Lab bits


Extreme Science

Since living conditions in other parts of our solar system are proving to be extreme, scientists searching for extraterrestrial life need to know something about creatures that can survive such conditions. Fortunately, they can study Earth's extremophiles-microbes that thrive in conditions that would kill most life forms.

This summer, in hopes of aiding the search for life on other planets and moons, scientists in the MBL's Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution are analyzing acid- and metal-loving extremophiles collected from the Rio Tinto, an ancient, acidic river in Spain, as well as microbes found in the super-hot conditions of deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

The research, funded by NASA, is designed to provide clues about the genetics and physiology of these specially adapted organisms. Such information is critical to helping astrobiologists hypothesize what kind of extraterrestrial life they might expect to find and how best to search for it.

Greetings from Bug Central

Cape Cod is well known for its beaches and seafood, but now it's also becoming a hot spot for the study of human parasites.

In fact, the MBL and the tiny village of Woods Hole are currently buzzing with an international array of established and aspiring parasitologists, who have come here especially to study the inner-workings of the bugs that cause malaria, African sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis, and leishmaniasis.

Parasitology is a serious business at the MBL, and it should be. In 1999, the World Health Organization listed infectious and parasitic diseases as a leading cause of death worldwide.

Recently, the MBL has attracted an increasing number of parasitologists, many of whom discovered the facility through the laboratory's Biology of Parasitism course, a highly regarded intensive graduate-level summer program. The course, which lasts from June 8 to August 6, draws faculty and students from around the world, including those whose countries are most devastated by parasitic diseases.

The MBL also hosts several international parasitology meetings annually, and attracts visiting scholars from around the globe throughout the year. The scholars, many of whom are from developing countries, are drawn to the MBL's Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution, where they learn gene sequencing and other molecular techniques, use sophisticated lab equipment, and collaborate with leading scientists in the field.

The goal of the MBL's heavy investment in parasitology is to understand these potentially harmful creatures on a genetic level, which could enable scientists to develop drugs or vaccines that will save lives and end suffering.

Shedding Light on Age-Related Female Infertility

Women struggling with age-related infertility often learn that older eggs are part of the problem. David Keefe, an in vitro fertilization expert in Boston and Providence, and the director of the MBL's Laboratory for Reproductive Medicine, Brown University & Women and Infants Hospital has been studying this problem and recently published the results of new research that shows that the condition of an older egg's chromosomes is key to its reproductive success. The research will enable in-vitro specialists to select the most viable eggs for fertilization.

Using the PolScope, a polarized light microscope invented at the MBL to peer into living cells, Keefe and his colleagues previously discovered that abnormal spindles underlie the fertility problems of some older women. Spindles are the thread-like structures that tether and partition chromosomes. The scientists' studies on mice showed that the spindle abnormalities arise from age-related loss of telomeres, DNA material on the chromosomes' tips. The telomeres help keep the genes intact during cell division, and since they tend to shorten or degrade as eggs age, the scientists suspected that human eggs with shorter telomeres would have an increased risk for genetic mishaps, making them less viable as in vitro implants.

The new study, published in the April issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, demonstrated that in vitro fertilized eggs with shorter telomeres were more likely to degenerate: most either didn't develop into an embryo at all, or the developing embryo died before becoming a fetus.

This summer Keefe and his colleagues will continue to study telomeres in hopes of learning more about the causes and, possible prevention, of age-related telomere shortening.

Meanwhile, since aging eggs develop at different rates in humans, in vitro fertilization specialists hoping to better their patients' chances for success can now use a PolScope to find and select eggs with longer telomeres.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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