Last week the California Academy of Sciences, in conjunction with Gladstone Institutes, hosted a “five-day biosciences festival” called Brilliant!Science. CalAcademy is terrific at outreach and education, and Gladstone is home to a lot of cutting-edge research, so of course our ears were perked. Friday evening featured an event called “Body Art: An Evening Science Mingle,” which focused on “the human body as an art form — from brain to bone.” Images from CalAcademy and Gladstone labs would be on display and lab coat-wearing scientists would be on hand to provide explanations and insights. Clearly, we had to be there. So we sent a brave expeditionary force — namely, Anne and Elizabeth — to see what this was all about.
The event was organized like an art opening, with biological images (mostly fluorescent microscopy) on the walls, and scientists sprinkled around the room to help explain the images, what they were, and sometimes why they were so interesting. There were also drinks, tacos, and a DJ.
And it was pretty awesome. The room was hopping. The scientists who were there were accessible and friendly. The images were gorgeous. As we walked around the room, we overheard interesting and meaningful conversations about science, science publishing, and science policy. As a way to make some very complex science more accessible, it was great. As a way to get scientists and non-scientists to talk, or even to get scientists who didn’t previously know each other to talk, it was phenomenal.
We spent quite a bit of time conversing with Jack Dumbacher from CalAcademy (check out his video called What Magic Is), and something he cited as motivating this event was that there are a lot of institutions around the San Francisco Bay Area that are doing very prestigious research, but laypeople don’t necessarily know about it because those institutions don’t have the same kind of public face and outreach capabilities that the California Academy of Sciences does. The sense we got from him was that this was a bit of a pilot project — to see how CalAcademy could partner with academics and researchers to give more visibility to the science they were doing.
Many of the other Brilliant!Science events sounded more science-heavy than this one — as part of Brilliant!Science, they hosted two lectures, and both Nightlife and the family-oriented events over the weekend at the museum had more demonstrations and discussion components. And to be honest, that would make up for the biggest thing we came away wanting – more science. Often, it took probing to get the researchers there to go past ‘what is this an image of?’ and into ‘what does this image mean?’
Which is understandable, because the latter is much harder to understand – much less explain without using jargon.
And, so you won’t feel like you missed out on too much, here are some images from the event (albeit not in their gorgeous, high-res glory), and a brief description of what they mean.
So, this is a crucial image and a cool demonstration of some of the groundbreaking science the Gladstone Institute was founded on. The spindly red cells are neurons. (Or at least, they look a lot like neurons in a lot of ways — more on why we can’t definitively say ‘those are neurons’ would be a matter for two or three rather in-depth posts. It’s like saying ‘They walk like a duck and talk like a duck’ instead of ‘They’re ducks!’) But they don’t come from a brain. They came from a skin sample.
What many researchers at Gladstone specialize in, and what Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka discovered, is that you can take just about any cell, give it a drug cocktail of four proteins, and turn it into something that looks like a stem cell. Those stem cells that came from non-stem cells are called “Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells” or iPS cells. With iPS cells, you can then push them to become just about any OTHER cell type, just like you would with embryonic stem cells (ES cells). What the researchers did to create the image above was get skin samples from human patients, turn those skin cells into iPS cells, and then turn those iPS cells into neurons. It’s a good image to demonstrate this because the great big blobs of cells are, (I think, probably, based on what neurons tend to look like and what iPS/ES cells tend to look like) residual iPS cells in the dish.
This is really cool because it’s the essence of how iPS technology can change the world of medicine. Hopefully, soon, we won’t have to worry about finding an organ donor that won’t be rejected. We’ll be able to grow replacement parts, from your own cells, in a dish.
This is ALSO really cool, from the standpoint of a biologist, because it is changing the way we do research. Getting live human neurons is NOT a thing that we, as researchers, can really do. (Most people are attached to their neurons.) And that makes studying the behavior of neurons in degenerative diseases like Huntington’s (or Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s, or ALS, or…) very difficult. With iPS technology, we can make neurons that have similar biochemical makeup — and highly similar genetics — to the cells that fail in these diseases. And we can do biochemical tests on them. Which is a huge, fundamental, shift.
Let’s get a bit simpler. We’re looking at heart muscle cells, grown in a dish using the same iPS technique I talked about above. But my favorite part of this pair of images, to be honest, isn’t the groundbreaking science that they show. It’s the intricacy. One of the coolest things for me, as someone who spends quite a bit of time thinking about biology, and how understanding biology can change your view of the world, is the sheer intricacy of many biological systems – and hence images. This pair of images, to my mind, is a beautiful demonstration of exactly that (along with a few other things). The same cells are featured in each panel, at different levels of zoom. In fact, the red meshwork in the zoomed in image is the same as the red meshwork in the zoomed out image — which gives you a bit of a sense of the glorious spiderwebbed pattern that these cells are creating.
We asked several of the researchers at the event what their favorite result was – which image had the coolest result associated with it. And this image came up several times. What’s cool about this image, to me, is that it’s another paradigm shift in how we think about cells. I laid out a fairly complicated scheme for regenerative medicine above: get some skin cells, turn them into iPS cells, treat the iPS cells, then turn those iPS cells into whatever cell type it is you’re actually interested in, then insert those cells into the patient. There are a lot of possible hold-ups there.
What if you could just reprogram the tissue of interest? Say, send a message to the pancreas of a diabetes patient: “Wait! You need more islets of langerhans! Maybe make some?” Or someone who just suffered a heart attack: “Hey, heart! I know you’re hurting, and you want to make scar tissue, but maybe throw some heart muscle cells in there too. You’ll thank me later.”
That’s essentially what the people who created this image did. They regrew cardiomyocytes (the green cells) by reprogramming scar tissue (the blue/purple smears) in the heart of a living mouse.
This was the other universally popular image at the event. It shows something quite different than the other images I’ve included, so I’ll get a bit more basic in the explanation. First off, this isn’t an image of cultured cells. It’s a slice of brain tissue. The red is neurons, and the green is, well, I’ll call them “hijacked” neurons.
Neurons pass signals from one place to another using “electricity”, if by electricity you mean charged ions. The flux of sodium, potassium, and calcium into and out of the cell (and into and out of different parts of the cell) control the relative charge in any area, and send signals cascading down axons. This prompts neurotransmitters to be released from the cell at the end of one axon, and picked up by another, which sends another signal rocketing down another neuron.
Now, bacteria have some very useful proteins that respond to light. One, called halorhodopsin, pumps chloride into a cell when it is illuminated. If cells have lots of chloride in them, then a bunch more potassium or sodium ions won’t make that part of the cell positively charged — it’ll just even everything out — and the cascade can’t happen. Which means that if a mammalian neuron has halorhodopsin in it, you can silence it by shining light on it.
And that is what these researchers did — they inserted halorhodopsin (in green) into a very particular area of a brain: the part called the striatum, a region involved in the pathology of Parkinson’s. Then they can silence activity in the striatum in live mice, essentially, with an LED. This is a technique called “optogenetics,” and it is another way that biological research is changing so, so rapidly these days.
It was a great evening all around, but I want to leave you with a really ridiculous story. As part of the event, these two models were wandering around in muscular body paint. It was pretty cool. What was even cooler (? stranger?) was when the female model came up to me and said, “Elizabeth?! Hey! It’s Brooke!”
That’s one of my circus coaches. Which, I think, summarizes my life pretty well: Go to a fantastic sciencey mixer, and run into a circus person I know.