Category Archives: clinical application

Eliminating mutated mitochondria during in-vitro fertilization

There are several genetic diseases which originate not from mutations in the nuclear genome but mutations in the mitochondrial genome. In humans, the threshold for disease occurrence is if 60% of the mitochondria has mutated mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) (a mixed mitochondrial origin is called heteroplasmy). There is currently no cure, and no good way to prevent these genetic diseases.

Since the source of the mitochondria is solely from the oocyte, a lot of effort is invested in trying to get rid of mutated mitochondria by in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures – thus preventing the disease in the offspring. Two methods have been tried so far – pronuclear transfer (PNT) and spindle-chromosome transfer (ST).  The idea is to extract the nuclear genetic material of the oocyte or zygote and transfer it to an enucleated oocyte or zygote with healthy mitochondria. However, in both cases, there is still carry-over of some mutated mitochondria to levels that can be as high as 44%.

In this new paper published in Cell, a group of researchers from China suggest a different approach. Continue reading

This month’s Nature methods (part 1): Spinach, blue transcription & photoacoustic imaging

This month’s Nature Methods issue has several interesting imaging items & articles, including two super-resolution reviews, two optogenetics articles, and more.

This post will be dedicated to three items in the “tools in brief” section.

Blue transcription

Optogenetics usually refers to control of ion flux via light sensitive channels. However, there are other light-responsive molecules. The item titles “Optimized optogenetic gene expression” describe a work from Kevin Gardner’s lab. They fused the transcription activating domain of the protein VP16 to the protein EL222. EL222 is a light-oxygen-voltage protein from the bacterium Erythrobacter litoralis. This protein binds to DNA when illuminated by blue light, and detaches from the DNA when the light is removed. Using this system, they could induce and repress transcription of a specific gene of interest (harboring a specific promoter recognized by EL222) in mammalian cells in tissue culture and in zebra-fish embryo. This can be a great tool.

Zebra fish egg and embryo harboring  an mCherry gene under the control of the VP-EL222 (or not) under dark or blue-light conditions. Source: Motta-Mena LB et al. (2014) Nat Chem. Biol. 10:196.

Zebra fish egg and embryo harboring an mCherry gene under the control of the VP-EL222 (or not) under dark or blue-light conditions. Source: Motta-Mena LB et al. (2014) Nat Chem. Biol. 10:196.

Photoacoustic imaging

Fluorescent molecules absorb light, and then emit light at a different wavelength. Photoacoustic molecules absorb light and emit sound waves. This is called the photoacoustic effect. This effect can be utilized to image inside whole animals, and the hope of the field is to get deep tissue penetration and a high resolution. The item titled “Activatable photoacoustic probes” presents a paper by the J. Roa’s lab at Stanford university. They developed a new polymer which absorbs at near-infrared (thus allowing good tissue penetration) and these produce a higher signal than commonly used materials for such imaging. They were also able for the first time to create a photoacoustic sensor of reactive oxygen species. This new field is very interesting and very exciting.


Spinach may deserve its own post, but briefly, Spinach and Spinach2 are RNA aptamers that can be used for the genetic encoding of fluorescent RNA. This aptamers form a unique structure which binds a specific molecule which then fluoresce. However, the optical properties of this dye were not suitable for common microscope filters. So now the group that developed Spinach developed several new dyes to enhance the fluorescent range of Spinach2.

The main problem I have with Spinach is that most of their work is based on an artificial RNA composed of 60 repeats of CGG trinucleotide and the ribosomal 5S rRNA. I haven’t followed the literature of Spinach much, but haven’t seen any single molecule imaging using Spinach. but, I guess I owe Spinach a post of its own.

ResearchBlogging.orgTools in brief (2014). Chemical biology: Optimized optogenetic gene expression Nature Methods, 11 (3), 230-230 DOI: 10.1038/nmeth.2867
Tools in brief (2014). Sensors and probes: Expanding Spinach2’s spectral properties Nature Methods, 11 (3), 230-230 DOI: 10.1038/nmeth.2865
Tools in brief (2014). Imaging: Activatable photoacoustic probes Nature Methods, 11 (3), 230-230 DOI: 10.1038/nmeth.2868
Pu K, Shuhendler AJ, Jokerst JV, Mei J, Gambhir SS, Bao Z, & Rao J (2014). Semiconducting polymer nanoparticles as photoacoustic molecular imaging probes in living mice. Nature nanotechnology PMID: 24463363
Motta-Mena LB, Reade A, Mallory MJ, Glantz S, Weiner OD, Lynch KW, & Gardner KH (2014). An optogenetic gene expression system with rapid activation and deactivation kinetics. Nature chemical biology, 10 (3), 196-202 PMID: 24413462
Song W, Strack RL, Svensen N, & Jaffrey SR (2014). Plug-and-Play Fluorophores Extend the Spectral Properties of Spinach. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 136 (4), 1198-201 PMID: 24393009
Strack RL, Disney MD, & Jaffrey SR (2013). A superfolding Spinach2 reveals the dynamic nature of trinucleotide repeat-containing RNA. Nature methods, 10 (12), 1219-24 PMID: 24162923

FISEB 2014 – day 2

Due to crappy Wi-Fi at hotel, this entry will be short. I’ll try to expand once I get back home.

Anyway, today was very interesting.

At the “early bird” session, I heard about CyTOF. Essentially, instead of using a few fluorescent markers for FACS sorting of different cell types, they offer conjugating the tagging antibodies with rare heavy metal isotopes. they claim that these are not found in cells, so the background should be zero. They have >30 different isotopes they can use, and the detection is by mass spectrometry – so very accurate and distinct identification.

Next was a session on gene expression. I won’t go into details, particularly since much is unpublished yet, but Tzachi Pilpel’s talk was amazing. Who knew tRNA may have anything to do with cancer research?

As per usual, Orna Amster-Choder talked about RNA localization in bacteria with lovely images and great data.

Jeff Gerst from Weizmann discovered a possible new mechanism of mRNA transport in yeast, using the MS2 system in very neat ways.

The next session, called “oral poster 1”  featured short talks. The most interesting to me were about mRNA methylation and about how the DNA sequence surrounding consensus sequence for DNA binding proteins affects this binding. some nice insights.

The last session I attended was about the effect of tumor microenvironment on tumor progression and treatments. Heard some amazing stories. Hope still exist to cure cancer…

Tomorrow is my lecture. Excitement!

FISEB 2014 meeting -day 1

FISEB meeting happens every three years, and it includes participants from 28 different experimental biology societies in Israel. It is the best meeting to learn about biological-medical research performed in Israel at all fields and doctrines.

4 days, 8-10 parallel sessions, hundreds of lectures, >1000 posters, >2200 participants.

The first day started by a plenary lecture by Aryeh Warshel, Nobel lauret. He is really far from my field, and his lecture was very much confusing to me. But he has nice cartoons 🙂 The bottom line – enzymes are able to catalyze reactions due to electrostatic connections that are maintained stable (unlike in water).

From the afternoon sessions, I chose “signaling pathways & networks”. Relevant to this blog:

Yoav Henis from Tel-Aviv Uni. talked about oligomerization of TGF-beta receptors. he used a method he calls “co-patching”, which is essentially IF with two different antibodies for two receptor subunits. homodimerization will yield single color “patch” whereas heterodimerization will yield an overlap of both colors (co-patch). He then looked at the % of co-patch with different receptor subunits with/without ligand, or with mutants.

Maya Schulinder from Weizmann Institute talked about the contacts between mitochondria and other organelles (ER, vacuole) in yeast. These contacts are important for lipid metabolism. She new about the mito-ER contact but found there must be a second contact (bypass mechanism). She used an interesting screen method to find the bypass mechanism to the mito-ER contact: she expressed one of the contact protein as a GFP fusion. She expected that if the bypass mechanism and the mito-ER contact “share the load” of lipid metabolism, then deletion of the bypass will increase the number of the mito-ER contacts to compensate. Using automation, she imaged 6200 deletion mutants (from the yeast deletion library) each expressing this GFP fusion. As expected, she found 4 candidates which turned out to be very interesting.

Roni Seger from Weizmann showed that targeting the nuclear localization signal of ERK can be a novel cure for certain pathologies, including certain types of cancer.

On the other hand, Maya Zigler from the Hebrew Uni. suggested another new idea to cure cancer – by inducing the surrounding immune cells to destroy the tumor.

Ido Amit from Weizmann as well told us that we may not really know all the different types of cells that exist. What most people do, particularly in immunology, is rely on one or two known “markers” and use FACS or other methods to sort the cells based on these markers. However, some of the markers overlap. and there may be cells for which we do not have any markers and they “disappear” in the crowd of unsorted cells. or, the could be further sub-types we do not know about. So he approached the problem in an unbiased way – he took all the cells in the spleen, and did single cell RNA seq to individual cells from the spleen. Thus, each cell type has several hundred/thousand “markers” based on gene expression profiles. Not only did this method agree with the common FACS sorting markers, but he identified several sub-types unknown before.  Expect his paper this month in Science. His paper just got published in Science.

Finally, Yaron Shav-tal from Bar-Ilan Uni. used the MS2 system to study how perturbing the signaling pathway of serum stimulation affects transcription of beta-actin gene. As per usual – very neat job and interesting results.

Green Fluorescent sushi

Fluorescent proteins have been isolated from invertebrate species only, until now.  A group of researchers from Japan isolated a green fluorescent protein from the freshwater eel called Unagi (yes, the same Unagi used for sushi).

The protein, named UnaG, is smaller than GFP (139 amino acids compared to 237 of GFP), excited at 498nm (after bilirubin binding) and emits light at 527nm.

UnaG is a green fluorescent protein found in eel muscle. Source: Kumagai et al. (2013) Cell 153(7):1602-1611

UnaG is a green fluorescent protein found in eel muscle. Source: Kumagai et al. (2013) Cell 153(7):1602-1611

UnaG, glows in green upon noncovalent binding to bilirubin – a membrane permeable heme metabolite.  This is a major advantage, since this mechanism can be utilized as a fluorescent switch: add bilirubin–> get fluorescence; remove bilirubin–>remove fluorescent.

This unique characteristic of UnaG prompted the researchers to develop a sensitive assay to measure bilirubin levels in blood serum – a known biomarker for several human diseases. Their assay sensitivity is 100-fold better than current clinical assays, they claim.

Another big advantage of this protein is that its fluorescence is independent of oxygen (unlike GFP-based FPs).  UnaG can therefore be used under anaerobic conditions.

UnaG fluorescence depends on bilirubin, but not on oxygen. Source: Kumagai et al. (2013) Cell 153(7):1602-1611

UnaG fluorescence depends on bilirubin, but not on oxygen. Source: Kumagai et al. (2013) Cell 153(7):1602-1611

The biological role of UnaG is still unknown, but it is suggested to have a function in oxidative stress.

I think that this is just the opening shot for the search for more vertebrate fluorescent proteins…

Read a research highlight from Nature Methods.

Unagi, from “Friends”:

ResearchBlogging.orgKumagai A, Ando R, Miyatake H, Greimel P, Kobayashi T, Hirabayashi Y, Shimogori T, & Miyawaki A (2013). A bilirubin-inducible fluorescent protein from eel muscle. Cell, 153 (7), 1602-11 PMID: 23768684