VIDEO: Scientists watch the formation of memory-making proteins

For the first time ever, scientists have witnessed the formation of a protein crucial to memory formation.

In a “technological tour-de-fouce,” scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University used advanced imaging techniques and a never-before-seen mouse model to observe the formation and transportation of beta-actin protein, which is thought to be crucial to strong synaptic connections. Two papers published in Science report on the findings.

Hye Yoon Park, PhD and postdoctoral student, spent three years developing a mouse model that produces fluorescently tagged messenger RNA–the molecule that provides instruction for protein-synthesis–for beta-actin protein.

Dendrites–the spindly “fingers” of neurons–come together at synapses, structures that allow the transportation of neurotransmitters from one neuron to the next. Memories are thought be formed when synapses are strengthened and stabilized by electrical impulses, which change the shape of the dendrites. Beta-actin is thought to play a role in the shape-shifting of dendrites and thus the strengthening of synapses–and memories.

When she stimulated the mouse’s hippocampus—the area of the brain that forms and stores memories—Park observed beta-actin mRNA forming in the nuclei of neurons and travelling down to the dendrites, where the protein would be synthesized.

The second paper describes the work of graduate student Adina Buxbaum, who made a remarkable discovery about the unique way in which neurons regulate the production of beta-actin protein.

“Having a long, attenuated structure means that neurons face a logistical problem,” said Robert Singer, Ph.D., the senior author of both papers and professor and co-chair of Einstein’s department of anatomy & structural biology and co-director of the Gruss Lipper Biophotonics Center at Einstein, in a press release. “Their beta-actin mRNA molecules must travel throughout the cell, but neurons need to control their mRNA so that it makes beta-actin protein only in certain regions at the base of dendritic spines.”

To prevent the synthesis of more protein than needed, it seems that the mRNA is “packaged” into tiny granules. When neurons are stimulated, these granules fall apart, freeing up mRNA for synthesis. Buxbaum observed that after a few minutes, the free-floating mRNA becomes repackaged.

It seems that neurons have developed an “ingenious” method to control their memory-making proteins.

A Spacecraft Symphony

As Voyagers 1 and 2 blast deeper into deep space, they each take hourly measurements of the number of photons roaring past them. For 37 years, the spacecrafts have taken over 320,000 measurements. A musician with a PhD in physics, Domenico Vicinanza, has mapped each measurement with a corresponding note–higher measurements get a higher note–to produce some cosmically beautiful music. ScienceShots reports on the scintillating  symphony, which features Voyager 1 on piano and Voyager 2 on violin. The instruments overlap where the two spacecrafts were taking simultaneous measurement.

While Vicinanza admits he composed the musical arrangement purely as a fun way to present the Voyager mission data, he says transforming data sets into music in this way can help scientists recognize trends and patterns they might otherwise miss. And that makes for music that’s definitely out of this world.

Click the link above to listen.

Needle-less, on-demand vaccines: A new frontier for nanoparticles

Chemical engineers at the University of Washington have developed a new type of vaccine that could be a “game changer” in the fight against the most difficult-to-treat viral infections. Their vaccine, which could be made quickly, cheaply and be administered without a needle, uses nanoparticle technology to create long-lasting immune responses. So far, the vaccine has shown promising results in mice.

“What we wanted to do was essentially find out possible ways of producing vaccines on the spot,” says chemical engineer and lead author of the study, François Baneyx.

Traditional vaccines are made en masse in centralized locations, far away from where they might be needed. A vaccine made on-demand would be invaluable to physicians in remote places, especially in developing countries.

“For instance, a field doctor could see the beginnings of an epidemic, make vaccine doses right away, and blanket vaccinate the entire population in the affected area to prevent the spread of an epidemic,” Baneyx said in a press release.

Vaccines work by preparing your immune system for a viral attack. When you get vaccinated, you’re injected with a small dose of a microbe, which has special surface proteins called antigens that are recognized by the immune system as foreign invaders. Large cells called macrophages deliver antigens to the lymphatic system, where T cells and B cells are activated and sent out to the fight the invasion. Once the microbes have been destroyed by the lymphocytes, some of them are converted into memory cells, which will “remember” the microbe if it ever enters your system again.

Baneyx and his team were inspired by the natural process of mineralization, the process by which animals like mollusks build their shells, and engineered a protein that can mineralize an inorganic material—in this case, calcium phosphate, a compound found in tooth and bone. The resulting nanoparticles consist of a core of calcium phosphate with a “shell” made up of the engineered protein, which also acts as the antigen. (Nanoparticles are categorized as less than 100 nanometers in diameter. To put it in perspective, a strand of hair is 75,000 nanometers thick).

In a study, the researchers injected one group of mice with the vaccinating nanoparticles and another group of mice with the protein alone. Eight months later, the team infected the mice with a derivative of the influenza virus and found that the mice that had received the nanoparticle showed a heightened production of a specific type of T-cell, called cytotoxic—or “killer”—T cells.

The nanoparticles are so small that they can freely enter the lymphatic system, according to the study. Baneyx suspects that once the nanoparticles are in the lymph nodes, they are able to directly stimulate special immune response cells called dendritic cells, which are “powerful inducers” of T-cell responses.

In a real life scenario, the vaccine could be produced by mixing a freeze-dried protein—engineered based on proteins that exist on the surface of pathogens—with a solution of water, calcium and phosphate to produce the nanoparticles. They could then be administered by a disposable application system like a bandage or a patch.

Baneyx emphasized that the promising results have only been shown in mice, and that this vaccine has not been made for humans yet. The research was published in the journal Nanomedicine.

Predicting Literacy Success: A Quantitative Exploration

Remember in high school when teachers told you to use more exciting verbs and adverbs because that’s what makes good writing? Why, they proclaimed, should a character just “say” something when he can “exclaim,” “cry” or “cheer” something?

Turns out your high school writing teacher might have been wrong about this one.

A new paper from Stony Brook Department of Computer Science has found a correlation between successful literature and writing style—and it doesn’t look good for exciting verbs and adverbs. Assistant Professor Yejin Choi, a co-author of the paper titled “Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels,” examined 800 novels from eight different genres and found several predictors of literary success.

Less successful books contain a higher percentage of verbs, adverbs and foreign words (so maybe trying to sound sophisticated by peppering your stories with nods to French cuisine isn’t the best choice). Less successful books also use extreme descriptions, typical locations and “rely more on topical words,” like ‘love,’ that “could be almost cliché.” Verbs that explicitly describe actions or emotions—like “wanted,” “took,” or “promised,” appear more often in less successful books, while simpler verbs like “say” or “said” appear in more successful books. More successful books also make frequent use of adjectives and conjunctions such as “and,” “but,” and “or” to join sentences.

Choi and her colleagues defined “success” by download counts from Project Gutenberg, a donation-run website that offers over 42,000 titles for free download in electronic format.

The researchers took 1000 sentences from the beginning of each book. They performed systematic analyses based on lexical and syntactic features that have been proven effective in Natural Language Processing (NLP) tasks such as authorship attribution, genre detection, gender identification, and native language detection.

 “To the best of our knowledge, our work is the first that provides quantitative insights into the connection between the writing style and success of literacy works,” Choi said. “Our work examines a considerably larger collection—800 books—over multiple genres, providing insights into lexical, syntactic, and discourse patterns that characterize the writing styles commonly shared among the successful literature.” Their analytic system was able to predict, with 84% accuracy, which books were more successful.

Choi and her colleagues also made an unexpected discovery: readability and literary success “correlate in opposite directions.” “We conjecture that the conceptual complexity of highly successful literary work might require syntactic complexity that goes against readability,” Choi said.

Finally, my struggles reading The Classics are validated.