Saturday, May 15, 2010


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In a rare coincidence, researchers working in both Turkey and Iran discovered on the same day how a rare species of bee builds its underground nests. The females from the solitary species Osima (Ozbekosima) avoseta line the nest's brood chambers with petals of pink, yellow, blue, and purple flowers. The chambers provide nutrients for the larvae to grow and mature and protect the next generation as they wait out the winter. The new research was published this February in American Museum Novitates.

"It was absolute synchronicity that we all discovered this uncommon behavior on the same day," says Jerome Rozen, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. Rozen and colleagues were working near Antalya, Turkey while another group of researchers were in the field in Fars Province, Iran. "I'm very proud of the fact that so many authors contributed to this paper."

Bees are the most important animal pollinators living today, and many flowering plants depend on bees to reproduce. But nearly 75% of bee species—and there are about 20,000 species described—are solitary. This means that for the majority of bees, a female constructs a nest for herself and provisions each chamber in the nest with food for the larval stage of her brood. When each chamber is ready, the female deposits an egg and closes the nest if there is only one chamber to a nest. The nests—found in the open in the ground—need to be protected from any number of potential threats to their physical structure like compaction of the soil, desiccation, or excessive heating. The survival of solitary bee species also depends on protection from molds, viruses, bacteria, parasites, and predators.

In O. avosetta, the female builds a nest in one or two vertical chambers close to the surface, or between 1.5 and 5 cm below ground. Entering from the top, the adult female lines each chamber with overlapping petals, starting at the bottom. The female then ferries claylike mud to the nest, plasters a thin layer (about 0.5 mm thick) on the petals, and finishes the lining with another layer of petals. The nest is essentially a petal sandwich, built in the dark.

When the physical structure is ready, female O. avosetta gather provisions of a sticky mix of nectar and pollen and place it on the chamber's floor. An egg is deposited on its surface, and the chamber is closed by carefully folding the petals at the top. The nest is capped with a plug of mud, sealing the young bee in a humid chamber that becomes rigid and protects the larvae as it eats its rations, spins a cocoon, and falls into a 10-month sleep until spring. The nests of the species can be parasitized by a wasp that lays an egg in the brood chamber and kills the O. avosetta egg with enlarged jaws and then devours the provisions.

"In this species, a female shingles the wall of her brood chambers with large pieces of petals or with whole petals, often of many hues," says Rozen. "Unfortunately, her larvae never enjoy the brilliant colors of the nest's walls because they have no eyes—and, anyhow, they would need a flashlight!"

(Photo: J. G. Rozen)

American Museum of Natural History


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UCLA researchers report in the April 30 edition of the journal Cell that they have imaged a virus structure at a resolution high enough to effectively "see" atoms, the first published instance of imaging biological complexes at such a resolution.

The research team, led by Hong Zhou, UCLA professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, used cryo-electron microscopy to image the structure at 3.3 angstroms. An angstrom is the smallest recognized division of a chemical element and is about the distance between the two hydrogen atoms in a water molecule.

The study, the researchers say, demonstrates the great potential of cryo-electron microscopy, or Cryo-EM, for producing extremely high-resolution images of biological samples in their native environment.

"This is the first study to determine an atomic resolution structure through Cryo-EM alone," said Xing Zhang, a postdoctoral candidate in Zhou's group and lead author of the Cell paper. "By proving the effectiveness of this microscopy technique, we have opened the door to a wide variety of biological studies."

With traditional light microscopy, a magnified image of a sample is viewed through a lens. Some samples, however, are too small to diffract visible light (in the 500 to 800 nm range, or 5,000 to 8,000 angstroms) and therefore cannot be seen. To image objects at the sub-500 nm scale, scientists must turn to other tools, such as atomic force microscopes, which use an atomically thin tip to generate an image by probing a surface, in much the same way a blind person reads by touching Braille lettering.

With electron microscopy, another sub-500 nm technology, a beam of electrons is fired at a sample, passing through empty areas and bouncing off dense areas. A digital camera reads the path of the electrons passing through the sample to create a two-dimensional projection image of the sample. By repeating this process at hundreds of different angles, a computer can construct a three-dimensional image of the sample at a very high resolution.

Zhou is faculty director of the Electron Imaging Center for Nanomachines (EICN) at UCLA's California NanoSystems Institute, which is using cryo-electron microscopy to create 3-D reconstructions of nano-machineries, nano-devices and biological nano-structures, such as viruses.

Structurally accurate 3-D reconstructions of biological complexes are possible with cryo-electron microscopy because the samples are flash frozen, which allows them to be imaged in their native environment, and the microscope operates in a vacuum, because electrons travel better in that environment. The Cell paper focused on a structural study of the aquareovirus, a non-envelope virus that causes disease in fish and shellfish, in an effort to better understand how non-envelope viruses infect host cells.

"We are extremely excited about the recent breakthrough achieved by Hong Zhou and his team at the EICN lab," said Leonard H. Rome, senior associate dean for research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and associate director of the California NanoSystems Institute. "The ability to understand the structure of viruses at an atomic level will open avenues for manipulating them for use in drug delivery and propel numerous innovations in treatments of diseases. UCLA is fortunate to have such specialized instrumentation and the expertise of Professor Zhou and his team to take advantage of these marvelous microscopes."

Viruses can be classed into two types: envelope and non-envelope. Envelope viruses, which include influenza and HIV, are surrounded by an envelope-like membrane which the virus uses to fuse with and infect a host cell. Non-envelope viruses lack this membrane and instead use a protein to fuse with and infect cells. This process was poorly understood until Zhou's study.

"Through better knowledge of virus structures, we hope to engineer medications in three ways," Zhou said. "If we understand how viruses work, first we can identify small molecules or drugs that block their infection; second, we can engineer ultra-stable and non-infectious virus-like particles as optimal vaccines; and third, we can alter their characteristics so that instead of delivering a disease, viruses could deliver medications.

"Indeed, we are working with UCLA physicians and engineers to engineer viruses for gene therapy and drug delivery," he said. "In essence, we hope to take advantage of millions of years of evolution that have made viruses incredibly effective delivery platforms."

From the high-resolution 3-D images produced with the cryo-electron microscopy, Zhou's group was able to determine that the aquareovirus employs a priming stage to accomplish cell infection. In its dormant state, the virus has a protective protein covering, which it sheds during priming. Once the outer shell has been shed, the virus is in a primed state and is ready to use a protein called an "insertion finger" to infect a cell.

The team's study ushers in a new era of structural biology for understanding important biological processes. The group was able to discover this functionality because of the accurate structural model produced through cryo-electron microscopy. In addition to producing a high-resolution 3-D image of samples, the technology allows samples to be imaged in their native environment, so the structural model is faithful to the original sample. From a technical point of view, this work also demonstrates the power of cryo-electron microscopy in obtaining 3-D structures of biological complexes without needing to grow a crystal.

University of California


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Purple bacteria were among the first life forms on Earth. They are single celled microscopic organisms that play a vital role in sustaining the tree of life. This tiny organism lives in aquatic environments like the bottom of lakes and the colorful corals under the sea, using sunlight as their source of energy. Its natural design seems the best structural solution for harvesting solar energy. Neil Johnson, a physicist and head of the inter-disciplinary research group in complexity in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Miami, thinks its cellular arrangement could be adapted for use in solar panels and other energy conversion devices to offer a more efficient way to garner energy from the sun.

"These bacteria have been around for billions of years, you would think they are really simple organisms and that everything is understood about them. However, purple bacteria were recently found to adopt different cell designs depending on light intensity," says Johnson. "Our study develops a mathematical model to describe the designs it adopts and why, which could help direct design of future photoelectric devices."

Johnson and his collaborators from the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia share their findings in a study entitled "Light-harvesting in bacteria exploits a critical interplay between transport and trapping dynamics," published in the current edition of Physical Review Letters.

Solar energy arrives at the cell in "drops" of light called photons, which are captured by the light-gathering mechanism of bacteria present within a special structure called the photosynthetic membrane. Inside this membrane, light energy is converted into chemical energy to power all the functions of the cell. The photosynthetic apparatus has two light harvesting complexes. The first captures the photons and funnels them to the second, called the reaction center (RC), where the solar energy is converted to chemical energy. When the light reaches the RCs, they close for the time it takes the energy to be converted.

According to the study, purple bacteria adapt to different light intensities by changing the arrangement of the light harvesting mechanism, but not in the way one would think by intuition.

"One might assume that the more light the cell receives, the more open reaction centers it has," says Johnson. "However, that is not always the case, because with each new generation, purple bacteria create a design that balances the need to maximize the number of photons trapped and converted to chemical energy, and the need to protect the cell from an oversupply of energy that could damage it."

To explain this phenomenon, Johnson uses an analogy comparing it to what happens in a typical supermarket, where the shoppers represent the photons, and the cashiers represent the reaction centers.

"Imagine a really busy day at the supermarket, if the reaction center is busy it's like the cashier is busy, somebody is doing the bagging," Johnson says. "The shopper wonders around to find an open checkout and some of the shoppers may get fed up and leave…The bacteria are like a very responsible supermarket," he says. "They would rather lose some shoppers than have congestion on the way out, but it is still getting enough profit for it to survive."

The study develops the first analytical model that explains this observation and predicts the "critical light intensity," below which the cell enhances the creation of RCs. That is the point of highest efficiency for the cell, because it contains the greatest number and best location of opened RCs, and the least amount of energy loss.

Because these bacteria grow and repair themselves, the researchers hope this discovery can contribute to the work of scientists attempting to coat electronic devices with especially adapted photosynthetic bacteria, whose energy output could become part of the conventional electrical circuit, and guide the development of solar panels that can adapt to different light intensities.

Currently, the researchers are using their mathematical model and the help of supercomputers, to try to find a photosynthetic design even better than the one they found in purple bacteria, although outsmarting nature is proving to be a difficult task.

(Photo: James Sturgis)

University of Miami




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