Nobel Prizes 2013: The shipping machinery of cells

If the cells that make up your body are little factories, then the shipping department just picked up a Nobel Prize this morning with the award for physiology or medicine going to researchers Randy Schekman of the University of California at Berkeley, James Rothman of Yale University, and Thomas Südhof of Stanford. These scientists don't work together, but their research does overlap and play off each other in important ways. In fact, this isn't the first time some of these men have shared major research awards.

What makes their work so important? It's really all about increasing our understanding of how individual cells operate and participate in major bodily systems like immunity or hormone control. If you built little models of cells back in grade school, you probably have a mental image of them as a sort of lumpy sack with a couple of things inside — a big fat nucleus and some squirrelly little mitochondria, mostly. But it turns out that there's a lot more happening in the interior of a cell than that. Much of that activity is centered around vesicles — bubbles in the fluid that fills a cell. There are many different kinds of vesicles doing many different jobs, but one of the important things they do is move molecules, either within the cell or from the cell to the outside world.

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How an aborted fetus may have saved your life (and the lives of many other fetuses)

Cell culture lines are cells, taken from donor tissue, that have been divided and separated over and over and over — providing researchers with reliably identical "families" of cells that can be used to biomedical research. Some, like the now-famous HeLa line, are derived from cancerous tissue and replicate indefinitely. Others, like WI-38, will only divide a set number of times (in the case of WI-38, it's 50), but new cells can be frozen at any point and stored. When you thaw them out later, they'll pick back up dividing from the point in the 50-division cycle where they were when frozen.

WI-38 is a particularly important cell culture line. Used extensively in the development of vaccines, these are the cells that helped create the vaccine for Rubella, a disease that, just a few decades ago, used to kill and maim many fetuses whose mothers' became infected. Between 1962 and 1965, it's estimated that rubella infections caused 30,000 stillbirths and left 20,000 children with life-long disabilities.

But WI-38 is controversial. That's partly because the cells that founded the line came from the lung tissue of a fetus that was legally aborted during the fourth month of pregnancy by a woman in Sweden in 1962. At Nature News, Meredith Wadman has a fascinating long read about the moral and ethical issues surrounding WI-38. This isn't just about the abortion question. Also at issue: Did the fetus' mother consent to tissue donation? And are we okay with the fact that she and her family have never received compensation, despite the money that's been made off selling WI-38 cell cultures?

Medical Research: Cell Division by Meredith Wadman in Nature News

Decorate your house with vintage microscope images

I love these images of diseased cells that are currently for sale on Etsy. The photos appear to be prints made from slides taken at Duke University in the 1970s. You can pick up a set of six 8x10s for $24 or four 8x10s for $16.

Via Michelle Banks

Smart Petri dish photographs itself

One of the more tedious parts of health science and microbiology is monitoring Petri dishes. It's time consuming. And, if you don't look at everything that's going on in the Petri dish often enough, you risk missing something really important.

Enter technology. A team at Caltech has put together a prototype "smart Petri dish" that monitors itself in real time and delivers information directly from the incubator to a scientist's computer. In a way, it's a lot like that time Cliff Huxtable took a Polaroid of the food inside the fridge, so his kids wouldn't keep standing there with the door open.

The prototype, dubbed the ePetri, was created from Lego blocks and a cell-phone image sensor, and uses light from a Google Android smart phone. A sample is placed on top of a small image-sensor chip, which uses an Android phone's LED screen as a light source.

The whole device is placed in an incubator, and the image-sensor chip connects to a laptop outside through a wire. As the image sensor snaps pictures of the cells growing in real time, the laptop stitches hundreds of images together to create a high-resolution picture of what is happening on the dish.

Via Brian Mossop