Osteoclasts have feelings too.

This week has been quite busy for me, and I haven’t gotten to address a number of things on the blog that I would like to (including the #womanspace outrage that is rightfully flooding the twitter-sphere/blogosphere). However, I thought I would take the time to post something quick and fun. My research focuses on signals involved in regulating osteoclast (the bone cells responsible for breaking down old and damaged bone) differentiation. Heather, blogging at Escaping Anergy, explains these cells and how they relate to immunology in more detail here. (She’s a finalist for the 2011 Blogging Scholarship, so go vote now!) As a hobby, I draw a little bit, so I recently made a couple of attempts at bringing some life to these awesome multinucleated cells.

Hope you enjoy!

This is my first sketch.
I followed this up with a color version of the same idea.

Traditionally, the bone remodeling process was thought to be largely dictated by osteoblasts (the cells that create new bone matrix), which secrete RANK Ligand to induce osteoclast differentiation; however, we now understand that osteoclasts aren’t as passive as was previously thought, and communicate with osteoblasts through Eph-Ephrin signaling. Furthermore, recent evidence (read more here and here,) is turning this model on its head, now suggesting that osteocytes (cells embedded in mature bone matrix, responsible for sensing microfractures and initiating bone repair) may be the primary source of RANKL that directs osteoclast differentiation. This drawing, however, harkens back to earlier days.  What a mean osteoblast…

Looming osteoblast

And finally, the perils of fusion. This next image imagines the horror these unsuspecting mononucleated osteoclasts must feel when they start fusing with their neighbor.  How would you like it?

The perils of fusion

My hope is to develop more in this series as I explore the “characters” of my favorite cells. If you have any type of cell you’d like to see in action, let me know. I’ll see what I can come up with and post it here.

Michael Nielsen and the open science revolution

@IleneDawn tweeted a link to an interesting video featureing Michael Nielsen, a pioneer in quantum computing and author of the recently published “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.” (Just purchased for my nook!) This is a timely find, following up on my recent post aiming to explore novel or interesting ways to integrate twitter into the classroom.

Nielsen opens his talk using the example of the polymath project, which utilizes a blog to engage a large community of mathematicians in solving difficult problems in the blog’s comment section. This social problem solving endeavor reminds me of another successful attempt used in biology: Foldit. Foldit is an online video game where participants attempt to fold proteins to the best of their ability.  The efficacy of this approach has led to papers published in peer-reviewed journals such as PNAS. These examples support the claim that social networks can provide a powerful tool in facilitating communal problem solving.

One major drawback to the success of this approach that Nielsen addresses in his talk is active participation in these projects. He notes that despite great enthusiasm for these projects, the greatest thinkers in a given field fail to contribute, leaving sites associated with open science projects “virtual ghost towns.” Nielsen provides one example of a great success that spawned a data-sharing revolution in the field of molecular biology.

Genebank originally encountered the lack of contribution that many of these open science endeavors face. In 1996, leading molecular biologists met in Bermuda to address ways in which they could encourage scientist to share their sequence data with the online community.  From this meeting, they came up with two main principles: 1) “That once human genetic data is taken in the lab, it should be immediately uploaded to a site like genebank;” and 2) “That this data would be in the public domain.” These principles one their own may not have been sufficient to encourage participation; fortunately, national funding organizations such as NIH supported this initiative and wrote it into policy.

What Nielsen calls for, ultimately, is an open science revolution. He argues that scientists currently lack rewards to shift some of their valuable time to participating in open science programs. The drive to publish their own research and to keep secret their most important findings prevents them from dispersing information in a public way or posing problems for a community to solve. Nielsen argues that this revolution in the culture of science is not unlike the revolution that took place with the advent of scientific journals. What we need to do, as a scientific community, is support this revolution and encourage those who are compelled to participate in it.  He provides three suggestions for moving in this direction:

1) Get involved in an open science project.

2) Start an open science program – Adopt currently available approaches to open science. If more ambitious, develop novel ways to disperse and collect scientific information, or explore novel venues for community problem solving.

3) Give credit to colleagues practicing open science – Scientists may currently be discouraged by peers from this new mode of practicing science. One of the minor incentives for exploring these new technologies is simply peer support.

Now to think of how we, as a community of scientists, can best employ these technologies in our own fields. (And to read Nielsen’s book!)

Spicing up the syllabus

Tonight I’ve been tinkering with the syllabus for the molecular and cellular biology course next semester. To bring a little life and personality to the syllabus, many of my classmates in the preparing future faculty course in which I’m currently enrolled have included inspirational quotations. In an attempt to integrate this approach in my own syllabus, I came across the following quote from Francis Crick’s “What Mad Pursuit”:

“[…] Molecular biology is not a trivial aspect of biological systems. It is at the heart of the matter. Almost all aspects of life are engineered at the molecular level, and without understanding the molecules we can only have a very sketchy understanding of life itself.”

I’m still searching for something more, but for now this is an adequate placeholder.

I’ll take this as an opportunity to insert one of my favorite quotes. Lewis Thomas, in his “Lives of a Cell,” beautifully captures the awesomeness of self from a biologist’s perspective:

“Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.”

What are your favorite biology-related quotes?

Teaching with twitter

As part of the advanced molecular and cellular biology course I will be teaching next semester, I have been considering ways to integrate social networking into the course. I would like to encourage students to use twitter as one of the ways they can keep current with information in the field. Therefore, I pose the question: Who (or what organizations) are the best people to follow on twitter in the field of molecular and cellular biology?

Please post your suggestions in the comments.

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