February 2010

Volume 24 Issue 2

The Scientist February 2010 Cover




Contributors Kai Simons began researching cell membrane biology in the 1960s and 70s as a postdoc at Rockefeller University in New York, and he’s never looked back. “The field [is] at the crossroads of protein and lipid biochemistry, as well as cell biology and biophysics,” making it a challenging—but exciting—area to work in, says Simons, director emeritus at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biol

The Next New Thing

By Sarah Greene The Next New Thing Our conversation is about to get a lot more interesting. Can we invigorate science through greater interactive behavior? Way before Facebook, scientists and readers of science—pioneers by nature—were establishing their own brand of participatory media. Twenty-two years ago, when Fred Ausubel and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School were formulating the lab manual Curr


Mail Speak Your Mind Steven Wiley’s article about the lack of willingness to debate1 is an excellent description of the current state of culture in biology. Perhaps the most important comment in the article is “Besides, why should anyone respect an opinion that even the author is not willing to claim?” Given the evident truth in this statement, are the excuses for keeping peer review anonymous really paramount? Colin Anderson Univer

Lit Lazarus worms

By Jef Akst Lit Lazarus worms Light micrograph of Caenorhabditis elegans © Sinclair Stammers / Photo Researchers, Inc. When postdoc Usama Al-Atar returned to retrieve his worms after an hour of incubating them with a photo-controlled molecular switch, he thought they were dead. Dozens of nematodes hung lifeless in solution, and Al-Atar could not see the rhythmic beating of their tiny pharyngeal bulbs (worm hearts) with his low magnification m

A rare chance

By Alison McCook A rare chance Hannah’s swollen belly at 3 weeks Courtesy of Carrie Ostrea Over the course of 5 days last summer, an army of researchers and clinicians examined, poked, and prodded 1-year-old Hannah Ostrea at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Experts in neurology, rehabilitation medicine, physical therapy, speech pathology, and anesthesiology gave the little girl an EEG, a test of her heart’s electrical activity

Dry out, put away

By Victoria Stern Dry out, put away The freezer meltdown was a huge disaster for Judy Muller-Cohn. One night in 1997, she lost millions of dollars’ worth of crucial DNA and protein samples. But this major meltdown at Mycogen Corporation, an agriculture and biotechnology company based in San Diego, ultimately had a happy ending for Muller-Cohn. “My husband and I knew that sample management was a major issue,” says Muller-Cohn. Her husba

Shrinky dink-idics

By Bob Grant Shrinky dink-idics Khine displays some shrinky dink molds that will make stem discs. © Dave lauridsen photography The first year of a faculty position is tough anywhere. But picture starting at a university that didn’t exist the year before, where the equipment you need to conduct your research is nonexistent, and you get an idea of what bioengineer Michelle Khine experienced in her first year at the University of Californi

A mossy renaissance

By Katherine Bagley A mossy renaissance Protonema cells of Physcomitrella patens The world’s top moss researchers—all eight of them—were gathered in a college lecture hall in Freiburg, Germany when they found out they had been granted funding to sequence a common moss (Physcomitrella patens) genome. It was September 2004, just a year after the group had made a joint decision to increase the moss field’s visibility. The moss field


Time to Outsource Lab Management?

By Fraser Black Time to Outsource Lab Management? Expert scientific asset management drives efficiency in R&D. The biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries waste huge amounts of time, money and resources, especially in operational areas. Pressure to improve cost effectiveness has spurred some innovation, including such approaches as process mapping and value analysis, also known as cost-out, in manufacturing. However, further opportunities exist to signifi

Why I Love Vendors

By Steven Wiley Why I Love Vendors Talks and posters are about where biology has been—but the booths with the sales pitches and freebies tell you where science is going. I have found that creating a new, useful tool for scientists can be just as gratifying as discovering a new protein. In December, I attended the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, as I have done regularly for the last several decades. It is always a good w

My Life on a Raft

By Kai Simons My Life on a Raft The picture of the lipid bilayer of cell membranes as a boring solvent for proteins has given rise to one that is much more dynamic, and which is revealing new mechanisms and targets for drug delivery. Illustration by Brian Stauffer hen I was 11 years old, I stood with my brother outside the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton waiting for Albert Einstein to come to work so that I could take his picture

Fork in the Road

By Colin Macilwain Fork in the Road Will the new European Research Council lead EU science to success or lose its way? Illustrations by Tomasz Walenta nce in a generation, perhaps, a new research agency is born that does unprecedented things. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) got going (after 5 years of argument) in 1951 and its budget hit $1 billion 32 years later, in 1983. The budget of the UK Medical Research Council, which was

The Counterfeiter

By Brendan Borrell The Counterfeiter The story of how one of pharma’s biggest enemies was nabbed in Houston, Texas Stone / Getty Images On May 25, 2007, Kevin Xu logged into his Gmail account and found a startling message from a man who could have been his biggest client. rom an office suite on the 28th floor of the Plaza Royale in Beijing, the baby-faced businessman had gone from selling shark cartilage and penicillin to Chinese

Prize-Winning PhD

By Karen Hopkin Prize-Winning PhD Aaron Ciechanover didn’t set out to win a Nobel Prize for discovering ubiquitin’s all-important role in protein degradation. He was just trying to graduate. © Dan Porges Aaron Ciechanover could not have predicted that the humble system he was studying would play a central role in everything that happens from embryonic development to adulthood. Of course he was just a graduate student at the time. ̶

The Path Less Traveled

By Bob Grant The Path Less Traveled A freshly demonstrated theory on how peptides enter cells sparks ongoing debate. The uptake of fluorescein-labeled peptides into cells via endocytosis at 5 microM peptide (top) and independent of endocytosis at 20 microM peptide (bottom) Courtesy of Roland Brock Describing how peptides and proteins traverse cell membranes is huge in the field of cell biology. Peptides, short chains of amino acids,

AMPKed up

By Jef Akst AMPKed up © Biophoto Associates / Photo Researchers, Inc. The paper: S. Jäger et al., “AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) action in skeletal muscle via direct phosphorylation of PGC-1alpha,” Proc Natl Acad Sci, 104(29):12017–22, 2007. (Cited in 106 papers) The finding: AMP-activated kinase (AMPK) plays a major role in the regulation of cellular metabolism, increasing gene expression in a va


Reviving hearts

By Victoria Stern Reviving hearts © Andy Crump / Photo Researchers, Inc. The paper: M. Laflamme et al., “Cardiomyocytes derived from human embryonic stem cells in pro-survival factors enhance function of infarcted rat hearts,” Nat Biotech, 25:993–94, 2007. (Cited in 140 papers) The finding: Charles Murry and his colleagues at the University of Washington demonstrated that cardiomyocytes derived from human embryo

Stress signal

By Katherine Bagley Stress signal The paper: E. Baena-González et al., “A central integrator of transcription networks in plant stress and energy signaling,” Nature, 448:938–42, 2007. (Cited in 66 papers) The finding: Research on how plants tolerate stress has largely been focused on studying the mechanisms and pathways of how plants respond to specific, isolated sources of stress, such as drought, salt, or temperatu

Aaron Wheeler: Big ideas, little chips

By Sarah Webb Aaron Wheeler: Big ideas, little chips © Hill Peppard Even when approached with a seemingly outlandish research idea, the one word that isn’t in analytical chemist Aaron Wheeler’s vocabulary is “no.” Instead, he might be skeptical, says Mais Jebrail, one of Wheeler’s PhD students, but he’ll say, “Try it out and convince me.” Wheeler has used his expertise in microfluidics

Can Mass Spec Really Do That?

By Jeffrey M. Perkel Can Mass Spec Really Do That? Unexpected applications of a technique best known as a proteomics powerhouse. Mass spectrometry (MS) is not just about proteomics, though its star in that field certainly shines bright. As anyone in the drug discovery, food science, petroleum, or chemistry industries can tell you, mass spec is considerably broader than that. “Traditionally it was a technique for looking at relatively small compou

The Matchmaking Market

#marketplaces { font-size: 11px; font-family: "Trebuchet MS", Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; width: 525px; } #marketplaces thead td { font-weight:bold; } #marketplaces td { padding: 2px; border: 1px solid black; } By Jef Akst The Matchmaking Market Wanted: Small biotech, enjoys sequencing antibodies, manufacturing, and other temporary services. Call me. © Ken Orvidas Last August, Kunhua Chen, CEO at Exon Biosystems—a

Monetize your Science

Tips on how to identify an unmet clinical need that can make you rich

Phineas Gage

By Victoria Stern Phineas Gage The image has been laterally reversed to show the features correctly since daguerreotypes are mirror images. From the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus On September 13, 1848, a 25-year-old railroad worker named Phineas Gage triggered an explosion that propelled a 3 foot 7 inch iron rod straight through his skull, destroying a good portion of his brain. Luckily, the iron missed the critical blood vessels and parts of t

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