Glowing Proteins, Neural Networks, and Weakened Biofilms

An artist's rendition of a neural network. (Image: Flickr/ Penn State University)

An artist’s rendition of a neural network. (Image: Flickr/ Penn State University)

Halfway through the first session, challenges of human health are front and center, as Labbers attempt to solve longstanding challenges with technical advances and high-throughput analyses.

Anna Degan from the German Cancer Research Center shared a new way to check the potential viability of new antibiotics. Large, multi-unit enzymes construct antibiotics, working in an assembly line to build carefully tuned molecules from a library of roughly 500 building blocks. “We want to make this process visible,” says Dugan, and by using genetically emplaced enzymes that glow blue, she might have a way to do so. When researchers scramble the construction process of antibiotics, they can massively expand their functional diversity, but the resulting molecules don’t always have the baseline properties needed for viability. To limit potential products to those that have already met key criteria, the blue enzymes can help. If the construction occurs in the right order, you see a blue color, streamlining downstream analyses.

Vini Guatam from the Australian National University is working to repair brains. With traumatic brain injuries, neural networks can be crippled – not only physically damaging neurons but also, and perhaps more insidiously, disrupting their connections. If these networks can’t rebuild in just the right way, the repercussions can be catastrophic, and patients may lose memories, mobility, or vision. Guatam uses 3-dimensional scaffolds to mimic the physical and chemical properties of the brain down to the nanoscale. When implanted, it’s possible to “patch the damaged area by guiding the neurons to form connections with each other just as they would in a healthy state.” Like a trellis supporting intertwined vines, productive links can be rebuilt.

Hovakim Grabski from the Russian Armenian University is exploring ways to combat antibiotic resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa – a wily pathogen that preys on patients recovering from other ailments, like burns of cystic fibrosis. The microbes’ superpower is their ability to form biofilms, thick networks of sugars that keep antibiotics and immune system cells out. Grabski’s team found two genetic switches that control the onset of biofilm construction: “if we turn this protein off, we could solve the problem.”

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