The Science Behind the Image Contest Winners: Fluorescent Muscles in Living C. elegans

The BPS Art of Science Image Contest took place again this year, during the 61st Annual Meeting in New Orleans. The image that won third place was submitted by Ryan Littlefield, assistant professor, Department of Biology, University of South Alabama. Littlefield took some time to provide information about the image and the science it represents.

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How did you compose this image?

Usually these C. elegans worms move around quite vigorously.  I added muscimol to prevent muscle contraction.  I picked three different types of worms that appear red only, green only, and red and green (which appear mostly yellow) and mixed them together on a thin pad of agarose.  The worms in the image all happened to clump together, resulting in a nice demonstration of the different color patterns.  I collected Z-stacks for each of the fields of view on an Andor spinning disk confocal microscope.  Using ImageJ software, I then made projections for the images that included the body wall muscle of the worms and pair-wise stitching of about six different projections.

What do you love about this image? 

The juxtaposition of all three types of transgenic worms being next to each other was very striking. The image includes all the different regions of the worms in various orientations, shows many of the different muscle types in these worms, and shows how the muscle cells fit together.

What do you want viewers to see or think about when they view this image?

The striated myofibrils in these worms are beautifully organized along their lengths, and it naturally raises the question of how this organization is achieved. In addition, the different muscle types show the viewer that there is a lot of diversity along the length of these 1mm worms.

How does this image reflect your scientific research?

I am interested in how actin and myosin become organized into functional, contractile bundles. In particular, I am interested in how actin filament lengths are specified in striated muscle.  In these worms, I modified an isoform of muscle myosin and tropomodulin with fluorescent proteins (mCherry and GFP, respectively) to determine how thin filaments are organized within these muscles.

What are some real-world applications of your research?

Both the uniformity of and specific lengths of actin filaments are important components of muscle physiology. Misregulation of actin filament lengths may be important factor in diseases including cardio- and skeletal and myopathies.  In addition, muscle damage from extended spaceflight, sarcopenia from aging, and acute muscle injuries may be slowed or prevented by interventions that prevent actin filament lengths from changing.

How does your research apply to those who are not working in your specific field?

Striated myofibrils are a dramatic example of a dynamic, self-organizing biological system that is attuned to a specific function (contraction).  Similar mechanisms for functional self-organization may also be used for other contractile actomyosin bundles, such as stress fibers and contractile fibers in smooth muscle, and for other dynamic cytoskeletal systems, such as flagella and microtubules in the mitotic spindle.

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The Science Behind the Image Contest Winners: Group II Intron Ribozyme

The BPS Art of Science Image Contest took place again this year, during the 61st Annual Meeting in New Orleans. The winning image was submitted by Giulia Palermo, a postdoctoral fellow in the group of J. Andrew McCammon at the University of California, San Diego. A team of three scientists composed the image:  Giulia Palermo created the original design, Amelia Palermo (ETH, Zurich) made the handmade painting, and Lorenzo Casalino (SISSA, Trieste) performed digital manipulation on the picture. Giulia Palermo took some time to provide information about the image and the science it represents.

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With this picture we would like to send as the main message that Physics and Art try to interpret the beauty of Nature in different ways but there is a natural overlap between these disciplines, which could lead to wonderful discoveries and amazing beauty.

Group II intron ribozyme perform self-splicing reactions. In the picture, two scissors are used to represent this mechanism. What we like about this image is how a handmade painting could capture the fundamental aspects of the mechanistic action of the system. Besides the beauty of handmade painting, we enjoyed our teamwork and, fostered by the passion for this research, we have been motivated to submit this image to the Art of Science Image Contest.

This image has been inspired by the work we have done in the group of Prof. Alessandra Magistrato (SISSA, Trieste), in collaboration with Prof. Ursula Rothlisberger (EPFL), which resulted in the publication of our research in the Journal of American Chemical Society and in the Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation, while other equally exciting results are in preparation for publication. Below, we report details of our publications:

  1. Casalino, G. Palermo, U. Rothlisberger and A. Magistrato. Who Activates the Nucleophile in Ribozyme Catalysis? An Answer from the Splicing Mechanism of Group II Introns. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2016, 138, 1034.
  1. Casalino, G. Palermo, N. Abdurakhmonova, U. Rothlisberger and A. Magistrato. Development of Site-specific Mg-RNA Force Field Parameters: A Dream or Reality? Guidelines from Combined Molecular Dynamics and Quantum Mechanics Simulations. J. Chem. Theory Comput. 2017, 13, 340–352.

My research exploits advanced computational methods – based on classical and quantum molecular dynamics (MD), novel cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) refinement – and their integration with experiments to unravel the function and improve biological applications of key protein/nucleic acids complexes directly responsible for gene regulation, with important therapeutic applications for cancer treatment and genetic diseases. As a next-generation computational biophysicist, I aim at going beyond the current limits of time scale and system size of biomolecular simulations, unraveling the function of increasingly realistic biological systems of extreme biological importance, contributing in their applications for effective translational research.

The World Health Organization reported that ~8.2 million citizens die each year for cancer, while genetic diseases affect millions of people. As such, the clarification of the fundamental mechanisms responsible of gene expression and of their therapeutic implications is of key urgency to society.  By using advanced computational methods and by their integration with experiments, I seek to unravel the function and improve applications of biological systems of extreme importance. My current interest – as a post-doc in McCammon’s lab at UCSD – is in the clarification of the mechanistic function of the CRISPR-Cas9 system via computational methods. Additionally, I am interested in long non-coding RNA, which regulates gene expression, and in intriguing protein/DNA systems, whose mechanistic function is at the basis of genetic inheritance.