials have pores that are at the same scale as the molecules with which they react, allowing them to serve as very selective catalysts. Although zeolites are notoriously difficult to synthesize in a prescribed way, Davis and his colleagues have developed techniques for controlling their synthesis with desired nanostructures and properties. One of his group's major successes was creating zeolites with pore sizes larger than one nanometer in diameter.

Davis earned his BS, MS, and PhD at the University of Kentucky in 1977, 1978, and 1981, respectively. He joined the Caltech faculty as a professor in 1991, was named Schlinger Professor in 1993, and served as executive officer for chemical engineering from 1999 to 2004. Since 2004, he has been a member of the Experimental Therapeutics Program at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Davis sits on the editorial board of Molecular Therapy-Nucleic Acids, Drug Delivery and Translational Research, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and Nucleic Acid Therapeutics, among other publications. He is a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Chemical Society, and the American Association for Cancer Research. He also has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences. Davis has won a number of awards previously, including the Presidential Young Investigator Award (1985), the Donald Breck Award from the International Zeolite Association (1989), the Alan T. Waterman Award from the National Science Foundation (1990), the Elmer Gaden Award from the American Chemical Society (2009), and the Gabor A. Somorjai Award for Creative Research in Catalysis (2014), among others.

Davis will receive the Prince Asturias Award from His Royal Highness The Prince of Asturias at an academic ceremony in October in Oviedo, Spain.

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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Chemical Engineer Awarded Spanish Distinction
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JCAP Stabilizes Common Semiconductors For Solar Fuels Generation

Caltech researchers devise a method to protect the materials in a solar-fuel generator

Researchers around the world are trying to develop solar-driven generators that can split water, yielding hydrogen gas that could be used as clean fuel. Such a device requires efficient light-absorbing materials that attract and hold sunlight to drive the chemical reactions involved in water splitting. Semiconductors like silicon and gallium arsenide are excellent light absorbers—as is clear from their widespread use in solar panels. However, these materials rust when submerged in the type of water solutions found in such systems.

Now Caltech researchers at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) have devised a method for protecting these common semiconductors from corrosion even as the materials continue to absorb light efficiently. The finding paves the way for the use of these materials in solar-fuel generators.

"For the better part of a half century, these materials have been considered off the table for this kind of use," says Nate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry at Caltech, and the principal investigator on the paper. "But we didn't give up on developing schemes by which we could protect them, and now these technologically important semiconductors are back on the table."

The research, led by Shu Hu, a postdoctoral scholar in chemistry at Caltech, appears in the May 30 issue of the journal Science.

In the type of integrated solar-fuel generator that JCAP is striving to produce, two half-reactions must take place—one involving the oxidation of water to produce oxygen gas; the other involving the reduction of water, yielding hydrogen gas. Each half-reaction requires both a light-absorbing material to serve as the photoelectrode and a catalyst to drive the chemistry. In addition, the two reactions must be physically separated by a barrier to avoid producing an explosive mixture of their products.

Historically, it has been particularly difficult to come up with a light-absorbing material that will robustly carry out the oxidation half-reaction. Researchers have tried, without much success, a variety of materials and numerous techniques for coating the common light-absorbing semiconductors. The problem has been that if the protective layer is too thin, the aqueous solution penetrates through and corrodes the semiconductor. If, on the other hand, the layer is too thick, it prevents corrosion but also blocks the semiconductor from absorbing light and keeps electrons from passing through to reach the catalyst that drives the reaction.

At Caltech, the researchers used a process called atomic layer deposition to form a layer of titanium dioxide (TiO2)—a material found in white paint and many toothpastes and sunscreens—on single crystals of silicon, gallium arsenide, or gallium phosphide. The key was that they used a form of TiO2 known as "leaky TiO2"—because it leaks electricity. First made in the 1990s as a material that might be useful for building computer chips, leaky oxides were rejected as undesirable because of their charge-leaking behavior. However, leaky TiO2 seems to be just what was needed for this solar-fuel generator application. Deposited as a film, ranging in thickness between 4 and 143 nanometers, the TiO2 remained optically transparent on the semiconductor crystals—allowing them to absorb light—and protected them from corrosion but allowed electrons to pass through with minimal resistance.

On top of the TiO2, the researchers deposited 100-nanometer-thick "islands" of an abundant, inexpensive nickel oxide material that successfully catalyzed the oxidation of water to form molecular oxygen.

The work appears to now make a slew of choices available as possible light-absorbing materials for the oxidation side of the water-splitting equation. However, the researchers emphasize, it is not yet known whether the protective coating would work as well if applied using an inexpensive, less-controlled application technique, such as painting or spraying the TiO2 onto a semiconductor. Also, thus far, the Caltech team has only tested the coated semiconductors for a few hundred hours of continuous illumination.

"This is already a record in terms of both efficiency and stability for this field, but we don't yet know whether the system fails over the long term and are trying to ensure that we make something that will last for years over large areas, as opposed to weeks," says Lewis. "That's the next step."

The work, titled "Amorphous TiO2 Coatings Stabilize Si, GaAs, and GaP Photoanodes for Efficient Water Oxidation," was supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy through an award to JCAP, a DOE Energy Innovation Hub. Some of the work was also supported by the Resnick Sustainability Institute and the Beckman Institute at Caltech. Additional coauthors on the paper are graduate students Matthew Shaner, Joseph Beardslee, and Michael Lichterman, as well as Bruce S. Brunschwig, director of the Molecular Materials Resource Center at Caltech.

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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Stabilizing Semiconductors for Solar Fuels Generation
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Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space)

Teaching Quantum Mechanics with Minecraft and Comics

Ditch Day? It’s Today, Frosh!

Today we celebrate Ditch Day, one of Caltech's oldest traditions. During this annual spring rite—the timing of which is kept secret until the last minute—seniors ditch their classes and vanish from campus. Before they go, however, they leave behind complex, carefully planned out puzzles and challenges—known as "stacks"—designed to occupy the underclass students and prevent them from wreaking havoc on the seniors' unoccupied rooms.

Follow the action on Caltech's Facebook and Twitter pages as the undergraduates tackle the puzzles left around campus for them to solve, and get in on the conversation by sharing your favorite Ditch Day memories. Be sure to use #CaltechDitchDay in your tweets and postings.

View photos from the day:

 

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Thursday, September 25, 2014
Location to be announced

2014 Caltech Teaching Conference

Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Avery Library

Semana Latina Keynote Speaker – Dr. Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

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