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Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

What do the signs tell us?

In Hawaii, numerous small earthquakes caused parts of Big Island to shake. Geologists, who monitor the islands regularly, warned of a pending volcanic eruption. They were right, clearing people away from lava flows.

How did they know?

It’s a combination of history and science. Researchers in the area point to specific signs that are reflections of patterns that have developed in past years. The small earthquakes, like the feel of the ground trembling as a herd of elephants is approaching in the Serengeti, suggest the movement of magma underneath the ground.

Higher volumes of lava flows could come later on, as in 1955 and 1960, say USGS scientists in the archipelago.

The science involves regular monitoring of events, looking for evidence of what’s going on below the surface. “Hopefully we’ll get smart enough that we can see [tremors] coming or at least be able to use that as a proxy for having people on the ground watching these things,” Tina Neal, scientist-in-charge at USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, explained to KHON2 News in Honolulu.

People look for signs in everything they do, hoping to learn from history and to use whatever evidence is
available to make predictions and react accordingly.

Your doctor does it during your annual physical, monitoring your blood chemistry, checking your heart and lungs, and asking basic questions about your lifestyle.

Scientists around Long Island are involved in a broad range of studies. Geneticists, for example, try to see what the sequence of base pairs might mean for you. Their information, like the data the geologists gather in
Hawaii, doesn’t indicate exactly what will happen and when, but it can suggest developments that might affect you.

Cancer researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Stony Brook University are using tools like the gene editing system called CRISPR to see how changing the genetic code affects the course of development or the pathway for a disease. Gene editing can help localize the regions responsible for the equivalent of destructive events in our own bodies, showing where they are and what sequences cause progression.

Scientists, often working six or seven days a week, push the frontiers of our ability to make sense of
whatever signs they collect. Once they gather that information, they can use it to help create more accurate diagnoses and to develop therapies that have individualized benefits.

Indeed, not all breast cancers are the same, which means that not all treatments will have the same effect. Some cancers will respond to one type of therapy, while others will barely react to the same treatment.

Fundamental, or basic, research is critical to the understanding of translational challenges like treating
Alzheimer’s patients or curing potentially deadly fungal infections.

Indeed, most scientists who “discover” a treatment will recognize the seminal studies that helped them finish a job started years — and in some cases decades — before they developed cures. Treatments often start long before the clinical stages, when scientists want to know how or why something happens. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake can lead to unexpected and important benefits.

Outside the realm of medicine, researchers on Long Island are working on areas like understanding the climate and weather, and the effect on energy production.

Numerous scientists at SBU and Brookhaven National Laboratory study the climate, hoping to understand how one of the most problematic parts of predicting the weather — clouds — affects what could happen tomorrow or in the next decade.

The research all these scientists do helps us live longer and better lives, offering us early warnings of
developing possibilities.

Scientists not only interpret what the signs tell us, but can also help us figure out the right signs to study.

Gholson Lyon. Photo courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

By Daniel Dunaief

With the cost of determining the order of base pairs in the human genome decreasing, scientists are increasingly looking for ways to understand how mutations lead to specific characteristics. Gholson Lyon, an assistant professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, recently made such a discovery in a gene called NAA15.

People with mutations in this gene had intellectual disability, developmental delay, autism spectrum disorder, abnormal facial features and, in some cases, congenital cardiac anomalies.

In a recent interview, Lyon explained that he is trying to understand how certain mutations influence the expression of specific traits of interest, such as intelligence, motor development and heart development. He’s reached out to researchers scattered around the world to find evidence of people who had similar symptoms, to see if they shared specific genetic mutations in NAA15 and found 37 people from 32 families with this condition.

“I really scoured the planet and asked a lot of people about this,” said Lyon, who recently published his research in The American Journal of Human Genetics. The benefit of this kind of work, he explained, is that it can help screen for specific conditions for families at birth, giving them an ability to get an earlier diagnosis and, potentially, earlier treatment. “Being able to identify children at birth and to know that they are at risk of developing these disorders would, in a perfect world” allow doctors to dedicate resources to help people with this condition, he said.

Lyon published a similar study on a condition he named Ogden syndrome seven years ago, in which five boys in a single family died before they reached the age of 3. A mutation in a similar gene, called NAA10, led to these symptoms, which is linked to the X chromosome and was only found in boys.

Lyon found the genes responsible on NAA15 by comparing people with these symptoms to the average genome. The large database, which comes from ExAC and gnomAD, made it possible to do a “statistical calculation,” he said. The next steps in the research is to look for protein changes in the pathway in which these genes are involved. The people he studied in this paper are all heterozygous, which means they have one gene that has a mutation and the other that does not.

With this condition, they have something called haploinsufficiency. In these circumstances, they need both copies of the fully functioning gene to produce the necessary proteins. These mutations likely decrease the function of the protein. Lyon would like to study each of these cases more carefully to understand how much the mutation contributes to the various conditions. He looked for evidence of homozygous mutations but didn’t find any. “We don’t know if they don’t exist” because the defective gene may cause spontaneous miscarriages or if they just didn’t find them yet, he said.

Lyon plans on reaching out to geneticist Fowzan Alkuraya, who was trained in the United States and is working at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre clinic in Saudi Arabia. The geneticist has studied the genes responsible for a higher rate of genetic disorders linked to the more common practice of people having children with cousins in what are called consanguineous marriages. 

Alkuraya works on the Saudi Human Genome Program, which studies the inherited diseases that have a higher incidence in Saudi Arabia.

For Lyon, finding the people who carry this mutation was challenging, in part because it hasn’t run in the family for multiple generations. Instead, Lyon and his colleagues, including Holly Stessman of Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska and Linyan Meng at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, found 32 unrelated families. In some of these families, one or two siblings carried this mutation in a single mutation.

By defining a new genetic disease, the scientists could help families seeking a diagnosis, encourage the start of early intervention such as speech therapy and connect patients with the same diagnosis. This can provide a support network in which people with this condition and their families know they are not battling this genetic challenge alone, Meng, the assistant laboratory director at Baylor Genetics and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, explained in an email.

Every patient with an NAA15 mutation won’t have the same symptoms. “We see a range of phenotypes in these patients, even though they carry the same diagnosis with defects in the same disease,” Meng added. “Early intervention could potentially make a difference for NAA15 patients.”

Lyon works as a psychiatrist in Queens providing medication management. During his undergraduate years at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, Lyon said he was interested in neurology and psychology. As he went through his residency at NYU, Columbia and New York State Psychiatric Institute, he gravitated toward understanding the genetic basis of autism, which he said is easier than conditions like schizophrenia because autism is more apparent in the first few years of life.

Lyon recently started working part time at the Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities on Staten Island. While Lyon appreciates the opportunity to work there, he is concerned about a potential loss of funding. “These services are vital” on a clinical and research level, he said. He is concerned that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is thinking about decreasing the budget for this work. Reducing financial support for this institution could cause New York to lose its premiere status in working with people with developmental disabilities, he said.

“It has this amazing history, with an enormous number of interesting discoveries in Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and Fragile X,” he said. “I don’t think it gets enough credit.”

As for his work with NAA, Lyon plans to continue to search for other people whose symptoms are linked to these genes. “I am looking for additional patients with mutations in NAA10 or NAA15,” he said.

First Row from Left to Right: Kapeel Chougule, Computational Science Developer II; Mariana Neves Dos Santos Leite, Lab Aide (no longer at CSHL); Sharon Wei, Computational Science Analyst II; Andrew Olson, Computational Science Analyst II Second Row from Left to Right: Joshua Stein, Computational Science Manager III; Christos Noutsos, Postdoctoral Fellow (no longer at CSHL); Vivek Kumar, Computer Scientist; Doreen Ware, CSHL Adjunct Associate Professor & USDA/ARS Research Scientist; Yinping Jiao, Post Doc Computational; Sunita Kumari, Computational Science Analyst III; Marcela Tello-Ruiz, Computational Science Manager II; Young Koung Lee, Post Doc 11; Jerry Lu, Computational Science Developer III; Michael Regulski, Research Investigator Third Row from Left to Right: Christophe Liseron-Monfils, Post Doc Computational (no longer at CSHL); Bo Wang, Post Doc Computational; Liya Wang, Computational Science Manager III; Joseph Mulvaney, Computational Science Analyst III (no longer at CSHL); Lifang Zhang, Research Associate; James Thomason, Computational Science Developer III; Peter Van Buren, Systems Engineer III Not Pictured but in Ware Lab: Nicholas Gladman, Post Doc III; Fangle Hu, Research Technician II; Demitri Muna, Computational Science Analyst III; Pragati Muthukumar, Lab Intern, High School; Xiaofei Wang, Computational Science Analyst I; George Wang, Lab Intern, College; Christy Bedell, Senior Scientific Administrator. Photo by William Ware

By Daniel Dunaief

In a two-month span, members of Doreen Ware’s lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory have published three articles that address fundamental properties of plants. 

Doreen Ware. Photo by Gina Motisi, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Printed in the journal Nature Genetics, researchers in her lab studied the genes involved in conferring disease resistance across a range of species of rice. Another study, featured in Nature Communications, found the genes and the molecular pathway that determines the number of fertile flowers in the cereal crop sorghum.

In Frontiers in Plant Science, her productive team identified the causal genes that enable sorghum to develop a waxy outer layer that allows it to resist drought by containing water vapor.

 

“I am pleased with the recent publications from the laboratory,” Ware, who is also a computational biologist for the U. S. Department of Agriculture, explained in an email. “This is a sign of productivity, as well as the impact [technological] advances and drop in sequencing [costs] that is supporting these science advancements.”

Her lab is interested in the link between the genes in a plant and the way it develops.

“I want to understand mechanistically how the outputs in a genome interact with one another to produce a product,” Ware said. This will allow the lab to inform breeding models. “We would like to use the biological mechanism to support predictive modeling.”

In the rice article, Ware, informatics manager Joshua Stein at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and University of Arizona plant scientist Rod Wing searched for the specific genetic sequences different species of rice around the world use to develop resistance to infections by fungi, bacteria and other pathogens.

They used wild varieties of rice that had not been domesticated and looked for signals in the DNA. These were selected by their collaborators based on phenotypes that may be of value to introduce into domesticated varieties.

Stein looked at rice in areas including Asia, Africa, South America and Australia. Through this analysis, he was able to focus on specific genetic sequences that helped these species survive local threats.

As a first step, Stein explained, they have identified all of the genes in these species, but do not yet know which are important for local adaption. This article could provide information on the region of the genome that had disease genes that have been successful over time against threats in the environment.

One potential route to reducing dependency on pesticides is to introduce natural resistance or tolerance. By providing multiple ways of defending itself, a plant can reduce the chance that a pathogen can overcome all of these defenses.

“This is a similar strategy that is used to address both viral diseases and cancer treatment,” Ware explained.

Boosting the defenses of some of these crops with genes that have worked in the past is one strategy toward sustainability, although the scientists would need to work on the specifics to see how they were deployed.

Stein explained that his role in this specific study was to annotate the genes by using computer programs to look at DNA sequences. Stein used a process called comparative genomics, in which he studied the genes of numerous species of rice and compared them to look for similarities and differences.

“Because these different species grow in different climates and geographical ranges, they will be locally adapted to those regions,” Stein said. “Those genes might be important to improve cultivated rice.”

As climates change and people and materials such as seed crops move around the world, rice may need to develop a resistance to a bacteria or fungi it hasn’t encountered much through its history. Indeed, even those species of rice that haven’t moved to new areas may face threats from new challenges, such as insects, fungi, bacteria and viruses, that have moved into the area.

By understanding successful adaptive strategies, researchers like Ware and Stein can look for ways to transfer these defenses to other rice varieties.

Stein likens the process to an arms race that pits pathogens against food crops. “There are real examples of where a resistance gene has been transferred from a wild species to a cultivated species using traditional approaches,” he said. This includes knocking out specific genes in wheat that provide powdery mildew resistance.

Ware’s lab also produced an article in which they explored the genetic pathway that tripled the grain number of sorghum. The grain is produced on the panicle, which has many branches. In a normal plant, more than half of the flowers are not fertile, producing fewer grains.

“We have recently published a paper on a variety of sorghum where nearly all of the flowers are fertile, increasing the grain number on each head,” said Ware.

The work was led by Yinping Jiao and Young Koung Lee, postdoctoral researchers in Ware’s lab. Jiao focused on the computational analysis while Lee explored the development.

The researchers reduced the level of a hormone, which generated more flowers and more seeds. Other researchers could take a similar approach to boost yield in other grain crops.

Employing a commonly used technique to introduce new variation to support trait development, Department of Agriculture plant biologist Zhanguo Xin created a new variant that resulted in a change in a protein. This plant had a lower level of the hormone jasmonic acid in the developing flower. The researchers believe a reduction in the activity of a transcription factor that controls gene regulation caused this.

“We are currently exploring if this is associated with a direct or indirect interaction with biosynthetic genes required to make the plant hormone,” Ware said.

Early in January, Ware’s lab also produced a study in which they used mutations in sorghum to reveal the genetic mechanism that enables the plant to produce a wax that helps with its drought resistance.

Ware suggested these studies are linked to an underlying goal. “In human health, genomics and mechanism support the development of management of disease and in some cases cures,” she explained. “In agriculture, it leads to improved germplasm development and sustained agriculture.”

From left, Jason Sheltzer, Nicole Sayles (who is a former lab technician and a co-author of an earlier MELK paper) and SBU undergraduates Chris Giuliano and Ann Lin. Photo by Constance Brukin

By Daniel Dunaief

If eating macaroni and cheese made Joe sick, he might conclude he was allergic to dairy. But he could just as easily have been allergic to the gluten in the macaroni, rendering the dairy-free diet unnecessary.

Scientists try to connect two events, linking the presence of a protein, the appearance of a mutation or the change in the metabolic activity of a cell with a disease. That research often leads to targeted efforts to block or prevent that protein. Sometimes, however, that protein may not play as prominent a role as originally suspected. That is what happened with a gene called MELK, which is present in many types of cancer cells. Researchers concluded that the high level of MELK contributed to cancer.

Jason Sheltzer, a fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and Ann Lin and Christopher Giuliano, undergraduates at Stony Brook University who work in Sheltzer’s lab, proved that wasn’t the case. By rendering MELK nonfunctional, Sheltzer and his team expected to block cancer. When they knocked out MELK, however, they didn’t change anything about the cancer, despite the damage to the gene. But, Sheltzer wondered, might there be some link between MELK and cancer that he was missing? After all, scientists had found a drug called OTS167 that was believed to block MELK function.

To test this drug’s importance for MELK and cancer, Sheltzer used this drug on cancer cells that didn’t have a functioning MELK gene or protein. Even without MELK, the drug “killed cancer cells,” regardless of the disappearance of a gene that researchers believed was important for cancer’s survival, he said.

“We showed for the first time that [the drug] was killing cells that didn’t express MELK,” Sheltzer said. The drug had to have another, unknown target.

Sheltzer suggested that this is the first time someone had used CRISPR, a gene-editing technique, to take a “deep dive” into what a drug is targeting. This drug, he said, has a different mechanism of action from the one most people believed.

Sheltzer, whose work was published in early February in eLife, expanded the research from a petri dish, where researchers grow and study cells, to mouse models, which are often more similar to the kinds of conditions in human cancers. In those experiments, he found no difference between the tumors that grew with a MELK gene and those that didn’t have the MELK protein, continuing to confirm the original conclusion. “The tumors that formed in cells that had MELK and the tumors that formed in cells that didn’t have MELK were the same size,” he said.

Originally, Sheltzer believed the MELK protein might be involved in chemotherapy resistance. His lab found, however, that no matter what they did to MELK in these cells, the cancer appeared indifferent. Other researchers suggested that Sheltzer’s work would be instructive in a broader way for scientists.

Sheltzer’s research on MELK “will motivate a new set of standards for target discovery and validation in the field going forward,” Christopher Vakoc, an associate professor at CSHL, explained in an email. Sheltzer “brings a rigorous approach to cancer research and an impressive courage to challenge prevailing paradigms.” Sheltzer’s work highlights the challenge of understanding the mechanism of action of new medicines, Vakoc added.

Sheltzer plans to explore several other genes in which a high concentration of a specific protein coded by that gene correlates with a poor prognosis.

Using CRISPR, Sheltzer believes his lab can get precise information about drug targets and their effect on cancer. He’s also tracing a number of other types of cancer drugs that he thinks might have compelling properties and will use CRISPR to study the action of these drugs. “We want to know not just that a drug kills cancer cells: We want to know how and why,” he said.

By figuring out what a drug targets, he might be able to identify the patients who are most likely to respond to a particular drug. So far, the finding that a drug doesn’t work by interfering with a specific gene, in this case MELK, has been easier than finding the gene that is the effective target, he explained.

One of Sheltzer’s goals is to search for a cancer cell that is resistant to the drug, so that he can compare the genes of the vulnerable one with those of the cell that’s harder to treat. Detecting the difference in the resistant cell can enable him to localize the region critical for a drug’s success.

Sheltzer said finding that MELK was not involved in a cancer’s effectiveness was initially “depressing” because researchers believed they had found a cancer target. “We hope that by publishing these techniques and walking through the experiments in the paper that other labs can learn from this and can use some of the approaches we used to improve their drug discovery pipelines,” he said.

Sheltzer is pleased that Lin and Giuliano made such important contributions to this paper. CRISPR has made it possible for these undergraduates to “make these really important discoveries,” he said. Lin, who has worked in Sheltzer’s lab for two and a half years, was pleased. “It is very exciting to share my knowledge of MELK in regards to its role in cancer biology,” she wrote in an email. “Authoring a paper requires a great deal of work and I am super thrilled” to see it published.

Sheltzer, who lives with his partner Joan Smith, who is a software engineer at Google, said he was interested in science during his formative years growing up in Wayne, Pennsylvania, which is just outside of Philadelphia, and appreciates the position he has at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Soon after earning his doctorate at MIT, Sheltzer set up his own lab, rather than conducting research for several years as a postdoctoral researcher. “I was really fortunate to be given that opportunity,” he said.

As for his work with MELK, Sheltzer hopes he’s saved other labs from pursuing clinical dead ends.

Yali Xu and Christopher Vakoc at the 2013 Don Monti Memorial Research Foundation’s Anniversary Ball. Photo from Yali Xu

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s like a top scorer for another team that the greatest minds can’t seem to stop. Whatever they throw at it, it seems to slip by, collecting the kinds of points that can eventually lead to a life-threatening loss. The scorer is a transcription factor called MYB, and the points it collects can, and often do, lead to breast and colon cancer and leukemia.

Researchers have known for over 30 years that stopping MYB could help with cancer treatment. Unlike other possible targets, however, MYB didn’t seem to have the kind of structural weakness that pharmaceutical companies seek, where developing a small molecule could prevent the cancer signals MYB delivered. Some researchers have decided that drugs won’t stop this high-profile cancer target.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Associate Professor Christopher Vakoc and his graduate research assistant Yali Xu, however, have figured out a way around this seemingly intractable problem. The CSHL scientists recently published their results in the journal Cancer Cell.

MYB binds at a small nub to a large and important coactivation protein called TFIID (which is pronounced TF-two-D). This protein is involved in numerous life functions and, without it, organisms couldn’t survive. Vakoc and Xu found that they could use a small peptide decoy to trick MYB into believing it had attached to this protein when, it reality, it hit the equivalent of a molecular dead end.

In a mouse model of acute myeloid leukemia, this peptide caused leukemias to shrink in size by about 80 percent. “What we’ve discovered is head and shoulders above anything we’ve come across before,” Vakoc said.

As with many scientific discoveries, researchers have to clear numerous hurdles between this conceptual discovery and any potential new cancer therapy. “This is not a medicine a person can take,” Vakoc said.

Indeed, scientists and pharmaceutical companies would need to study what leukemia cells escaped this type of treatment to understand how a cancer might rebound or become resistant after an initial treatment. “Our goal is to develop something with longer lasting effects” that doesn’t become ineffective after three to six months, Vakov said. He described understanding the way a disease reacts to a treatment as an “arms race.” Nature inevitably “finds a way to outsmart our decoy. We’d like to know how [it] does it. We’re always trying to study both sides and trying to anticipate” the next steps.

Down the road, Vakoc could foresee researchers and, ultimately, physicians using this kind of approach in combination with other drugs or therapies, the way doctors now provide patients who have the HIV infection with a cocktail of drugs. Conceptually, however, Vakoc is thrilled that this work “highlights what’s possible.”

One of the most encouraging elements of this approach, Vakoc said, is that it combats MYB without harming organ systems. When the researchers gave the treatment to rodents, the mice were “running around, eating and gaining weight.” Their body tissues appeared normal, and they didn’t demonstrate the same sensitivity that is a common byproduct of chemotherapy treatment, such as losing any hair or having problems in their gut.

An important step in this study, Vakoc said, was to understand the basics of how MYB and TFIID found each other. That, Xu said, was one of the first steps in her graduate work, which took about five years to complete.

In Vakoc’s lab, which includes 13 other researchers, he described how scientists make thousands of perturbations to cancer and normal cells, while they are hunting for cancer-specific targets. By using this screening technique, Vakoc and his team can stress test how cancer cells and normal cells react when they are deprived of certain proteins or genes.

“This began as a screen,” he said. “We took leukemia and normal blood cells and did a precise comparison of the perturbation.” They searched for what had the most specific toxicity and, to their surprise, found that interfering with the binding between MYB and TFIID had the strongest effect. “Once we understood what this nub was doing, we applied all kinds of biochemical assay experiments,” Vakov added.

Ultimately, the peptide they found was a fragment of a larger protein that’s active in the cell. Vakoc credits Xu for her consistent and hard work. “When we started on this hunt, we had no idea where this was headed,” he said. Xu was “relentless” in trying to find the answers. “She pieced it all together. It took a great amount of imagination and intellect to solve this puzzle.”

Vakoc suggested that Xu, who plans to defend her thesis this spring and graduate this summer, has set a great example for the other members of his lab. “I now have 13 other people inspired to outdo her work,” he said. “We know we have a new standard.”

Xu is grateful for the support she has received from Vakoc and appreciates the journey from her arrival as a graduate student from China to the verge of her graduation. “It’s very satisfying when you look back and think how things evolved from the beginning to the end” of her graduate work, said Xu, who lives near Huntington Village and enjoys the chance to visit local restaurants and sample coffee and ice cream when she isn’t conducting research toward her doctorate.

The scientific effort, which was published recently, has attracted the attention of others, particularly those who are studying MYB. Vakoc recently received an email from members of a foundation that is funding research on a solid tumor in which scientists believe MYB plays a role. He is writing grants to get more financial support to pursue this concept. Vakoc is encouraged by the opportunity to make progress with a protein that has been “staring [scientists] in the face for three decades.”

Alexander Krasnitz. Photo by Gina Motis?CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Seeing into the future is one of the most challenging, and potentially rewarding, elements of studying cancer. How, scientists and doctors want to know, can they take what evidence they have —through a collection of physical signs and molecular signatures — and determine what will be?

Researchers working on a range of cancers have come up with markers to divide specific types of cancers to suggest the likely course of a disease.

With prostate cancer, the medical community uses a combination of the prostate-specific antigen (PSA), magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) and biopsy results, which are summarized as the Gleason score, to diagnose the likely outcome of the disease. This analysis offers probable courses for developing symptoms.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Professor Michael Wigler and Associate Professor Alexander Krasnitz recently published an article in the journal Cancer Research of a promising study of eight patients that suggests a way of using molecular signatures to determine whether a prostate is likely to contain cells that will threaten a patient’s health or whether the cells are in a quieter phase.

The third most common cancer among Americans, prostate cancer kills an average of 21,000 men each year. Doctors and their patients face difficult decisions after a prostate cancer diagnosis.

“A major challenge is to determine which prostate cancers have aggressive potential and therefore merit treatment,” Herbert Lepor, a professor and Maritin Spatz Chair of Urology at the NYU Langone Medical Center School of Medicine, explained in an email. A collaborator on the study, Lepor provided a clinical perspective and shared patient samples.

A conversation with a doctor after such a diagnosis may include a discussion about how the cancer is not likely to pose an immediate risk to a patient’s life, Krasnitz explained. In that case, doctors do not recommend surgery, which might cause other problems, such as incontinence.

Doctors typically recommend active surveillance to monitor the disease for signs of progression. Some patients, however, make their own decisions, electing to have surgery. The Gleason score, which is typically 3, 4 or 5, can’t provide “meaningful information regarding aggressiveness of the disease,” Lepor explained. “The unique genetic profile of a cancer cell should have infinite more prognostic capability.”

Wigler and Krasnitz, who have been collaborating since Krasnitz arrived at CSHL in 2005, use several hundred single cells from biopsy cores. The research group, which Krasnitz described as a large team including research investigator Joan Alexander and computational science manager Jude Kendall, look for cells with a profile that contains the same irregularities.

“If you take two cells and their irregularities are highly coincident, then perhaps these two cells are sisters or cousins,” Krasnitz explained in an email. “If they are less coincident, then the two cells are more like very distant relatives. We looked for, and sometimes found, multiple cells with many coincident irregularities. This was our evidence for a clonal population.”

By looking at how many biopsy cores contain clonal cells, and then determining how far these clonal cells have spread out through the prostate, the researchers gave these patient samples a score. In this group, these scores, determined before any intervention, closely tracked a detailed analysis after surgery.

“We get a high correlation” between their new score and a more definitive diagnosis that comes after surgery, Krasnitz said. “Our molecular score follows the final verdict from the pathology more closely than the pathological score at diagnosis from the biopsy.”

Wigler, Krasnitz, Lepor and other researchers plan to continue to expand their work at Langone to explore the connection between their score and the course of the disease. Lepor explained that he has been collaborating with Wigler and Krasnitz for five years and suggested this is “an exceptional opportunity since it bridges one of the strongest clinical programs with a strong interest in science (NYU Urology) and a world-class research program interested in clinical care (CSHL).

The research team has submitted a grant to the National Institutes of Health and hopes to expand their studies and provide “compelling evidence” that single-cell genomic mapping “will provide an unmet need defining aggressiveness of prostate cancers,” Lepor said.

While Krasnitz is encouraged by the results so far, he said the team has work ahead of them to turn this kind of analysis into a diagnostic tool physicians can use with their patients.

Realistically, it could take another five years before this score contributes to clinical decision-making, Krasnitz predicted. “You can’t do it overnight,” he cautioned. When this test offers specific signals about the likely outcome for a patient, a researcher would likely need to wait several years as the patient goes on active surveillance to see whether the score has predictive value for the disease in a larger population.

Krasnitz has a sense of urgency to produce such a test because there is “no point in delaying something that potentially looks promising and that one day might well be a part of a clinical practice.”

The work that led to their article took three or four years to complete. The study required technical improvements in the way the researchers processed DNA from single cells. They also had to develop algorithmic improvements that allowed them to use copy number variation to determine clonal structure. The scientists tapped into a wealth of information they gained by taking cells from several locations within the prostate.

Krasnitz was born in Kiev, now part of the Ukraine, and grew up in the former Soviet Union. A resident of Huntington, he lives with his wife Lea, who produces documentaries, including “Maria — The Russian Empress” on Dagmar of Denmark, who was also known as Maria, mother of Nicholas II, the last Romanov czar who was overthrown in 1917. As for his work with Wigler, Krasnitz is excited about the possibilities. “It’s very encouraging,” he said. “We look forward to a continuation of this.”

Pavel Osten. Photo by Joelle Wiggins

By Daniel Dunaief

Male mice, as it turns out, might also be from Mars, while female mice might be from Venus. Looking at specific cells in the brain of rodents, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Associate Professor Pavel Osten has found some noteworthy differences in their brain cells.

In the scientific journal Cell, Osten presented data that showed that in 10 out of 11 subcortical regions of the mouse brain, female mice showed greater flexibility and even more cells. These regions of the brain are responsible for reproduction, and social and parenting behaviors. “There were more cells [in these regions] in the female brain, even though the brains tended to be bigger in the males,” Osten said.

These results are part of a multiyear collaboration called the National Institutes of Health’s Brain Initiative Cell Census Network.

In the recent Cell article, Osten indicated that his analysis offered a surprising result in the number of cells of specific types in various regions of the cortex. “Those areas that have higher cognitive functions have different compositions,” he said. The ratios of cell types “vary according to the level of cognitive function.” In retrospect, Osten indicated that he saw the logic in such a cellular organization. “It makes sense that different cortical areas would have different cell type composition tuned to the specific cortical functions,” he explained.

In an email, Hongkui Zeng, the executive director of structured science at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, in Seattle, Washington, suggested that “people never looked at this issue carefully before. She added that the “sexual dimorphism was somewhat expected, but it is still interesting to see the real data.”

Pavel Osten sailing in St. Barts and St. Martin last summer. Photo from Pavel Osten

Osten used a system called qBrain to see and count inhibitory neurons in the mouse brain. Over the next five years, he and his collaborators will build an online resource database for other researchers that will have distribution maps for numerous cell types throughout the mouse brain.

Osten estimates that there could be hundreds or even a thousand cell types within the brain that are largely uncharacterized in their specialized functions. A cell type is defined by its function in terms of its morphology, including dendritic and axonal branches. These cells are also defined by their physiology, which includes spiking properties, and connectivity, which indicates which cell is talking to other cells.

The anatomy and physiology of the cells will validate these transcriptome single-cell RNAseq studies, which probe for the variability between cells based on their gene expression, which includes differences due to day-to-day variability and differences from distinct cell types.

By analyzing the location and modulatory functions of these cell types, Osten would like to determine ways human brains differ from other animal brains. “In the human, we can mainly analyze the location and distribution which includes the ratios of specific cell types and our hypothesis is that fine-tuning the ratios of neuronal cell types may be a powerful evolutionary mechanism for building more efficient circuits and possibly even for distinguishing between human and other animals,” Osten explained in an email.

Humans, he continued, don’t have the largest brains or the most neurons. At one point, spindle neurons were considered unique to humans, but other researchers have shown that great apes, elephants and cetaceans, which is a group that includes whales and dolphins, also have them.

Osten’s hypothesis is that one of the differences is that the ratios of cells of different types built a computational circuit that’s more powerful than the ones in other species.

When he studies mouse brains, Osten collects information across the entire brain. With humans, he explores one cubic centimeter. The human work is just starting in his lab and represents a collaboration with Zsófia Maglóczky from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences at the Institute of Experimental Medicine in Budapest.

Each mouse brain dataset is between 200 gigabytes and 10 terabytes, depending on the resolution Osten uses to image the brain. He can process 10 terabytes of data in about a week.

Osten uses machine learning algorithms that develop with guidance from human experts. This comes from a long-standing collaboration with Sebastian Seung, a professor of computer science at Princeton University.

He suggested that the research has a translational element as well, offering a way to study cellular and wiring elements characteristic of diseases. “We are looking at several of the models that are well established for autism.” He is also planning to write grants to find funds that supports the analysis of brains from people with schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The analysis is a promising avenue of research, other scientists said. “It will be extremely interesting to compare the ratio of different cell types in various diseased brains with normal healthy brains, to see if the diseases may preferentially affect certain cell types and why and how,” Zeng explained in an email. “This could be very helpful for us to devise therapeutic means” to treat diseases.

Zeng has known Osten for about seven years. Last year, she began a collaboration using qBrain to quantify cell types.

A current resident of Williamsburg, where his reverse commute is now about 40 minutes, Osten works with a company he and Seung started called Certerra, which provides a rapid analysis of brain activity at different times. The company, located in Farmingdale, has a growing customer base and has a staff of about five people.

As for the recent work, researchers suggested it would help continue to unlock mysteries of the brain. This research is “a basic but important step toward understanding how the brain works,” Zeng added. “This paper provides a new and efficient approach that will be powerful when combined with genetic tools that can label different cell types.”

Students take samples from Nissequogue River to analyze. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Hundreds of students from Smithtown to Northport got wet and dirty as they looked at what lurks beneath the surface of the Nissequogue River.

More than 400 students from 11 schools participated in “A Day in the Life” of the Nissequogue River Oct. 6, performing hands-on citizens scientific research and exploring the waterway’s health and ecosystem. The event was coordinated by Brookhaven National Laboratory, Central Pine Barrens Commission, Suffolk County Water Authority and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Northport High School students analyze soil taken from the bottom of Nissequogue River. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

“’A Day in the Life’ helps students develop an appreciation for and knowledge of Long Island’s ecosystems and collect useful scientific data,” program coordinator Melissa Parrott said. “It connects students to their natural world to become stewards of water quality and Long Island’s diverse ecosystems.”

More than 50 students from Northport High School chemically analyzed the water conditions, marked tidal flow, and tracked aquatic species found near the headwaters of the Nissequogue in Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown. Teens were excited to find and record various species of tadpoles and fish found using seine net, a fishing net that hangs vertically and is weighted to drag along the riverbed.

“It’s an outdoor educational setting that puts forth a tangible opportunity for students to experience science firsthand,” David Storch, chairman of science and technology education at Northport High School, said. “Here they learn how to sample, how to classify, how to organize, and how to develop experimental procedures in an open, inquiry-based environment. It’s the best education we can hope for.”

Kimberly Collins, co-director of the science research program at Northport High School, taught students how to use Oreo cookies and honey to bait ants for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Barcode Long Island. The project invites students to capture invertebrates, learn how to extract the insects’ DNA then have it sequenced to document and map diversity of different species.

Children from Harbor Country Day School examine a water sample. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Further down river, Harbor Country Day School students explored the riverbed at Landing Avenue Park in Smithtown. Science teacher Kevin Hughes said the day was one of discovery for his fourth- to eighth-grade students.

“It’s all about letting them see and experience the Nissequogue River,” Hughes said. “At first, they’ll be a little hesitant to get their hands dirty, but by the end you’ll see they are completely engrossed and rolling around in it.”

The middle schoolers worked with Eric Young, program director at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, to analyze water samples. All the data collected will be used in the classroom to teach students about topics such as salinity and water pollution. Then, it will be sent to BNL as part of a citizens’ research project, measuring the river’s health and water ecosystems.

Smithtown East seniors Aaron Min and Shrey Thaker have participated in this annual scientific study of the Nissequogue River at Short Beach in Smithtown for last three years. Carrying cameras around their necks, they photographed and documented their classmates findings.

“We see a lot of changes from year to year, from different types of animals and critters we get to see, or wildlife and plants,” Thaker said. “It’s really interesting to see how it changes over time and see what stays consistent over time as well. It’s also exciting to see our peers really get into it.”

Maria Zeitlin, a science research and college chemistry teacher at Smithtown High School East, divided students into four groups to test water oxygenation levels, document aquatic life forms, measure air temperature and wind speed, and compile an extensive physical description of wildlife and plants in the area.

Smithtown High School East students take a water and soil sample at Short Beach. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

The collected data will be brought back to the classroom and compared against previous years.

In this way, Zeitlin said the hands-on study of Nissequogue River serves as a lesson in live data collection. Students must learn to repeat procedures multiple times and use various scientific instruments to support their findings.

“Troubleshooting data collection is vital as a scientist that they can take into any area,” she said. “Data has to be reliable. So when someone says there’s climate change, someone can’t turn around and say it’s not true.”

The Smithtown East teacher highlighted that while scientific research can be conducted anywhere, there’s a second life lesson she hopes that her students and all others will take away  from their studies of the Nissequogue River.

“This site is their backyard; they live here,” Zeitlin said. “Instead of just coming to the beach, from this point forward they will never see the beach the same again. It’s not just a recreational site, but its teeming with life and science.”

From left, Zachary Lippman and Dave Jackson, professors at CSHL who are working on ways to alter promoter regions of genes to control traits in tomato and corn. Photo by Ullas Pedmale

By Daniel Dunaief

He works with tomatoes, but what he’s discovered could have applications to food and fuel crops, including corn, rice and wheat.

Using the latest gene editing technique called CRISPR, Zachary Lippman, a professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, developed ways to fine-tune traits for fruit size, branching architecture and plant shape. Called quantitative variation, these genetic changes act as a dimmer switch, potentially increasing or decreasing specific traits. This could help meet specific agricultural needs. Looking at the so-called promoter region of genes, Lippman was able to “use those genes as proof of principal” for a technique that may enable the fine-tuning of several traits.

For decades, plant breeders have been looking for naturally occurring mutations that allow them to breed those desirable traits, such as a larger fruit on a tomato or more branches on a plant. In some cases, genetic mutations have occurred naturally, altering the cell’s directions. At other times, breeders have sought ways to encourage mutations by treating their seeds with a specific mutagenic agent, like a chemical.

In an article in the journal Cell, Lippman said the results reflect a road map that other researchers or agricultural companies can use to create desirable traits. This article provides a way to “create a new, raw material for breeders to have access to tools they never had before,” he said. Lippman has taken a chunk of the DNA in the promoter region, typically on the order of 2,000 to 4,000 base pairs, and let the CRISPR scissors alter this part of the genetic code. Then, he and his scientific team chose which cuts from the scissors and subsequent repairs by the cell’s machinery gave the desired modifications to the traits they were studying.

Invented only five years ago, CRISPR is a genetic editing technique that uses tools bacteria have developed to fight off viral infections. Once a bacteria is attacked by a virus, it inserts a small piece of the viral gene into its own sequence. If a similar virus attacks again, the bacteria immediately recognizes the invader and cuts the sequence away.

Scientists sometimes use these molecular scissors to trim specific gene sequences in a process called a deletion. They are also working toward ways to take another genetic code and insert a replacement. “Replacement technology is only now starting to become efficient,” Lippman said. Clinical researchers are especially excited about the potential for this technique in treating genetic conditions, potentially removing and replacing an ineffective sequence.

In Lippman’s case, he used the scissors to cut in several places in the promoter regions of the tomato plant. Rather than targeting specific genes, he directed those scissors to change the genome at several places. When he planted the new seeds, he explored their phenotype, or the physical manifestation of their genetic instructions. These phenotypes varied along a continuum, depending on the changes in their genes.

By going backward and then comparing the genes of the altered plants to the original, he could then hone in on the precise changes in the genetic code that enabled that variation. This technique allows for a finer manipulation than turning on or off specific genes in which an organism, in this case a plant, would either follow specific instructions or would go on a transcriptional break, halting production until it was turned on again.

At this point, Lippman has worked with each trait individually but hasn’t done quantitative variation for more than one at a time. “The next question,” he said, “is to do this multitargeting.” He will also use the tool to study how genes are instructed to turn on and off during growth, including exploring the levels and location of expression.

Lippman is talking with agricultural and scientific collaborators and hopes to go beyond the tomato to exploring the application of this approach to other crops. He is working with Dave Jackson, who is also a professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, on applying this model to corn.

The scientific duo has known each other for 20 years. Jackson taught his collaborator when Lippman was a graduate student at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Jackson was chair of his thesis committee.

They have worked together on and off since Lippman became a faculty member about nine years ago. Last year, the two received a National Science Foundation genome grant to work on using CRISPR to study the effect of changes in promoter regions in their respective plant specialties.

“Unfortunately for us, tomato has a faster life cycle than corn, but we hope to have some results in corn this fall,” Jackson explained in an email. Lippman hopes to continue on the path toward understanding how regulatory DNA is controlling complex traits. “We can use this tool to dissect critical regulatory regions,” he said. “When we create this variation, we can look at how that translates to a phenotypic variation.”

Lippman said he is especially excited about the fundamental biological questions related to plant growth and development. When other scientists or agricultural companies attempt to use this approach, they may run into some challenges, he said. Some plants are “not transformable [genetically] easily.” These plants can be recalcitrant to plant transformation, a step sometimes needed for CRISPR gene editing. Still, it is “likely that CRISPR will work in all organisms,” he said.

Lippman hopes others discuss this technique and see the potential for a system that could help to customize plants. “My hope and my anticipation is that people all over the world will look at this paper and say, ‘Let’s start to try this out in our own systems.’ Hopefully, there will be a grass roots effort to import this tool.”

Anne Churchland. Photo from CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Someone is hungry and is walking through a familiar town. She smells pizza coming from the hot brick oven on her left, she watches someone leaving her favorite Chinese restaurant with the familiar takeout boxes, and she thinks about the fish restaurant with special catches of the day that she usually enjoys around this time of year. How does she make her decision?

While this scenario is a simplified one, it’s a window into the decision-making process people go through when their neurons work together. A team of 21 neuroscientists in Europe and the United States recently created a new collaboration called the International Brain Laboratory to explore how networks of brain cells support learning and decision-making.

“We understand the simple motor reflex,” such as when a doctor taps a knee and a foot kicks out, said Anne Churchland, an associate professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the American spokesperson for this new effort. Scientists, however, have only a limited understanding of the cognitive processes that weigh sensory details and a recollection of the outcomes from various courses of action that lead to decision-making, Churchland said.

Scientists likened the structure of the new multilaboratory effort to the circuitry involved in the brain itself. The brain is “massively parallel,” said Alexandre Pouget, a professor at the University of Geneva and the spokesperson for the IBL. “We know it’s working on consensus building across areas so, in that respect, the IBL is similar.”

A greater awareness of the decision-making process could provide a step into understanding the brain network problems involved in mental health disorders.

Churchland’s lab is one of three facilities that will house a new behavioral apparatus to study decision-making in mice. The other sites will be in the United Kingdom and in Portugal. Eventually, other labs will use this same technique and house the same apparatus.

An ongoing challenge in this field of research, Churchland said, is that scientists sometimes create their own models to test the neurological basis of behavior. While these approaches may work in their own labs, they have created a reproducibility problem, making it difficult for others who don’t have expertise in their methods to duplicate the results.

Creating this behavioral apparatus will help ensure that the collaborators are approaching the research with a reliable model that they can repeat, with similar results, in other facilities.

While the scientists will all be exploring the brain, they will each be responsible for studying the activity of circuits in different parts. The researchers will collect a wealth of information and will share it through a developing computer system that allows them to maneuver through the mountains of data.

To address this challenge, the IBL is creating a data architecture working group. Kenneth Harris, a professor of quantitative neuroscience at the University College London, is the chair of the effort. He is currently looking to hire additional outside staff to help develop this process.

Harris suggested that the process of sharing data in neurophysiology has been challenging because of the complex and diverse data these scientists share. “In neuroscience, we have lots of different types of measurements, made simultaneously with lots of different experimental methods, that all have to be integrated together,” he explained in an email.

The IBL collaboration will make his job slightly easier than the generic problem of neurophysiology data sharing because “all the labs will be studying how the brain solves the same decision-making task,” he continued.

Harris is looking to hire a data coordinator, a senior scientific programmer and a scientific MATLAB programmer. He has a data management system already running with his lab that he plans to extend to the IBL.

Pouget said there are two milestones built into the funding from the Wellcome Trust and the Simons Foundation for this new collaboration. After two years, the researchers have to have a data sharing platform in place, which will allow them to share data live as they collect it.

Second, they plan to develop standardized behaviors in all 11 of the experimental labs, where the behavior has to be as indistinguishable from one lab to another as possible.

In addition to the experimentalists involved in this initiative, several theoretical neurobiologists will also contribute and will be critical to unraveling the enormous amounts of data, Pouget suggested. “If you’re going to tackle really hard computational problems, you better have people trained in that area,” he said, adding that he estimates that only about 5 percent of neuroscientists are involved in the theoretical side, which is considerably lower than the percent in an area like physics.

Researchers involved in this project will have the opportunity to move from one lab to another, conducting experiments and gaining expertise and insights. The principal investigators are also in the process of hiring 21 postdoctoral students.

Churchland said each scientist will continue to conduct his or her own research while also contributing to this effort. The IBL is consuming between a quarter and a third of her time.

Pouget suggested that Churchland was “instrumental in representing the International Brain Laboratory to the Simons Foundation,” where she is the principal investigator on that grant. “Her role has been critical to the organization,” he said.

Churchland said the effort is progressing rapidly. “It’s moving way faster” than expected. “This is the right moment, with an incredible team of people, to be working together. Everyone is dedicated to the science.”

Harris indicated that he believes this effort could be transformative for the field. “Neuroscience has lagged behind many other scientific domains” in creating large-scale collaborations, he explained. “If we can show it works, we will change the entire field for good.”

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