Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What are we?

I’m just coming from a talk by Didier Raoult, who has come to the PRBB to give a seminar (this is part of the CRG-PRBB seminars, which happen about twice a week. They are open to everyone and usually bring very good quality speakers from outside the park, many from abroad).

He told us about what he has learned by studying Ricketsia genomics (Ricketsia is a family of intracellular bacteria that cause many diseases and are usually spread by arthropods). He said many interesting things, such as the idea that the most virulent species are not so because they have a ‘virulent factor’, but rather because they have lost some regulatory genes and are not able to communicate with their host and adapt to it. For example by not dividing when there’s no food, so instead they keep on growing and eventually kill the host.

But one amazing thing I learned, and I had never realised, is that we cannot call ourselves eukaryotes, as most of us would happily do. We are, actually, an ecosystem. For every eukaryotic cell in our body, we have at least 10 archaeal cells, and who knows how many bacterial cells. So we are actually closer to be a bacterium than an eukaryote! It’s a funny thought. He went further saying that even if we got rid of all our bacteria, archaea and virus, we would still not be a pure eukaryote, since the mitochondria in each of our cells are of bacterial origin. And removing the bacteria would also not do the trick – some genes involved in mitochondrial function are nowadays integrated in the human genome.

Monday, April 21, 2008

DNA rocks

Millions of DNA molecules came out of the Espacio Moviestar marquee in little plastic tubes last April 10 and 11. Their owners had visited the PRBB stand at the “Live Research” fair organised by the PCB. About 1,300 people, mostly students between 14 and 20 from 36 different schools went to the fair to learn about how oceans move or how to use virtual reality to stimulate a brain affected by ictus. At the PRBB stand, Hagen Tilgner (CRG), Eneritz Agirre (UPF-GRIB) and myself explained to the assistants the Encode and Eurasnet projects, two international networks in which groups from the different centres at the PRBB work. The aim of these projects is, respectively, to catalogue all the functional elements of the DNA and to study alternative splicing at a genomic level. The participants showed a great interest in the research, demonstrated by the many interesting questions asked. However, the excitement they felt about the DNA extraction from their own saliva beat everything else.

p.s. I, however, did NOT manage to extract my own DNA... :(

Friday, April 18, 2008

PRBB scientists communicate science to young people from their own lab

How does a laboratory look like? What is done there? How do people work in it? Many young people wonder about these issues, and scientists at PRBB are helping to answer their questions.

The CRG and CEXS-UPF have participated this year in the Escolab project (http://www.escolab.cat/), an initative in which scientists from Barcelona organize activities directed to students at high school in their own research centres, universities or companies. The IMIM, on the other hand, has continued with its own program, ACCÉS, which functions since 2005 by initiative of a group of researchers, and which has also the aim of spreading the scientific activity amongst high school students.

Yesterday was the last of the Escolab sessions organised by the UPF. High school students (ESO and “batxillerat”) of three different schools visited the PRBB facilities and saw how laboratories work and what research is done there. During the visit the students stopped at the confocal microscopy and genomics services, where the technicians in charge of them, Xavi Sanjuan and Roger Anglada, explained to them in a very clear way how this complicated techniques work. The participants could also observe some biological images. Fernando Giráldez then gave a very enthusiastic talk about developmental biology, with which he awakened the interest of many of the high school students who participated.

For the ESO students, a bit younger, there was another activity: a role game, in which they had to put themselves in the position of researchers who find themselves in front of an epidemic and have to discover its origin and propagation in order to stop in time. The game forced them to work in little groups of experts who have to cooperate to find a solution.

Escolab is driven by the Comissionat de Cultura científica de l’Institut de Cultura de Barcelona, with the collaboration of the Institut Municipal d’Educació de Barcelona.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

New date on Tuesdays at the PRBB restaurant

Place: PRBB restaurant. Date: one Tuesday per month. Time: 9’30-10am. We are talking about the “PRBB breakfasts”, a new series of informal talks which will take place at the above mentioned time and place. Their objective: to generate debates about general interest subjects and to create a greater interaction amongst all residents. The speakers will be either internal PRBB staff or external guests, and the participants will be able to enjoy a little breakfast with some coffee, juices, croissants, etc. The first appointment, attended by 94 people, was April 8th, when Elvira López, PPRR director of the PRBB, explained the activities programme for residents. Other planned ‘breakfasts’ will include the presentation of the new formation programme that the PRBB offers, that of the prbb.tv project, and other subjects such as recycling and sustainability in the park or the use of bicycles. Other subjects of interest for specific sectors that do not normally interact, such as the human resources departments of the different centres, will also be discussed.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

PRBB participates at the “Live Research” fair

What is the genome? How different is one person from another one and why? How can we generate more than 150,000 proteins from only 30,000 genes? These and other related questions will be answered by scientists from the PRBB centres next April 10 and 11 at the fair “Live Research”, organized by the Parc Científic de Barcelona (PCB). Around 1,600 visitors are expected in the sixth edition of this free science fair that aims to show the research taking place in the different centres and research institutions of Barcelona.

I will be there, so I hope to post some pictures and a summary next week. I will also tell you if I succeeded in extracting my own DNA...!

Friday, April 4, 2008

What's PET? Molecular Imaging service from the IAT

The Institute of Advanced Technology (IAT is one of the most technologically advanced centres in southern Europe in molecular imaging such as positron emission tomography (PET and magnetic resonance. It was the first entity to be based at the PRBB in 2004, and it offers its services to the scientific community and the pharmaceutical industry.

PET, which is commonly used in oncology and neurosciences, consists on visualising molecules within the organisms in vivo thanks to the fact that these molecules are labelled with a radioactive isotope which emits positrons. It is used for the detection of tumours and the analysis of their development in response to treatment. In neurosciences it is useful for measuring the activity of new psychoactive drugs.

The IAT has a cyclotron (of 23 tons of weight) inside a bunker in the basement. The cyclotron is a particle accelerator that converts stable elements into radioisotopes, which are then transferred to the radiochemical laboratory. Once in the laboratory, the radiotracers (the molecules of interest with a radioisotope incorporated) are synthesized. The radiotracers are then administered to the patient or the laboratory animal, who is subjected to the PET or micro-PET, where the radiation emission is converted into an image in a non-invasive manner.

The IAT, currently with a staff of 22 people, is a non-for-profit foundation fostered by the ‘CRC Corporació Sanitària’ group, the Municipal Institute for Health Assistance (IMAS), the CLINIC Corporation, and the Foundation ‘Institut de Recerca Hospital Universitari Vall d’Hebron’.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Stem cells: generation and regeneration

Stem cells are a hot topic - but what are they, exactely?


Every one of the millions of cells of the human body, with the exception of germ cells, contains the same DNA sequence, that is, the same instructions. In an embryo, at the initial steps of development, all cells are equivalent and can give rise to any type of cell. The so-called embryonic stem cells maintain this property indefinitely; this is why it is said they are totipotent (they can give rise to all types of tissue). How a full organism, formed by different types of cells, can be generated from a single cell is precisely what is studied in developmental biology. Stem cells are dividing constantly, giving rise to daughter cells which, at a given time, will activate their cellular differentiation program - marked by the activation of specific genes- and will become a specific type of cell: a cardiac cell, a skin cell, etc.

It is the totipotency of stem cells what interests scientists and the base of their future use in regenerative medicine, whose aim is to regenerate tissues, such as muscle, or to cure diseases such as Parkinson and Alzheimer. The idea is to transplant stem cells into the damaged tissue, and that these cells then generate new cells of the type that is needed.

Working with embryonic cells is an ethically controversial subject, and so scientists from all over the world are looking for new sources of stem cells. One possibility are the stem cells that can be found in the bone marrow. These adult stem cells are not able to generate all types of cells, but can differentiate into a variety of blood cells during their life. Scientists hope to be able to reprogram these adult stem cells so that, instead of generating only blood cells, they are able to generate any type of cells, as embryonic stem cells do.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Research at PRBB - Dr Maldonado's addiction

Drug abuse and emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are generating a serious social problem. This is why Dr. Maldonado’s neuropharmacology group at the CEXS-UPF studies the common biological mechanisms involved in these two phenomena. They focus particularly in nicotine, cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy, and in the possible mechanisms underlying the abusive consume of these substances.

Dr. Maldonado explains there are three factors to understand why some people become addictive and others don’t: drug consume (the quantity, the frequency, the mode); social and environmental factors; and individual vulnerability, which includes genetic factors. A classical example of the effect of the environment is how the American marines that were heroin addicts in Vietnam quitted easily once back at home.

In order to understand addiction and emotional disorders, the group, formed by 29 people from 4 different nationalities, uses different techniques: classical pharmacological strategies, using compounds that act on the nervous system receptors; ‘knock-out’ mice in which a specific gene has been deleted in order to understand its function; and animal models for behaviour studies which, according to Dr. Maldonado, are very complex but once they are established they allow a good prediction of what can happen in humans.

Dr. Maldonado highlights the discovery that specific components of the endogenous opioid system are a common substrate for different addictive behaviours as a major contribution of his group. His dream: that this knowledge gives rise to effective treatments for the addicts, who are people with a chronic disease, Dr. Maldonado emphasizes.