Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Golden Goose Award and my chat with Congressman Jim Cooper

"We all want our kids to do well in school. We don't want America to lag behind, so often parents are the ones who are making fun of science and scientists. It should be one of the most honorable professions. It's discovering truth." - Congressman Jim Cooper
Image by Ismael Roldan
As I sat myself into an exit row seat for the flight from Nashville, I looked at the incoming passengers and saw a familiar face sit across the aisle. It took me a few minutes, but I realized it was Congressman Jim Cooper. Since 2003, Congressman Cooper has represented Tennessee's 5th congressional district (Nashville) in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is a member of the Democratic Party and the Blue Dog Coalition. Service runs though this man's DNA. He is the son of former governor Prentice Cooper and interestingly, he served as a professor at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management.

Cooper has recently gotten public and media attention for proposing rational ideas for an irrational congress:
  • No budget, no pay for congress (video)
  • Bipartisan meetings on a regular basis (video)
  • The Golden Goose Award (more on this below)
He is a gentle warrior that is trying to do good in a broken system that for example, as he said to me today "we cant even pass a highway bill". As we landed, I thanked him for his service and introduced myself. I expressed the broken system of science in America, which he was deeply aware of.

After we talked a bit, Cooper brought up the Golden Goose Award - a brainchild of his and a direct mockery of the idea of the Golden Fleece Award, which was used by the late Senator William Proxmire to target so-called wasteful spending of federally funded research. Years in the making for him, the goal of the Golden Goose Award is to flip the Fleece Award on its head to highlight tax-payer funded research to the public and the good that comes of it. What a simple, yet amazing idea! About ten research projects/people will be awarded (which equates to being named, no monetary value of course) in September. He has bipartisan support, which is a triumph in and of itself in Congress. The organizations supporting the award include: American Association for the Advancement of Science, Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Breakthrough Institute, Progressive Policy Institute, The Science Coalition and the Task Force on American Innovation. Im not sure if the deadline has passed, but you can check by requesting a nomination form by emailing info@goldengooseaward.org.

This idea came from Cooper because he was “offended that politicians were making fun of science for their own gain.” It is perhaps the single most refreshing idea on science that I've heard coming from Congress in the last decade. Hat tip to Cooper. You can follow him on Twitter at @repjimcooper or an e-newsletter.

Finally, a shot out to Twitter - I only knew Jim Cooper's face so well because I follow him on Twitter. Meeting Jim Cooper today and sharing the information about the Golden Goose Award would not have happened without Twitter.  It can change a lot in your world for the better. And thanks to those tweeters who got me hooked. You know who you are.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Wolbachia Video Collection

I'm surprised with the difficulty in collating Wolbachia symbiont videos from youtube. You'd think they would pop up immediately with the species name as the search term, but there's all sorts of junk in there. So, here are all the videos that I could collate, in no particular order, but on diverse topics. There's even a special treat of a Wolbachia video done to Lady Gaga's Bad Romance song. If you know of other Wolbachia videos, please let me know and I'll add them in. If you're feeling adventurous, check out the Wolbachia band video (heavy metal) at the end. Somebody has a sense of humor.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Is the Microbiota Species Specific? Cell paper weighs in.

A just published Cell paper, Gut Immune Maturation Depends on Colonization with a Host-Specific Microbiota, weighs in on the growing evidence that the gut microbiota is specific to a host. In this case, the study shows that non-native microbiotas, including human and rat, colonize a mouse gut, but those bacterial species do not work with the resident mouse cells to mount a proper immune response. Simply stated, you can put non-native microbes in an animal, but you dont get a fit animal back.

Highlights from the paper:
  • Mouse and human microbiota differ in bacterial species, primarily within Firmicutes
  • Human microbiota (HMb) colonized mice have a global immunodeficiency like GF mice
  • HMb induced less T cell proliferation and activation than mouse microbiota (MMb)
  • HMb mice are more susceptible to enteric and disseminated infection than MMb mic

Video link of the senior author and Harvard professor, Dennis Kasper, describing the paper:

This work contributes to an emerging body of literature that supports the hypothesis that a minor or major part of the assemblage of the OTUs in the microbiota interact with the host in a specific manner. The consequence of this specificity is that assemblages of bacteria in related species may actually change in composition over time in parallel with the phylogeny of the host species. Thus, the bacterial OTUs could be a general extension of the host's genes, and there is an evolutionary footprint in the changes in both. We saw this in Nasonia wasps (Evolution paper here) and have summarized other evidence in Box 1 of this review (Trends in Ecology and Evolution paper here).

All this makes me wonder how important symbiosis will turn out to be in speciation. If the pace of new discoveries is any indication, it is looking like the old ideas of the 80's and 90's (that symbionts do not assist speciation in any grand way) is going to be entirely reassessed.

Related Blog Posts:

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Universality and Complexity of Viruses: A Brief Story Behind Our New Review

From Bordenstein et al 2006 PLoS Pathogens. Bacteriophage particles are denoted by the arrow heads inside Wolbachia cells that inhabit the testes. Particles are observed to be lysing Wolbachia in the two images on the right, such that DNA is degraded, membranes are detaching from the surface, and particles are exiting the cell.
 100 years ago, we were unaware that viruses even existed. Today, they are recognized as the most abundant biological entity on the planet. Despite their ubiquity, there was an expectation that there would be some form of limit to the distribution of viruses.

In particular, viruses require a host to replicate inside and some host organisms live in such a confined niche that they may be a boundary to the frontier of viruses.

What kinds of hosts are we talking about? Obligate intracellular bacteria or bacteria with reduced genomes that are confined to replication inside host cells. These bacteria comprise some of the most intimate and long-lasting interactions on the planet - Chlamydia, Wolbachia, and the bacterial ancestors of mitochondria and chloroplasts. Are these species unique in that the viral frontier does not reach them? And if it does reach them, do their viruses evolve differently from viruses that live in less constrained niches such as bacteria that replicate in the open environments of land and water.

As it turns out, many obligate intracellular bacteria, especially those that switch hosts, are rampant with mobile genetic elements including viruses.

For a summary of this topic and specific studies on viruses in Wolbachia, my student Jason Metcalf (@JMetcalfVU) and I just published a review in a special issue on viruses in Current Opinion in Microbiology, entitled The complexity of virus systems: the case of endosymbionts

Jason is a M.D./Ph.D. student in the The Vanderbilt Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). He joined the lab in the summer of 2011 to develop bacteriophage WO into a therapeutic treatment against its host Wolbachia. The phage could offer a naturally-evolved way to kill Wolbachia involved in human diseases.

A few salient points of the review are:
  1. Wolbachia pipientis infects a vast number of animal species and often has a significant portion of its genome dedicated to proviral sequences of a virus called WO. 
  2. A Wolbachia genome typically has one full temperate virus and several degraded relics of previous WO virus invasions.    
  3. WO biology has updated fundamental theories of viral and endosymbiont evolution, namely The Phage Modular Theory and endosymbiont genome stability. 
  4. Active WO always transfers between Wolbachia coinfections in the same host. 
  5. Despite its rampant mobility, WO exhibits features of genomic constraint related to its intracellular niche, including gene deletions and infrequent acquisition of new genes. 
  6. Active and remnant fragments of WO retain an unusual core genome of head and baseplate genes; other genes are frequently deleted. (would love to know why?)
  7. Up to 87% of the divergent/absent genes between closely related Wolbachia strains is due to prophage WO

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Did you miss Wolbachia 2012? Fear not...