Biology Explainer: The big 4 building blocks of life–carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and nucleic acids

The short version
  • The four basic categories of molecules for building life are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.
  • Carbohydrates serve many purposes, from energy to structure to chemical communication, as monomers or polymers.
  • Lipids, which are hydrophobic, also have different purposes, including energy storage, structure, and signaling.
  • Proteins, made of amino acids in up to four structural levels, are involved in just about every process of life.                                                                                                      
  • The nucleic acids DNA and RNA consist of four nucleotide building blocks, and each has different purposes.
The longer version
Life is so diverse and unwieldy, it may surprise you to learn that we can break it down into four basic categories of molecules. Possibly even more implausible is the fact that two of these categories of large molecules themselves break down into a surprisingly small number of building blocks. The proteins that make up all of the living things on this planet and ensure their appropriate structure and smooth function consist of only 20 different kinds of building blocks. Nucleic acids, specifically DNA, are even more basic: only four different kinds of molecules provide the materials to build the countless different genetic codes that translate into all the different walking, swimming, crawling, oozing, and/or photosynthesizing organisms that populate the third rock from the Sun.

                                                  

Big Molecules with Small Building Blocks

The functional groups, assembled into building blocks on backbones of carbon atoms, can be bonded together to yield large molecules that we classify into four basic categories. These molecules, in many different permutations, are the basis for the diversity that we see among living things. They can consist of thousands of atoms, but only a handful of different kinds of atoms form them. It’s like building apartment buildings using a small selection of different materials: bricks, mortar, iron, glass, and wood. Arranged in different ways, these few materials can yield a huge variety of structures.

We encountered functional groups and the SPHONC in Chapter 3. These components form the four categories of molecules of life. These Big Four biological molecules are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. They can have many roles, from giving an organism structure to being involved in one of the millions of processes of living. Let’s meet each category individually and discover the basic roles of each in the structure and function of life.
Carbohydrates

You have met carbohydrates before, whether you know it or not. We refer to them casually as “sugars,” molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. A sugar molecule has a carbon backbone, usually five or six carbons in the ones we’ll discuss here, but it can be as few as three. Sugar molecules can link together in pairs or in chains or branching “trees,” either for structure or energy storage.

When you look on a nutrition label, you’ll see reference to “sugars.” That term includes carbohydrates that provide energy, which we get from breaking the chemical bonds in a sugar called glucose. The “sugars” on a nutrition label also include those that give structure to a plant, which we call fiber. Both are important nutrients for people.

Sugars serve many purposes. They give crunch to the cell walls of a plant or the exoskeleton of a beetle and chemical energy to the marathon runner. When attached to other molecules, like proteins or fats, they aid in communication between cells. But before we get any further into their uses, let’s talk structure.

The sugars we encounter most in basic biology have their five or six carbons linked together in a ring. There’s no need to dive deep into organic chemistry, but there are a couple of essential things to know to interpret the standard representations of these molecules.

Check out the sugars depicted in the figure. The top-left molecule, glucose, has six carbons, which have been numbered. The sugar to its right is the same glucose, with all but one “C” removed. The other five carbons are still there but are inferred using the conventions of organic chemistry: Anywhere there is a corner, there’s a carbon unless otherwise indicated. It might be a good exercise for you to add in a “C” over each corner so that you gain a good understanding of this convention. You should end up adding in five carbon symbols; the sixth is already given because that is conventionally included when it occurs outside of the ring.

On the left is a glucose with all of its carbons indicated. They’re also numbered, which is important to understand now for information that comes later. On the right is the same molecule, glucose, without the carbons indicated (except for the sixth one). Wherever there is a corner, there is a carbon, unless otherwise indicated (as with the oxygen). On the bottom left is ribose, the sugar found in RNA. The sugar on the bottom right is deoxyribose. Note that at carbon 2 (*), the ribose and deoxyribose differ by a single oxygen.

The lower left sugar in the figure is a ribose. In this depiction, the carbons, except the one outside of the ring, have not been drawn in, and they are not numbered. This is the standard way sugars are presented in texts. Can you tell how many carbons there are in this sugar? Count the corners and don’t forget the one that’s already indicated!

If you said “five,” you are right. Ribose is a pentose (pent = five) and happens to be the sugar present in ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Think to yourself what the sugar might be in deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. If you thought, deoxyribose, you’d be right.

The fourth sugar given in the figure is a deoxyribose. In organic chemistry, it’s not enough to know that corners indicate carbons. Each carbon also has a specific number, which becomes important in discussions of nucleic acids. Luckily, we get to keep our carbon counting pretty simple in basic biology. To count carbons, you start with the carbon to the right of the non-carbon corner of the molecule. The deoxyribose or ribose always looks to me like a little cupcake with a cherry on top. The “cherry” is an oxygen. To the right of that oxygen, we start counting carbons, so that corner to the right of the “cherry” is the first carbon. Now, keep counting. Here’s a little test: What is hanging down from carbon 2 of the deoxyribose?

If you said a hydrogen (H), you are right! Now, compare the deoxyribose to the ribose. Do you see the difference in what hangs off of the carbon 2 of each sugar? You’ll see that the carbon 2 of ribose has an –OH, rather than an H. The reason the deoxyribose is called that is because the O on the second carbon of the ribose has been removed, leaving a “deoxyed” ribose. This tiny distinction between the sugars used in DNA and RNA is significant enough in biology that we use it to distinguish the two nucleic acids.

In fact, these subtle differences in sugars mean big differences for many biological molecules. Below, you’ll find a couple of ways that apparently small changes in a sugar molecule can mean big changes in what it does. These little changes make the difference between a delicious sugar cookie and the crunchy exoskeleton of a dung beetle.

Sugar and Fuel

A marathon runner keeps fuel on hand in the form of “carbs,” or sugars. These fuels provide the marathoner’s straining body with the energy it needs to keep the muscles pumping. When we take in sugar like this, it often comes in the form of glucose molecules attached together in a polymer called starch. We are especially equipped to start breaking off individual glucose molecules the minute we start chewing on a starch.

Double X Extra: A monomer is a building block (mono = one) and a polymer is a chain of monomers. With a few dozen monomers or building blocks, we get millions of different polymers. That may sound nutty until you think of the infinity of values that can be built using only the numbers 0 through 9 as building blocks or the intricate programming that is done using only a binary code of zeros and ones in different combinations.

Our bodies then can rapidly take the single molecules, or monomers, into cells and crack open the chemical bonds to transform the energy for use. The bonds of a sugar are packed with chemical energy that we capture to build a different kind of energy-containing molecule that our muscles access easily. Most species rely on this process of capturing energy from sugars and transforming it for specific purposes.

Polysaccharides: Fuel and Form

Plants use the Sun’s energy to make their own glucose, and starch is actually a plant’s way of storing up that sugar. Potatoes, for example, are quite good at packing away tons of glucose molecules and are known to dieticians as a “starchy” vegetable. The glucose molecules in starch are packed fairly closely together. A string of sugar molecules bonded together through dehydration synthesis, as they are in starch, is a polymer called a polysaccharide (poly = many; saccharide = sugar). When the monomers of the polysaccharide are released, as when our bodies break them up, the reaction that releases them is called hydrolysis.

Double X Extra: The specific reaction that hooks one monomer to another in a covalent bond is called dehydration synthesis because in making the bond–synthesizing the larger molecule–a molecule of water is removed (dehydration). The reverse is hydrolysis (hydro = water; lysis = breaking), which breaks the covalent bond by the addition of a molecule of water.

Although plants make their own glucose and animals acquire it by eating the plants, animals can also package away the glucose they eat for later use. Animals, including humans, store glucose in a polysaccharide called glycogen, which is more branched than starch. In us, we build this energy reserve primarily in the liver and access it when our glucose levels drop.

Whether starch or glycogen, the glucose molecules that are stored are bonded together so that all of the molecules are oriented the same way. If you view the sixth carbon of the glucose to be a “carbon flag,” you’ll see in the figure that all of the glucose molecules in starch are oriented with their carbon flags on the upper left.

The orientation of monomers of glucose in polysaccharides can make a big difference in the use of the polymer. The glucoses in the molecule on the top are all oriented “up” and form starch. The glucoses in the molecule on the bottom alternate orientation to form cellulose, which is quite different in its function from starch.

Storing up sugars for fuel and using them as fuel isn’t the end of the uses of sugar. In fact, sugars serve as structural molecules in a huge variety of organisms, including fungi, bacteria, plants, and insects.

The primary structural role of a sugar is as a component of the cell wall, giving the organism support against gravity. In plants, the familiar old glucose molecule serves as one building block of the plant cell wall, but with a catch: The molecules are oriented in an alternating up-down fashion. The resulting structural sugar is called cellulose.

That simple difference in orientation means the difference between a polysaccharide as fuel for us and a polysaccharide as structure. Insects take it step further with the polysaccharide that makes up their exoskeleton, or outer shell. Once again, the building block is glucose, arranged as it is in cellulose, in an alternating conformation. But in insects, each glucose has a little extra added on, a chemical group called an N-acetyl group. This addition of a single functional group alters the use of cellulose and turns it into a structural molecule that gives bugs that special crunchy sound when you accidentally…ahem…step on them.

These variations on the simple theme of a basic carbon-ring-as-building-block occur again and again in biological systems. In addition to serving roles in structure and as fuel, sugars also play a role in function. The attachment of subtly different sugar molecules to a protein or a lipid is one way cells communicate chemically with one another in refined, regulated interactions. It’s as though the cells talk with each other using a specialized, sugar-based vocabulary. Typically, cells display these sugary messages to the outside world, making them available to other cells that can recognize the molecular language.

Lipids: The Fatty Trifecta

Starch makes for good, accessible fuel, something that we immediately attack chemically and break up for quick energy. But fats are energy that we are supposed to bank away for a good long time and break out in times of deprivation. Like sugars, fats serve several purposes, including as a dense source of energy and as a universal structural component of cell membranes everywhere.

Fats: the Good, the Bad, the Neutral

Turn again to a nutrition label, and you’ll see a few references to fats, also known as lipids. (Fats are slightly less confusing that sugars in that they have only two names.) The label may break down fats into categories, including trans fats, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and cholesterol. You may have learned that trans fats are “bad” and that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, but what does it all mean?

Let’s start with what we mean when we say saturated fat. The question is, saturated with what? There is a specific kind of dietary fat call the triglyceride. As its name implies, it has a structural motif in which something is repeated three times. That something is a chain of carbons and hydrogens, hanging off in triplicate from a head made of glycerol, as the figure shows.  Those three carbon-hydrogen chains, or fatty acids, are the “tri” in a triglyceride. Chains like this can be many carbons long.

Double X Extra: We call a fatty acid a fatty acid because it’s got a carboxylic acid attached to a fatty tail. A triglyceride consists of three of these fatty acids attached to a molecule called glycerol. Our dietary fat primarily consists of these triglycerides.

Triglycerides come in several forms. You may recall that carbon can form several different kinds of bonds, including single bonds, as with hydrogen, and double bonds, as with itself. A chain of carbon and hydrogens can have every single available carbon bond taken by a hydrogen in single covalent bond. This scenario of hydrogen saturation yields a saturated fat. The fat is saturated to its fullest with every covalent bond taken by hydrogens single bonded to the carbons.

Saturated fats have predictable characteristics. They lie flat easily and stick to each other, meaning that at room temperature, they form a dense solid. You will realize this if you find a little bit of fat on you to pinch. Does it feel pretty solid? That’s because animal fat is saturated fat. The fat on a steak is also solid at room temperature, and in fact, it takes a pretty high heat to loosen it up enough to become liquid. Animals are not the only organisms that produce saturated fat–avocados and coconuts also are known for their saturated fat content.

The top graphic above depicts a triglyceride with the glycerol, acid, and three hydrocarbon tails. The tails of this saturated fat, with every possible hydrogen space occupied, lie comparatively flat on one another, and this kind of fat is solid at room temperature. The fat on the bottom, however, is unsaturated, with bends or kinks wherever two carbons have double bonded, booting a couple of hydrogens and making this fat unsaturated, or lacking some hydrogens. Because of the space between the bumps, this fat is probably not solid at room temperature, but liquid.

You can probably now guess what an unsaturated fat is–one that has one or more hydrogens missing. Instead of single bonding with hydrogens at every available space, two or more carbons in an unsaturated fat chain will form a double bond with carbon, leaving no space for a hydrogen. Because some carbons in the chain share two pairs of electrons, they physically draw closer to one another than they do in a single bond. This tighter bonding result in a “kink” in the fatty acid chain.

In a fat with these kinks, the three fatty acids don’t lie as densely packed with each other as they do in a saturated fat. The kinks leave spaces between them. Thus, unsaturated fats are less dense than saturated fats and often will be liquid at room temperature. A good example of a liquid unsaturated fat at room temperature is canola oil.

A few decades ago, food scientists discovered that unsaturated fats could be resaturated or hydrogenated to behave more like saturated fats and have a longer shelf life. The process of hydrogenation–adding in hydrogens–yields trans fat. This kind of processed fat is now frowned upon and is being removed from many foods because of its associations with adverse health effects. If you check a food label and it lists among the ingredients “partially hydrogenated” oils, that can mean that the food contains trans fat.

Double X Extra: A triglyceride can have up to three different fatty acids attached to it. Canola oil, for example, consists primarily of oleic acid, linoleic acid, and linolenic acid, all of which are unsaturated fatty acids with 18 carbons in their chains.

Why do we take in fat anyway? Fat is a necessary nutrient for everything from our nervous systems to our circulatory health. It also, under appropriate conditions, is an excellent way to store up densely packaged energy for the times when stores are running low. We really can’t live very well without it.

Phospholipids: An Abundant Fat

You may have heard that oil and water don’t mix, and indeed, it is something you can observe for yourself. Drop a pat of butter–pure saturated fat–into a bowl of water and watch it just sit there. Even if you try mixing it with a spoon, it will just sit there. Now, drop a spoon of salt into the water and stir it a bit. The salt seems to vanish. You’ve just illustrated the difference between a water-fearing (hydrophobic) and a water-loving (hydrophilic) substance.

Generally speaking, compounds that have an unequal sharing of electrons (like ions or anything with a covalent bond between oxygen and hydrogen or nitrogen and hydrogen) will be hydrophilic. The reason is that a charge or an unequal electron sharing gives the molecule polarity that allows it to interact with water through hydrogen bonds. A fat, however, consists largely of hydrogen and carbon in those long chains. Carbon and hydrogen have roughly equivalent electronegativities, and their electron-sharing relationship is relatively nonpolar. Fat, lacking in polarity, doesn’t interact with water. As the butter demonstrated, it just sits there.

There is one exception to that little maxim about fat and water, and that exception is the phospholipid. This lipid has a special structure that makes it just right for the job it does: forming the membranes of cells. A phospholipid consists of a polar phosphate head–P and O don’t share equally–and a couple of nonpolar hydrocarbon tails, as the figure shows. If you look at the figure, you’ll see that one of the two tails has a little kick in it, thanks to a double bond between the two carbons there.

Phospholipids form a double layer and are the major structural components of cell membranes. Their bend, or kick, in one of the hydrocarbon tails helps ensure fluidity of the cell membrane. The molecules are bipolar, with hydrophilic heads for interacting with the internal and external watery environments of the cell and hydrophobic tails that help cell membranes behave as general security guards.

The kick and the bipolar (hydrophobic and hydrophilic) nature of the phospholipid make it the perfect molecule for building a cell membrane. A cell needs a watery outside to survive. It also needs a watery inside to survive. Thus, it must face the inside and outside worlds with something that interacts well with water. But it also must protect itself against unwanted intruders, providing a barrier that keeps unwanted things out and keeps necessary molecules in.

Phospholipids achieve it all. They assemble into a double layer around a cell but orient to allow interaction with the watery external and internal environments. On the layer facing the inside of the cell, the phospholipids orient their polar, hydrophilic heads to the watery inner environment and their tails away from it. On the layer to the outside of the cell, they do the same.
As the figure shows, the result is a double layer of phospholipids with each layer facing a polar, hydrophilic head to the watery environments. The tails of each layer face one another. They form a hydrophobic, fatty moat around a cell that serves as a general gatekeeper, much in the way that your skin does for you. Charged particles cannot simply slip across this fatty moat because they can’t interact with it. And to keep the fat fluid, one tail of each phospholipid has that little kick, giving the cell membrane a fluid, liquidy flow and keeping it from being solid and unforgiving at temperatures in which cells thrive.

Steroids: Here to Pump You Up?

Our final molecule in the lipid fatty trifecta is cholesterol. As you may have heard, there are a few different kinds of cholesterol, some of which we consider to be “good” and some of which is “bad.” The good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, in part helps us out because it removes the bad cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or LDL, from our blood. The presence of LDL is associated with inflammation of the lining of the blood vessels, which can lead to a variety of health problems.

But cholesterol has some other reasons for existing. One of its roles is in the maintenance of cell membrane fluidity. Cholesterol is inserted throughout the lipid bilayer and serves as a block to the fatty tails that might otherwise stick together and become a bit too solid.

Cholesterol’s other starring role as a lipid is as the starting molecule for a class of hormones we called steroids or steroid hormones. With a few snips here and additions there, cholesterol can be changed into the steroid hormones progesterone, testosterone, or estrogen. These molecules look quite similar, but they play very different roles in organisms. Testosterone, for example, generally masculinizes vertebrates (animals with backbones), while progesterone and estrogen play a role in regulating the ovulatory cycle.

Double X Extra: A hormone is a blood-borne signaling molecule. It can be lipid based, like testosterone, or short protein, like insulin.

Proteins

As you progress through learning biology, one thing will become more and more clear: Most cells function primarily as protein factories. It may surprise you to learn that proteins, which we often talk about in terms of food intake, are the fundamental molecule of many of life’s processes. Enzymes, for example, form a single broad category of proteins, but there are millions of them, each one governing a small step in the molecular pathways that are required for living.

Levels of Structure

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. A few amino acids strung together is called a peptide, while many many peptides linked together form a polypeptide. When many amino acids strung together interact with each other to form a properly folded molecule, we call that molecule a protein.

For a string of amino acids to ultimately fold up into an active protein, they must first be assembled in the correct order. The code for their assembly lies in the DNA, but once that code has been read and the amino acid chain built, we call that simple, unfolded chain the primary structure of the protein.

This chain can consist of hundreds of amino acids that interact all along the sequence. Some amino acids are hydrophobic and some are hydrophilic. In this context, like interacts best with like, so the hydrophobic amino acids will interact with one another, and the hydrophilic amino acids will interact together. As these contacts occur along the string of molecules, different conformations will arise in different parts of the chain. We call these different conformations along the amino acid chain the protein’s secondary structure.

Once those interactions have occurred, the protein can fold into its final, or tertiary structure and be ready to serve as an active participant in cellular processes. To achieve the tertiary structure, the amino acid chain’s secondary interactions must usually be ongoing, and the pH, temperature, and salt balance must be just right to facilitate the folding. This tertiary folding takes place through interactions of the secondary structures along the different parts of the amino acid chain.

The final product is a properly folded protein. If we could see it with the naked eye, it might look a lot like a wadded up string of pearls, but that “wadded up” look is misleading. Protein folding is a carefully regulated process that is determined at its core by the amino acids in the chain: their hydrophobicity and hydrophilicity and how they interact together.

In many instances, however, a complete protein consists of more than one amino acid chain, and the complete protein has two or more interacting strings of amino acids. A good example is hemoglobin in red blood cells. Its job is to grab oxygen and deliver it to the body’s tissues. A complete hemoglobin protein consists of four separate amino acid chains all properly folded into their tertiary structures and interacting as a single unit. In cases like this involving two or more interacting amino acid chains, we say that the final protein has a quaternary structure. Some proteins can consist of as many as a dozen interacting chains, behaving as a single protein unit.

A Plethora of Purposes

What does a protein do? Let us count the ways. Really, that’s almost impossible because proteins do just about everything. Some of them tag things. Some of them destroy things. Some of them protect. Some mark cells as “self.” Some serve as structural materials, while others are highways or motors. They aid in communication, they operate as signaling molecules, they transfer molecules and cut them up, they interact with each other in complex, interrelated pathways to build things up and break things down. They regulate genes and package DNA, and they regulate and package each other.

As described above, proteins are the final folded arrangement of a string of amino acids. One way we obtain these building blocks for the millions of proteins our bodies make is through our diet. You may hear about foods that are high in protein or people eating high-protein diets to build muscle. When we take in those proteins, we can break them apart and use the amino acids that make them up to build proteins of our own.

Nucleic Acids

How does a cell know which proteins to make? It has a code for building them, one that is especially guarded in a cellular vault in our cells called the nucleus. This code is deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. The cell makes a copy of this code and send it out to specialized structures that read it and build proteins based on what they read. As with any code, a typo–a mutation–can result in a message that doesn’t make as much sense. When the code gets changed, sometimes, the protein that the cell builds using that code will be changed, too.

Biohazard!The names associated with nucleic acids can be confusing because they all start with nucle-. It may seem obvious or easy now, but a brain freeze on a test could mix you up. You need to fix in your mind that the shorter term (10 letters, four syllables), nucleotide, refers to the smaller molecule, the three-part building block. The longer term (12 characters, including the space, and five syllables), nucleic acid, which is inherent in the names DNA and RNA, designates the big, long molecule.

DNA vs. RNA: A Matter of Structure

DNA and its nucleic acid cousin, ribonucleic acid, or RNA, are both made of the same kinds of building blocks. These building blocks are called nucleotides. Each nucleotide consists of three parts: a sugar (ribose for RNA and deoxyribose for DNA), a phosphate, and a nitrogenous base. In DNA, every nucleotide has identical sugars and phosphates, and in RNA, the sugar and phosphate are also the same for every nucleotide.

So what’s different? The nitrogenous bases. DNA has a set of four to use as its coding alphabet. These are the purines, adenine and guanine, and the pyrimidines, thymine and cytosine. The nucleotides are abbreviated by their initial letters as A, G, T, and C. From variations in the arrangement and number of these four molecules, all of the diversity of life arises. Just four different types of the nucleotide building blocks, and we have you, bacteria, wombats, and blue whales.

RNA is also basic at its core, consisting of only four different nucleotides. In fact, it uses three of the same nitrogenous bases as DNA–A, G, and C–but it substitutes a base called uracil (U) where DNA uses thymine. Uracil is a pyrimidine.

DNA vs. RNA: Function Wars

An interesting thing about the nitrogenous bases of the nucleotides is that they pair with each other, using hydrogen bonds, in a predictable way. An adenine will almost always bond with a thymine in DNA or a uracil in RNA, and cytosine and guanine will almost always bond with each other. This pairing capacity allows the cell to use a sequence of DNA and build either a new DNA sequence, using the old one as a template, or build an RNA sequence to make a copy of the DNA.

These two different uses of A-T/U and C-G base pairing serve two different purposes. DNA is copied into DNA usually when a cell is preparing to divide and needs two complete sets of DNA for the new cells. DNA is copied into RNA when the cell needs to send the code out of the vault so proteins can be built. The DNA stays safely where it belongs.

RNA is really a nucleic acid jack-of-all-trades. It not only serves as the copy of the DNA but also is the main component of the two types of cellular workers that read that copy and build proteins from it. At one point in this process, the three types of RNA come together in protein assembly to make sure the job is done right.


 By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor 
This material originally appeared in similar form in Emily Willingham’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology

The Bright Crystal

The crazy-complicated structure of the ribosome, solved by x-ray crystallography (Source
Drug development used to be accomplished by the chemical equivalent of what you might call the spaghetti method: Throw a bunch of molecules against the wall and see what sticks. More recently, pharmaceutical companies have applied a more rational approach, using the molecular structures of drug targets to design molecules that “fit” them like a lock to a key.
The technique most often used to solve those molecular structures is x-ray crystallography. With this approach, which turned 100 years old in November, a high-powered beam of x-rays is shot at a crystal of protein molecules. The x-rays collide with the crystal’s atoms, scattering at specific angles. Working backwards from that information, researchers can figure out the original structure.
Over at Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker recently came up with a really fantastic analogy to explain this idea. X-ray crystallography, she wrote, is

… a method of determining the shape and structure of things that we can’t see with our own eyes. Imagine that you have captured Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane. You can’t see it. But you know it’s there because when you throw a rubber ball at the space, the ball bounces back to you. If you could throw enough rubber balls, from all different sides, and measure their trajectory and speed as they bounced back, you could probably get a pretty good idea of the shape of the plane.

(Source)
Anyhoo, as the name of the technique implies, the key to crystallography is, well, crystals. But not all proteins crystallize, and even with those that do, it can be hard to grow crystals large enough for the technique to work.
Recently, though, a pair of technology developments have made it possible (in some cases) to work around these problems.

The first development was the commissioning in the past few years of ultra-bright x-ray sources in California (the Linac Coherent Light Source at Stanford) and Japan. These so-called “x-ray free electron lasers” (X-FELs) shoot incredibly bright, incredibly short x-ray pulses, pulses that are so intense that they destroy a sample in a fraction of a second, but not before the x-rays (which travel at the speed of light, natch) have bounced off of it.

The reason crystals are required in crystallography is that any one diffraction event is hard to see. The regularly spaced molecules inside a crystal amplify that relatively weak signal, simplifying detection and structure determination. As it turns out, the brighter an x-ray source, the smaller the crystal required to obtain such data has to be, and with X-FELs, the crystals can be very small indeed – on the order of millionths of a meter (micrometers) in size, and perhaps even smaller.

Which brings me to the second development. In the March issue of the journal Nature Methods, a team of researchers led by Michael Duszenko in Germany showed that some proteins that cannot crystallize in a test tube will crystallize inside insect cells. Protein chemists often use cells as molecular factories to obtain large quantities of protein. But the goal is to extract the protein from the cells, not have them crystalize inside of them. Generally speaking, protein crystallization inside cells is a bad thing, the kind of thing researchers really don’t want to see; Duszenko and his team are the first to capitalize on this so-called “in vivo crystallization” phenomenon.

The crystals Duszenko’s team collected are quite small, of course –- they fit inside cells, after all — and in that initial study, they were on the order of 1 micrometer wide and 15 micrometers long. But as it turns out, they are big enough for the X-FEL. In the March paper, the team showed that these crystals will diffract x-rays in the X-FEL, but they didn’t solve the resulting structure.

Now, in a paper published Nov. 29 in Science, they have. They did it by combining X-FEL and in vivo crystallization to solve the structure of a trypsanosomal enzyme called cathepsin-B, a potential drug target for African sleeping sickness.

The team sprayed a stream of tiny enzyme crystals (each about 1 x 1 x 11 micrometers) into the path of the X-FEL, which fired discrete pulses of x-ray, each just 40 femtoseconds, or 0.000000000000040 seconds long, 120 times per second. Every so often, one of those pulses would collide with a crystal, and a nearby camera would capture the event.

Serial femtosecond crystallography (Source Continue reading

Crowdfunding on the Brain: Finding Biomarkers for Early Autism Diagnosis

By Biology Editor, Jeanne Garbarino


If a child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it is because they have gone through a number of rigorous behavioral tests, often over a period of time, and never straightforward. Of course, this time can be a stressful for parents or caregivers, and sometimes the answers can lead to even more questions. One solution to the waiting and uncertainty would be to have a medical test that could more easily diagnose ASD. However, no one has been able to identify biomarkers – molecules in the body that can help define a specific medical condition – for the condition. Without this type of information, it is not possible to create a diagnostic test for autism.


Having been through this process with their son, who is on the autism spectrum, Clarkson University scientists Costel Darie and Alisa Woods have decided to work together to help address this issue. An interdisciplinary laboratory that combines hardcore proteomics (the study of the proteins we make) with cognitive neuroscience is probably not what you think of when it comes to running a family business. But for Darie and Woods, “marriage” has many meanings. This husband and wife team has combined their brainpower to embark on a scientific journey toward understanding some of the biochemistry behind autism, and they are walking on an increasingly popular path to help finance their work: crowdfunding.


A major goal of the Darie Lab is to identify biomarkers that are associated with autism and then to create a medical test to help alleviate some of the frustrations that come with the ASD diagnostic process. Using a technology called high-definition mass spectrometry, the Darie Lab has outlined a project to figure out the types of proteins that are in the saliva or blood of children with ASD and compare these protein profiles to the saliva or blood from children who are not on the autism spectrum. If the Darie Lab is successful, they might be able to help create a diagnostic test for early autism detection, which would undoubtedly fill a giant void in the field of autism research and treatment.


Here is how the experiment will work: The members of the Darie Lab will collect saliva (and/or blood) samples from children, half of whom are on the autism spectrum and half of whom are not. The researchers will prepare the saliva or blood and collect the proteins. Each protein will be analyzed by a high definition mass spectrometer, which is basically a small scale for measuring the weight and charge of a protein. The high definition mass spectrometer will transfer information about the proteins to a computer, with special software allowing the Darie Lab investigators to figure out the exact makeup of proteins in each sample.


The bottleneck when it comes to these experiments is not getting samples (saliva and blood are easy to collect), and it isn’t the high-tech high-definition mass spectrometer because they have access to one.  Rather, the bottleneck comes from the very high cost of the analytical software they need. Because this software was not included in their annual laboratory budget but is critical to conducting this experiment, the Darie Lab is raising money through crowdfunding.


Why I think a contribution is worth the investment: Technology is always advancing, especially when it comes to protein biochemistry. The high-definition mass spectrometer is a recent technology, and according to the Darie Lab, they have been able to identify over 700 proteins in the saliva alone. This is quite an incredible step up from traditional mass spectrometers, which could detect only around 100 proteins in saliva. Just because we haven’t been able to identify biomarkers for autism in the past doesn’t mean we can’t do it now. 

In addition to the use of this new technology, the Darie Lab presents some compelling preliminary evidence for a difference in protein profiles between those with ASD and those who do not have ASD. While they’ve examined only three autistic people and compared them to three non-ASD individuals, the two groups were clearly distinct in their saliva protein profiles. If this pattern holds up with an increased number of study participants, the implications could be quite significant for autism research.      
Preliminary data from the Darie Lab shows that there are saliva proteins showing a 20X or greater
difference  between ASD (ovals) versus sibling non-ASD controls (rectangles).

If you decide to kick in some funds, your good deed will not go unrewarded. As a thank-you for contributing, the Darie Lab has offered up a few cool perks, including high-quality prints of microscopic images in the brain. 



If you are looking for a good cause, look no further. I am excited to see how the Darie Lab crowdfund experience goes, and I wish them all the best in their quest, both as professionals and as parents.  To find out more, or to make a donation, visit the Darie Lab RocketHub page.

Fluorescent images of the brain, available to those donating $100 or more.
The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily agree or conflict with those of the DXS editorial team and contributors.

An antibody therapy for hemophilia A?

Example of an antibody. The interesting bits are purple,
as so many interesting things are.
Image credit and license info, via Wikimedia Commons.

By Jeffrey Perkel, DXS tech editor

Last night on TV I caught an ad for Humira, Abbott Laboratories’ prescription medication for a series of conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and Crohn’s disease.


The ad noted that, like all drugs, this medication actually has two names, its brand name (Humira), and its generic name, adalimumab. That suffix, -mab, indicates that Humira is a monoclonal antibody, a large protein normally produced by your immune system’s B cells to recognize and eliminate proteins and pathogens that are not “self.” In particular, Humira recognizes, binds, and inactivates the protein called “tumor necrosis factor,” or TNF, which is implicated in various autoimmune disorders.


There are dozens of monoclonal antibody drugs on the market now, including the breast cancer therapeutic Herceptin (trastuzumab), Remicade (infliximab) for autoimmune disorders, and Rituxan (rituximab) for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.(*) In most cases, by binding specific proteins, either in solution or on cell surfaces, these molecules either inactivate proteins (as in the case of TNF), target the cell for death, or block inappropriate cell signaling (as in Herceptin). Other antibody designs use the antibody as a “guided missile,” targeting drug or radioisotope ”warheads” to cancerous cells. 


On Sept. 30, though, a team of Japanese researchers at Chugai Pharmaceutical, reported an example of a new kind of antibody application, and it’s pretty slick.


The paper concerns a novel treatment concept for hemophila A, an X-linked recessive bleeding disorder that affects about 1 in 10,000 men. It is caused by a lack of a clotting protein called factor VIII (FVIII), and the typical treatment is “prophylactic supplementation” of the missing protein.


There are three problems with that treatment, as the paper notes. First, FVIII is expensive. It also must be administered frequently and intravenously, which is especially difficult for pediatric patients and “negatively affects both the implementation of and adherence to the supplementation routine.” But perhaps most significantly, in about 30% of cases the body recognizes the recombinant FVIII as “non-self” or “foreign,” and develops antibodies (“inhibitors”) to inactivate it, rendering the treatment ineffective.


To circumvent that problem, the Chugai team developed what is called a “bispecific antibody” to replace FVIII. So what is a bispecific antibody?


In cartoon form, antibodies resemble the letter Y, with antigen-binding regions at the tip of either branch. In a normal antibody, those two binding regions are identical, such that each antibody can bind two copies of the same protein molecule.


A standard monoclonal antibody has two binding arms, each recognizing the same antigen (protein target).
Source: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antibody

A bispecific antibody, though, has two different binding domains, one for each of two proteins, such that it can effectively act as a scaffold to bring two proteins – or the cells they are attached to – together. The only bispecific currently on the market, Trion Pharma’s Removab, acts to couple immune system T cells and macrophages to tumors.

A bispecific antibody, Trion’s Removab.
Source: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bispecific_monoclonal_antibody

Chugai’s scientists developed a bispecific antibody that does something different. Their antibody, called hBS23, links two other clotting factors, FIXa and FX, thereby mimicking the function and architecture of the missing FVIII without actually administering it.

FVIII activates FX in the presence of FIXa. hBS23 is a bispecific antibody that replaces FVIII.
(c) 2012 Nature Publishing Group [Nature Medicine, doi:10.1038/nm.2942]

In test tube clotting assays, hBS23 was about 14-times less catalytically efficient than FVIII itself, yet could nevertheless induce clotting, even in cases where the plasma contained inhibitors against FVIII. (Recombinant human FVIII had no effect in those latter cases.) In a non-human primate model of hemophilia A, hBS23 prevented development of anemia and reduced internal bleeding comparable to FVIII itself.


Significantly, hBS23 lasts a long time in the primate bloodstream – with an IV half-life of 14 days and comparable subcutaneously bioavailability – yet seems unlikely to elicit inhibitory antibodies of its own. That subcutaneous activity is significant, as regular subcu administration should be more easily tolerated than an IV.

Based on the these studies, and some simulations, the authors predict that ”once weekly dosing of 1 mg per kg body weight of hBS23 would show a continuous hemostatic effect in humans.”  

Of course, that’s just a prediction. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and only time will tell how hBS23 will fare in people. But don’t look for it on pharmacy shelves any time soon. Clinical trials take time, and further optimization of the antibody design is likely required. Still, the team is obviously upbeat about their strategy’s potential:


“A long-acting, subcutaneously injectable agent that is unaffected by the presence of inhibitors could markedly reduce the burden of care for the treatment of hemophilia A.”


For more details, you can read the report here.

——————————————————
We’ve also got a partner post for you, an antibody explainer by our very own Jeanne Garbarino. Be sure to check it out! 


*Fun fact: If you’ve ever wondered about how drugs get their generic names, they are conferred by the US Adopted Names Council. The names have a kind of prefix/stem structure, linking a manufacturer-supplied but meaningless prefix (adalimu–) with a specific stem (eg, –mab) that denotes the drug class or activity. There are literally hundreds of stems, including –coxib (COX2 inhibitors), –vir (antivirals), and –stat (enzyme inhibitors); for a complete list, click here.

No gene is an island: What do scientists mean when they talk about environment and genes?

Nope. This island does not represent your genes. (Source)

When you read news stories about what affects a developing human in the womb or how cancer or obesity arises, you probably also see references to genes and environment. Some articles may focus on genes versus environment, or mention that something is “mostly” genetic or that the “environment” contributes to a disorder or trait in some way.

What some people may not realize is that “environment” to a scientist talking about genetics may be something very different from “environment” to a non-scientist reading a news article. While a scientist may be vividly imagining a bustling microenvironment of native molecules in the way only scientists seem to do, the general reader may simply be thinking about “toxins” or “chemicals.” That’s why Double X Science is here to help with a primer on what those scientist types may mean when they talk about genes and environment. See how useful we are? Tell your friends! (Speaking of environmental influences… ).

Where does environment begin and end? Let’s begin at the end
No gene is an island. Your genes consist in part of a special code that is really an instruction manual. Your cells rely on internal translators to decode these instructions and use them as a guide to make various proteins, the molecules that give your cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, and you much of their structure and function. Proteins do thousands of jobs, from breaking down food to building and replacing tissues (news release) to governing cell division. Most of your cells are engaged in making proteins, a complex, exquisitely regulated and multi-step process. But they don’t do it in a vacuum. 

That code the cell uses to build the protein? That instruction manual is susceptible to all kinds of interference. Pages get torn out or folded over or stuck together. The words of the code can be changed, sometimes subtly, sometimes unmistakably, and all kinds of factors can jumble up those words so that cell ends up making a protein that isn’t quite what was intended. It’s even possible to use the cellular version of Liquid Paper(TM) to mask the code so that the cell doesn’t recognize its existence. Sometimes, these changes have no observable effect. Sometimes, they have big bad effects, such as disease, or helpful outcomes, such as disease resistance.

That code sits in a cell in a body (you) made of trillions of cells doing hundreds of different jobs, taking in things from the environment, playing host to millions of other organisms (themselves an environment), altering and shifting with every passing second as the whole system works to keep you together and functioning within certain acceptable limits for human life. All of these processes can influence the code, leading the cell to use it, change it, use only certain parts of it, Liquid Paper over it, tweak what results from its instructions, or just ignore it. It’s impossible for any code in that situation to function in the total absence of influence from its environment, in part because the code itself is just the beginning. Much of the environment’s influence is reflected in what the cell does with the instructions, not just what the instructions say. 

This multitude of environmental influences is one reason that even people with identical genetic codes can have differences in diseases we think of as being largely genetic. No gene–no code–is an island. You are not your genes. You are your genes and your environment.

No nucleus is an island. Most of our genes are packaged neatly with the rest of our DNA around molecular spools inside a cellular vault called the nucleus. This vault is a choosy sentry, letting in only certain molecules carrying proper ID. Yet inside the nucleus, there is an environment. This environment is not “toxins” or “chemicals,” the things that many people probably think of when someone says “environment” and talks about genes. But it is a busy place with its own milieu. Some parts of the code are in use, some sit quiet, and many molecules bustle and hustle to maintain, copy, process, or protect these important instructions. Every little bit of this hustle and bustle can influence some aspect of what happens to a code in the nucleus, interfering with or enhancing its use or resulting in accidental changes that may have big effects further down the line. The nucleus is the final stop in the chain of environmental influence, wherever that influence may originate.

No cell is an island. Outside of that vault is the big, wide world of the cell. The cell is the molecular version of a busy metropolis (see beautiful video, The Inner Life of the Cell, below), a complex system of cellular highways that the cell uses to deliver packages internally, take in deliveries from the outside world, and transfer the millions of molecules it’s using and making to the right places at the right time. There’s a generator, a recycling center, guards at the gate, and a protein production facility and processing plant, complete with a post office. And that cell sits in an environment, usually, of many many other cells, also busy with their duties. What happens outside of that cell affects the inside of the cell, altering traffic flows, protein production and packaging, signaling and delivery along the routes, and, ultimately, processes inside the vault called the nucleus, the final destination in the chain of environmental effects. From outside the cell, through the cell, and to the nucleus, every step along the way is one that environment can affect, all the way down to what the cell does with its genes–the codes–for the proteins it makes.



No tissue or organ is an island. A lot of cells working together to do the same thing in your body make up a tissue. Tissues combined together to perform a function are an organ. Let’s take the organ named after living, the liver. It keeps you alive by filtering your blood and reconstructing substances that might harm your cells into less-harmful compounds. Just about everything you ingest gets passed through here. When the liver takes up something like ethanol, the alcohol we ingest at wine o’ clock, and gets to work making it less awful for your body, guess what does that work? The cells that make up the liver. The liver’s environment is their environment is each individual cell’s environment, and eventually, the influence will pass to the nucleus, the final destination in the chain of environmental influence, where the code lies.

You are not an island. And whatever you encounter in this world may well influence you right down to the level of your genes. But while many people might think of “toxins” or “chemicals” when they think of environmental influences on genes, your chemical exposures–and chemicals include oxygen, water, body fluids, nutrients and not-so-nutrients in your foods, medications you may take–are among many, many examples of environmental factors that may reach via a chain reaction all the way to your genes. Some of these factors affect your genes by way of your sensory system: A hug, an angry encounter, a sick child, a laugh with a friend–you respond to each of these environmental influences, often by way of hormones that have a chat with your cells. Your cells respond by adjusting how they use the code in the nucleus so that in the face of anger or love or worry, your body still functions within the essential parameters of life. Below, we list with tongue slightly in cheek a sampling of other factors that constitute an “environment” that could influence your genes and how your cell uses them and the proteins they encode. Whether you know it or not, you’re encountering a million factors every day, big and small, that may trigger some effect way down there in the nuclear vaults of your cells, one that reverberates body wide.

Some examples of “environment” that might influence genes
Environmental influence on genes and how your cells use their instructions and the resulting proteins can come from almost anywhere, any factor, from outside of you and within you. It’s not just about exposures to “bad” chemicals or “toxins.” While the list of potential environmental factors influencing genes and how the cell uses them is practically infinite, we give you just a few examples for thought below:

  • Your parents, siblings, friends, extended family, co-workers, soccer team–you know, other people
  • Infections
  • The billions of microbes that live on you and in you
  • Lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, sleep, stress
  • A dusty house
  • A clean house
  • Hormones, from inside and out
  • Age
  • Sex
  • School
  • Pets
  • Hugs
  • Isolation
  • Crowding
  • Talking
  • Supplements
  • The womb and factors therein
  • Playing outside
  • Playing inside
  • Having sex
  • Abstaining from sex
  • Your job
  • Yogurt?
  • Puberty
  • Other genes
  • Learning things
  • Not learning things
  • Minecraft
  • Mozart
  • Birth order
  • Watching sports
  • Playing sports
  • Sitting a lot
  • Standing a lot
  • Twitter
  • The Sun (and just about everything under it)

You get the idea.

By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor


These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily either reflect or disagree with those of the DXS editorial team.

Biology Xplainer: Evolution and how it happens

Evolution: a population changes over time
First of all, in the context of science, you should never speak of evolution as a “theory.” There is no theory about whether or not evolution happens. It is a fact.

Scientists have, however, developed tested theories about how evolution happens. Although several proposed and tested processes or mechanisms exist, the most prominent and most studied, talked about, and debated, is Charles Darwin’s idea that the choices of nature guide these changes. The fame and importance of his idea, natural selection, has eclipsed the very real existence of other ways that populations can change over time.

Evolution in the biological sense does not occur in individuals, and the kind of evolution we’re talking about here isn’t about life’s origins. Evolution must happen at least at the populationlevel. In other words, it takes place in a group of existing organisms, members of the same species, often in a defined geographical area.

We never speak of individuals evolving in the biological sense. The population, a group of individuals of the same species, is the smallest unit of life that evolves.

To get to the bottom of what happens when a population changes over time, we must examine what’s happening to the gene combinations of the individuals in that population. The most precise way to talk about evolution in the biological sense is to define it as “a change in the allele frequency of a population over time.” A gene, which contains the code for a protein, can occur in different forms, or alleles. These different versions can mean that the trait associated with that protein can differ among individuals. Thanks to mutations, a gene for a trait can exist in a population in these different forms. It’s like having slightly different recipes for making the same cake, each producing a different version of the cake, except in this case, the “cake” is a protein.
Natural selection: One way evolution happens

Charles Darwin, a smart, thoughtful,
observant man. Via Wikimedia.
Charles Darwin, who didn’t know anything about alleles or even genes (so now you know more than he did on that score), understood from his work and observations that nature makes certain choices, and that often, what nature chooses in specific individuals turns up again in the individuals’ offspring. He realized that these characteristics that nature was choosing must pass to some offspring. This notion of heredity–that a feature encoded in the genes can be transmitted to your children–is inherent now in the theory of natural selection and a natural one for most people to accept. In science, an observable or measurable feature or characteristic is called a phenotype, and the genes that are the code for it are called its genotype. The color of my eyes (brown) is a phenotype, and the alleles of the eye color genes I have are the genotype.

What is nature selecting any individual in a population to do? In the theory of natural selection, nature chooses individuals that fit best into the current environment to pass along their “good-fit” genes, either through reproduction or indirectly through supporting the reproducer. Nature chooses organisms to survive and pass along those good-fit genes, so they have greater fitness.

Fitness is an evolutionary concept related to an organism’s reproductive success, either directly (as a parent) or indirectly (say, as an aunt or cousin). It is measured technically based on the proportion of an individual’s alleles that are represented in the next generation. When we talk about “fitness” and “the fittest,” remember that fittest does not mean strong. It relates more to a literal fit, like a square peg in a square hole, or a red dot against a red background. It doesn’t matter if the peg or dot is strong, just whether or not it fits its environment.

One final consideration before we move onto a synthesis of these ideas about differences, heredity, and reproduction: What would happen if the population were uniformly the same genetically for a trait? Well, when the environment changed, nature would have no choice to make. Without a choice, natural selection cannot happen–there is nothing to select. And the choice has to exist already; it does not typically happen in response to a need that the environment dictates. Usually, the ultimate origin for genetic variation–which underlies this choice–is mutation, or a change in a DNA coding sequence, the instructions for building a protein.

Don’t make the mistake of saying that an organism adapts by mutating in response to the environment. The mutations (the variation) must already be present for nature to make a choice based on the existing environment.

The Modern Synthesis

When Darwin presented his ideas about nature’s choices in an environmental context, he did so in a book with a very long title that begins, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Darwinknew his audience and laid out his argument clearly and well, with one stumbling block: How did all that heredity stuff actually work?

We now know–thanks to a meticulous scientist named Gregor Mendel (who also was a monk), our understanding of reproductive cell division, and modern genetics–exactly how it all works. Our traits–whether winners or losers in the fitness Olympics–have genes that determine them. These genes exist in us in pairs, and these pairs separate during division of our reproductive cells so that our offspring receive one member or the other of the pair. When this gene meets its coding partner from the other parent’s cell at fertilization, a new gene pair arises. This pairing may produce a similar outcome to one of the parents or be a novel combination that yields some new version of a trait. But this separating and pairing is how nature keeps things mixed up, setting up choices for selection.

Ernst Mayr, via PLoS.
With a growing understanding in the twentieth century of genetics and its role in evolution by means of natural selection, a great evolutionary biologist named Ernst Mayr (1904–2005) guided a meshing of genetics and evolution (along with other brilliant scientists including Theodosius Dobzhansky, George Simpson, and R.A. Fisher) into what is called The Modern Synthesis. This work encapsulates (dare I say, “synthesizes?”) concisely and beautifully the tenets of natural selection in the context of basic genetic inheritance. As part of his work, Mayr distilled Darwin’s ideas into a series of facts and inferences.

Facts and Inferences

Mayr’s distillation consists of five facts and three inferences, or conclusions, to draw from those facts.
  1. The first fact is that populations have the potential to increase exponentially. A quick look at any graph of human population growth illustrates that we, as a species, appear to be recognizing that potential. For a less successful example, consider the sea turtle. You may have seen the videos of the little turtle hatchlings valiantly flippering their way across the sand to the sea, cheered on by the conservation-minded humans who tended their nests. What the cameras usually don’t show is that the vast majority of these turtle offspring will not live to reproduce. The potential for exponential growth is there, based on number of offspring produced, but…it doesn’t happen.
  2. The second fact is that not all offspring reproduce, and many populations are stable in size. See “sea turtles,” above.
  3. The third fact is that resources are limited. And that leads us to our first conclusion, or inference: there is a struggle among organisms for nutrition, water, habitat, mates, parental attention…the various necessities of survival, depending on the species. The large number of offspring, most of which ultimately don’t survive to reproduce, must compete, or struggle, for the limited resources.
  4. Fact four is that individuals differ from one another. Look around. Even bacteria of the same strain have their differences, with some more able than others to with stand an antibiotic onslaught. Look at a crowd of people. They’re all different in hundreds of ways.
  5. Fact five is that much about us that is different lies in our genes–it is inheritable. Heredity undeniably exists and underlies a lot of our variation.
So we have five facts. Now for the three inferences:

  1. First, there is that struggle for survival, thanks to so many offspring and limited resources. See “sea turtle,” again.
  2. Second, different traits will be passed on differentially. Put another way: Winner traits are more likely to be passed on.
  3. And that takes us to our final conclusion: if enough of these “winner” traits are passed to enough individuals in a population, they will accumulate in that population and change its makeup. In other words, the population will change over time. It will be adapted to its environment. It will evolve.
Other mechanisms of evolution

A pigeon depicted in Charles Darwin’s
Variation of Animals and Plants
Under Domestication
, 1868. U.S.
public domain image, via Wikimedia.
When Darwin presented his idea of natural selection, he knew he had an audience to win over. He pointed out that people select features of organisms all the time and breed them to have those features. Darwin himself was fond of breeding pigeons with a great deal of pigeony variety. He noted that unless the pigeons already possessed traits for us to choose, we not would have that choice to make. But we do have choices. We make super-woolly sheep, dachshunds, and heirloom tomatoes simply by selecting from the variation nature provides and breeding those organisms to make more with those traits. We change the population over time.

Darwin called this process of human-directed evolution artificial selection. It made great sense for Darwinbecause it helped his reader get on board. If people could make these kinds of choices and wreak these kinds of changes, why not nature? In the process, Darwin also described this second way evolution can happen: human-directed evolution. We’re awash in it today, from our accidental development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to wheat that resists devastating rust.

Genetic drift: fixed or lost

What about traits that have no effect either way, that are just there? One possible example in us might be attached earlobes. Good? Bad? Ugly? Well…they don’t appear to have much to do with whether or not we reproduce. They’re just there.

When a trait leaves nature so apparently disinterested, the alleles underlying it don’t experience selection. Instead, they drift in one direction or another, to extinction or 100 percent frequency. When an allele drifts to disappearance, we say that it is lost from the population. When it drifts to 100 percent presence, we say that it has become fixed. This process of evolution by genetic drift reduces variation in a population. Eventually, everyone will have it, or no one will.

Gene flow: genes in, genes out

Another way for a population to change over time is for it to experience a new infusion of genes or to lose a lot of them. This process of gene flow into or out of the population occurs because of migration in or out. Either of these events can change the allele frequency in a population, and that means that gene flow is another was that evolution can happen.

If gene flow happens between two different species, as can occur more with plants, then not only has the population changed significantly, but the new hybrid that results could be a whole new species. How do you think we get those tangelos?

Horizontal gene transfer

One interesting mechanism of evolution is horizontal gene transfer. When we think of passing along genes, we usually envision a vertical transfer through generations, from parent to offspring. But what if you could just walk up to a person and hand over some of your genes to them, genes that they incorporate into their own genome in each of their cells?

Of course, we don’t really do that–at least, not much, not yet–but microbes do this kind of thing all the time. Viruses that hijack a cell’s genome to reproduce can accidentally leave behind a bit of gene and voila! It’s a gene change. Bacteria can reach out to other living bacteria and transfer genetic material to them, possibly altering the traits of the population.

Evolutionary events

Sometimes, events happen at a large scale that have huge and rapid effects on the overall makeup of a population. These big changes mark some of the turning points in the evolutionary history of many species.

Cheetahs underwent a bottleneck that
has left them with little genetic variation.
Photo credit: Malene Thyssen, via
Wikimedia. 
Bottlenecks: losing variation

The word bottleneck pretty much says it all. Something happens over time to reduce the population so much that only a relatively few individuals survive. A bottleneck of this sort reduces the variability of a population. These events can be natural–such as those resulting from natural disasters–or they can be human induced, such as species bottlenecks we’ve induced through overhunting or habitat reduction.

Founder effect: starting small

Sometimes, the genes flow out of a population. This flow occurs when individuals leave and migrate elsewhere. They take their genes with them (obviously), and the populations they found will initially carry only those genes. Whatever they had with them genetically when they founded the population can affect that population. If there’s a gene that gives everyone a deadly reaction to barbiturates, that population will have a higher-than-usual frequency of people with that response, thanks to this founder effect.

Gene flow leads to two key points to make about evolution: First, a population carries only the genes it inherits and generally acquires new versions through mutation or gene flow. Second, that gene for lethal susceptibility to a drug would be meaningless in a natural selection context as long as the environment didn’t include exposure to that drug. The take-home message is this: What’s OK for one environment may or may not be fit for another environment. The nature of Nature is change, and Nature offers no guarantees.

Hardy-Weinberg: when evolution is absent

With all of these possible mechanisms for evolution under their belts, scientists needed a way to measure whether or not the frequency of specific alleles was changing over time in a given population or staying in equilibrium. Not an easy job. They found–“they” being G. H. Hardy and Wilhelm Weinberg–that the best way to measure this was to predict what the outcome would be if there were no change in allele frequencies. In other words, to predict that from generation to generation, allele frequencies would simply stay in equilibrium. If measurements over time yielded changing frequencies, then the implication would be that evolution has happened.

Defining “Not Evolving”

So what does it mean to not evolve? There are some basic scenarios that must exist for a population not to be experiencing a change in allele frequency, i.e., no evolution. If there is a change, then one of the items in the list below must be false:

·       Very large population (genetic drift can be a strong evolutionary mechanism in small populations)

·       No migrations (in other words, no gene flow)

·       No net mutations (no new variation introduced)

·       Random mating (directed mating is one way nature selects organisms)

·       No natural selection

In other words, a population that is not evolving is experiencing a complete absence of evolutionary processes. If any one of these is absent from a given population, then evolution is occurring and allele frequencies from generation to generation won’t be in equilibrium.

Convergent Evolution

Arguably the most famous of the
egg-laying monotremes, the improbable-
seeming platypus. License.
One of the best examples of the influences of environmental pressures is what happens in similar environments a world apart. Before the modern-day groupings of mammals arose, the continent of Australiaseparated from the rest of the world’s land masses, taking the proto-mammals that lived there with it. Over the ensuing millennia, these proto-mammals in Australiaevolved into the native species we see today on that continent, all marsupialsor monotremes.

Among mammals, there’s a division among those that lay eggs (monotremes), those that do most gestating in a pouch rather than a uterus (marsupials), and eutherians, which use a uterus for gestation (placental mammals).

Elsewhere in the world, most mammals developed from a common eutherian ancestor and, where marsupials still persisted, probably outcompeted them. In spite of this lengthy separation and different ancestry, however, for many of the examples of placental mammals, Australiahas a similar marsupial match. There’s the marsupial rodent that is like the rat. The marsupial wolf that is like the placental wolf. There’s even a marsupial anteater to match the placental one.

How did that happen an ocean apart with no gene flow? The answer is natural selection. The environment that made an organism with anteater characteristics best fit in South America was similar to the environment that made those characteristics a good fit in Australia. Ditto the rats, ditto the wolf.

When similar environments result in unrelated organisms having similar characteristics, we call that process convergent evolution. It’s natural selection in relatively unrelated species in parallel. In both regions, nature uses the same set of environmental features to mold organisms into the best fit.

By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor

Note: This explanation of evolution and how it happens is not intended to be comprehensive or detailed or to include all possible mechanisms of evolution. It is simply an overview. In addition, it does not address epigenetics, which will be the subject of a different explainer.

Leaky gut and wonky immune response might be double whammy leading to inflammatory bowel disease (in mice)

A case of ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Samir.

A two-hit punch in the gut might explain why some people find themselves alone among their closest relatives in having inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The double gut punches come in the form of a compromised intestinal wall coupled with a poorly behaved immune system, say Emory researchers, whose work using mice was published in the journal Immunity. IBDs include ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, the latter of which is slightly more common in women.

An inflamed gut is the key feature of IBD, which affects about 600,000 people in the United States each year. Typical symptoms include bloody diarrhea, fever, and cramps, which can come and go with bouts of severe inflammation punctuating relatively calm periods. The going explanation for these disorders is a wonky immune system, but some breach of the barrier that keeps your gut contents in their place is also implicated. Researchers also have identified a link between bouts of gastroenteritis–known around my house as “throw-up” illnesses–and development of IBD. What’s remained unclear is how people who have these so-called “leaky guts” don’t develop a disease like Crohn’s when a close family member with a leaky gut does.

These hints in humans led the Emory investigators to examine the interaction of a compromised gut and the immune system in mice. The mice in the study had ‘leaky’ gut walls because they lacked a protein that usually ties cells together into water-tight sheets. Without these proteins sealing up the intestinal lining, bacteria and other components can make their way their deeper into the intestinal wall, triggering chronic inflammation.

The thing is, these mice with their leaky guts don’t develop colitis spontaneously, a situation, the investigators hypothesized, that  reflects families full of people with leaky guts but rarely IBD.  Permeable intestines alone aren’t enough. Some other dysfunction related to the immune system, they figured, must pile onto that leakiness and bring on the inflammatory disorder.

If you’re an immunologist–which I am not–an obvious choice for investigation is a class of immune cells called T cells. These cells come in a dizzying array of types, but one way to narrow them down relies on a protein that some but not all of them make. Pulling out the T cells that make this protein, says Timothy Denning, PhD, a mucosal immunologist at Emory and study author, is “the simplest way” to start examining the immune system involvement because these cells play a ton of roles in balancing different immune responses. So, they first collected the T cells carrying this protein from the mouse intestines.

“There are good and bad” versions of T cells carrying these identifier molecules, though, says Denning, so the next step was to find the “good” ones that might be protecting mice in spite of their sieve-like intestinal linings. To achieve that goal required some fancier lab moves. “We stimulated the cells and looked at the cytokines (immune signaling molecules) they make,” explains Charles Parkos, MD, PhD, an experimental pathologist and mucosal immunologist at Emory and also a paper author. “We found that the cells in the mice that were better protected predominantly secreted TGF-beta, a prototypic marker for ‘good’ cells.”

One of the things T cells do with TGF-beta is to talk to B cells, another class of immune cell. B cells take responsibility for remembering what’s attacked you in the past and marshaling forces if it attacks again. Also, when B cells are stimulated, explains Parkos, one way they respond is to release proteins–antibodies–that target the offending invaders. In the gut, the kind of antibody the B cells make in response to the TGF-beta message is immunoglobulin A, or IgA. This antibody “keeps bacteria in check,” says Denning, and also probably “broadly neutralizes lots of different microorganisms” in the intestines, adds Parkos.

The Emory-based team found that when the leaky-gut mice also had an IgA deficiency, they became more open to the types of immune cells that cause gut inflammation. The animals also were far more susceptible to colitis triggered by a chemical treatment in the lab and had much worse disease. Without the IgA, the mice couldn’t dampen inflammation triggered by bacteria slipping through the intestinal breaches. The results of this two-step physiological fail, in mice, at least: severe inflammatory  gut disease.

Denning cautions that these results in mice don’t suggest a rush to TGF-beta or IgA treatment for inflammatory diseases. “TGF-beta has many effects and on many different cell types, and too much is not a good thing because it’s known to play a role in fibrosis and cancer,” says Denning. “If your child had IBD, the last thing you’d want to do is to give TGF-beta.” Much more work has to be done, he adds, for a better understanding of the implications of these results before anyone starts talking about therapies. Parkos agrees. “To our knowledge, administration of TGF-beta is not a viable therapy.”

The same applies for IgA, Denning says. “We couldn’t just take any old B cells and get them to make IgA and put it in and hope that it would do something,” he says. The reason, he explains, is because B cells make many different types of IgA molecules specific to foreign invaders they encounter, a process that happens on the spot, not in a lab dish. “We need to understand much more about the basic mechanisms, but we do believe that these pathways would be critical to induce in people who are more susceptible to IBD, such as first-degree relatives.”

Some research groups are conducting trials to treat IBDs with helminth worms–intestinal parasites–on the hypothesis that their presence would induce a balance in the immune system and tamp down an overactive inflammatory response. The balance in this case is supposed to be between two competing aspects of the immune system, called Th1 and Th2. But one issue in these intestinal inflammatory disorders, says Denning, is that Crohn’s is linked to Th1 hyperactivity while ulcerative colitis is associated with Th2.

Yet the worms appear to show some beneficial effects in both disorders, in spite of the different involvement of Th1 and Th2. The TGF-beta signaling effect on IgA that the Emory group identified operates by a third component, tentatively identified as Th3. Both Denning and Parkos are intrigued by the possibility that the presence of helminths might trigger this pathway, rather than influencing Th1 or Th2, explaining why worm treatment has sometimes proved useful for both Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.

As for why IBD arises, the researchers hope their findings answer some questions. “There are different camps in the IBD community,” says Parkos. “Some say immune system, some say barrier, others say genetics or environment.” What they have with their results, he says, is evidence showing that a leak alone is not enough and that a wonky immune system alone is not enough. But the double-whammy of a leaky gut and an absence of immune protection “dramatically increase susceptibility to disease, and that helps explain why diseases are so complicated,” he says.

The use of parasitic worms for these inflammatory diseases arose from the concept of the hygiene hypothesis, the idea that we’re too clean in the modern developed world, leading to an immune imbalance that can include chronic inflammation and autoimmune disorders. Asked about any links between the hygiene hypothesis and this pathway to IBD they identified in mice, Denning says, “It’s not obviously all about the parasites. That’s just one key thing–it’s probably an exposure to a lot of different types of things in your gut and airways.” He describes the immune system as being a thermostat that registers a specific set-point early on based on these exposures. This set-point, he says, is lower in people who grow up in developed countries like the United States and leads to a “trigger-happy immune system that is ready to fire much more easily.”

That doesn’t mean that a worm infection or just being dirty will prevent your developing IBD. That said, these immunologists both have the same general advice for parents regarding their children. “Being too clean is not a good thing,” they agree. As immunologists, he adds, “We feel exactly the opposite. Go play in the dirt.”