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A team of Dutch and German researchers under the leadership of Albert Heck and Friedrich Förster has discovered the operation of one of the oldest biological clocks in the world, which is crucial for life on earth as we know it. The researcher from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry and the Utrecht University applied a new combination of cutting-edge research techniques. They discovered how the biological clock in cyanobacteria works in detail. Important to understand life, because cyanobacteria were the first organisms on earth producing oxygen via photosynthesis. The results of their research were published in Science.

Ten years ago, researchers discovered that the biological clock in cyanobacteria consists of only three protein components: KaiA, KaiB and KaiC. These are the building blocks - the gears, springs and balances - of an ingenious system resembling a precision Swiss timepiece. In 2005, Japanese scientists published an article in Science showing that a solution of these three components in a test tube could run a 24-hour cycle for days when a bit of energy was added. However, the scientists were not able to uncover the exact operation of the system, despite its relative simplicity.

William Faulkner
How could the scientists resolve the working of the individual pieces? “In the end, the trick to understand the ticking biological clock in cyanobacteria was to literally make time stop”, tells research leader Albert Heck from Utrecht University. “Or as William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature said: ‘Only when the clock stops does time come to life.’ Faulkner spoke taking a pause in the constant haste of life. That was also the trick here. We slowed the biological clock by running it in the fridge for a week. In the literal sense we have frozen the time.”

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Rieckmann, J.C., Geiger, R., Hornburg, D., Wolf, T., Kveler, K., Jarrossay, D., Sallusto, F., Shen-Orr, S.S., Lanzavecchia, A., Mann, M., and Meissner, F.
Nat Immunol, 2017, [Epub ahead of print].

Social network architecture of human immune cells unveiled by quantitative proteomics.

The immune system is unique in its dynamic interplay between numerous cell types. However, a system-wide view of how immune cells communicate to protect against disease has not yet been established. We applied high-resolution mass-spectrometry-based proteomics to characterize 28 primary human hematopoietic cell populations in steady and activated states at a depth of >10,000 proteins in total. Protein copy numbers revealed a specialization of immune cells for ligand and receptor expression, thereby connecting distinct immune functions. By integrating total and secreted proteomes, we discovered fundamental intercellular communication structures and previously unknown connections between cell types. Our publicly accessible (http://www.immprot.org/) proteomic resource provides a framework for the orchestration of cellular interplay and a reference for altered communication associated with pathology.


 

Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer‘s or Parkinson‘s, but also strokes or other types of traumatic brain damage, result in the death of nerve cells in the brain. Since the mammalian brain is capable of replacing nerve cells only in certain restricted regions, such nerve-cell loss is in most cases permanent. Similarly, the capacity to form new nerve cells in the mature brain is limited to specific areas. The cells responsible for neurogenesis in the mature brain are called adult neural stem cells, but little is known about their developmental origins. Now an international research collaboration led by Magdalena Götz, Professor of Physiological Genomics at LMU’s Biomedical Center and Director of the Institute for Stem Cell Research at the Helmholtz Zentrum Munich, has demonstrated that the mode of division of stem cells has a profound influence on the numbers of adult neural stem cells formed during embryonic development. The new findings appear in the journal Neuron.

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Balaji, R., Bielmeier, C., Harz, H., Bates, J., Stadler, C., Hildebrand, A., and Classen, A.K.
Sci Rep, 2017, 7, 42786.

Calcium spikes, waves and oscillations in a large, patterned epithelial tissue.

While calcium signaling in excitable cells, such as muscle or neurons, is extensively characterized, calcium signaling in epithelial tissues is little understood. Specifically, the range of intercellular calcium signaling patterns elicited by tightly coupled epithelial cells and their function in the regulation of epithelial characteristics are little explored. We found that in Drosophila imaginal discs, a widely studied epithelial model organ, complex spatiotemporal calcium dynamics occur. We describe patterns that include intercellular waves traversing large tissue domains in striking oscillatory patterns as well as spikes confined to local domains of neighboring cells. The spatiotemporal characteristics of intercellular waves and oscillations arise as emergent properties of calcium mobilization within a sheet of gap-junction coupled cells and are influenced by cell size and environmental history. While the in vivo function of spikes, waves and oscillations requires further characterization, our genetic experiments suggest that core calcium signaling components guide actomyosin organization. Our study thus suggests a possible role for calcium signaling in epithelia but importantly, introduces a model epithelium enabling the dissection of cellular mechanisms supporting the initiation, transmission and regeneration of long-range intercellular calcium waves and the emergence of oscillations in a highly coupled multicellular sheet.


 

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Santarelli, S., Zimmermann, C., Kalideris, G., Lesuis, S.L., Arloth, J., Uribe, A., Dournes, C., Balsevich, G., Hartmann, J., Masana, M., Binder, E.B., Spengler, D., and Schmidt, M.V.
Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2017,  78, 213-221.

An adverse early life environment can enhance stress resilience in adulthood.

Chronic stress is a major risk factor for depression. Interestingly, not all individuals develop psychopathology after chronic stress exposure. In contrast to the prevailing view that stress effects are cumulative and increase stress vulnerability throughout life, the match/mismatch hypothesis of psychiatric disorders. The match/mismatch hypothesis proposes that individuals who experience moderate levels of early life psychosocial stress can acquire resilience to renewed stress exposure later in life. Here, we have tested this hypothesis by comparing the developmental effects of 2 opposite early life conditions, when followed by 2 opposite adult environments. Male Balb/c mice were exposed to either adverse early life conditions (limited nesting and bedding material) or a supportive rearing environment (early handling). At adulthood, the animals of each group were either housed with an ovariectomized female (supportive environment) or underwent chronic social defeat stress (socially adverse environment) for 3 weeks. At the end of the adult manipulations, all of the animals were returned to standard housing conditions. Then, we compared the neuroendocrine, behavioral and molecular effects of the interaction between early and adult environment. Our study shows that early life adversity does not necessarily result in increased vulnerability to stress. Specific endophenotypes, like hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity, anxiety-related behavior and glucocorticoid receptor expression levels in the hippocampus were not significantly altered when adversity is experienced during early life and in adulthood, and are mainly affected by either early life or adult life adversity alone. Overall our data support the notion that being raised in a stressful environment prepares the offspring to better cope with a challenging adult environment and emphasize the role of early life experiences in shaping adult responsiveness to stress.


 

How does consciousness arise? Researchers suspect that the answer to this question lies in the connections between neurons. Unfortunately, however, little is known about the wiring of the brain. This is due also to a problem of time: tracking down connections in collected data would require man-hours amounting to many lifetimes, as no computer has been able to identify the neural cell contacts reliably enough up to now. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried plan to change this with the help of artificial intelligence. They have trained several artificial neural networks and thereby enabled the vastly accelerated reconstruction of neural circuits.

Neurons need company. Individually, these cells can achieve little, however when they join forces neurons form a powerful network which controls our behaviour, among other things. As part of this process, the cells exchange information via their contact points, the synapses. Information about which neurons are connected to each other when and where is crucial to our understanding of basic brain functions and superordinate processes like learning, memory, consciousness and disorders of the nervous system. Researchers suspect that the key to all of this lies in the wiring of the approximately 100 billion cells in the human brain.

To be able to use this key, the connectome, that is every single neuron in the brain with its thousands of contacts and partner cells, must be mapped. Only a few years ago, the prospect of achieving this seemed unattainable. However, the scientists in the Electrons – Photons – Neurons Department of the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology refuse to be deterred by the notion that something seems “unattainable”. Hence, over the past few years, they have developed and improved staining and microscopy methods which can be used to transform brain tissue samples into high-resolution, three-dimensional electron microscope images. Their latest microscope, which is being used by the Department as a prototype, scans the surface of a sample with 91 electron beams in parallel before exposing the next sample level. Compared to the previous model, this increases the data acquisition rate by a factor of over 50. As a result an entire mouse brain could be mapped in just a few years rather than decades. 

Although it is now possible to decompose a piece of brain tissue into billions of pixels, the analysis of these electron microscope images takes many years. This is due to the fact that the standard computer algorithms are often too inaccurate to reliably trace the neurons’ wafer-thin projections over long distances and to identify the synapses. For this reason, people still have to spend hours in front of computer screens identifying the synapses in the piles of images generated by the electron microscope.

However the Max Planck scientists led by Jörgen Kornfeld have now overcome this obstacle with the help of artificial neural networks. These algorithms can learn from examples and experience and make generalizations based on this knowledge

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Sherrard, R., Luehr, S., Holzkamp, H., McJunkin, K., Memar, N., and Conradt, B.
Genes Dev, 2017, 31, 209-222.

miRNAs cooperate in apoptosis regulation during C. elegans development.

Programmed cell death occurs in a highly reproducible manner during Caenorhabditis elegans development. We demonstrate that, during embryogenesis, miR-35 and miR-58 bantam family microRNAs (miRNAs) cooperate to prevent the precocious death of mothers of cells programmed to die by repressing the gene egl-1, which encodes a proapoptotic BH3-only protein. In addition, we present evidence that repression of egl-1 is dependent on binding sites for miR-35 and miR-58 family miRNAs within the egl-1 3' untranslated region (UTR), which affect both mRNA copy number and translation. Furthermore, using single-molecule RNA fluorescent in situ hybridization (smRNA FISH), we show that egl-1 is transcribed in the mother of a cell programmed to die and that miR-35 and miR-58 family miRNAs prevent this mother from dying by keeping the copy number of egl-1 mRNA below a critical threshold. Finally, miR-35 and miR-58 family miRNAs can also dampen the transcriptional boost of egl-1 that occurs specifically in a daughter cell that is programmed to die. We propose that miRNAs compensate for lineage-specific differences in egl-1 transcriptional activation, thus ensuring that EGL-1 activity reaches the threshold necessary to trigger death only in daughter cells that are programmed to die.


 

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Kremer, M.C., Jung, C., Batelli, S., Rubin, G.M., and Gaul, U..
Glia, 2017, [Epub ahead of print].

The glia of the adult Drosophila nervous system.

Glia play crucial roles in the development and homeostasis of the nervous system. While the GLIA in the Drosophila embryo have been well characterized, their study in the adult nervous system has been limited. Here, we present a detailed description of the glia in the adult nervous system, based on the analysis of some 500 glial drivers we identified within a collection of synthetic GAL4 lines. We find that glia make up ∼10% of the cells in the nervous system and envelop all compartments of neurons (soma, dendrites, axons) as well as the nervous system as a whole. Our morphological analysis suggests a set of simple rules governing the morphogenesis of glia and their interactions with other cells. All glial subtypes minimize contact with their glial neighbors but maximize their contact with neurons and adapt their macromorphology and micromorphology to the neuronal entities they envelop. Finally, glial cells show no obvious spatial organization or registration with neuronal entities. Our detailed description of all glial subtypes and their regional specializations, together with the powerful genetic toolkit we provide, will facilitate the functional analysis of glia in the mature nervous system. GLIA 2017.


 

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Matscheko, N., Mayrhofer, P., and Wollert, T.
Autophagy, 2017, [Epub ahead of print].

Passing membranes to autophagy: Unconventional membrane tethering by Atg17.

Macroautophagy delivers cytoplasmic material to lysosomal/vacuolar compartments for degradation. Conserved multi-subunit complexes, composed of autophagy related (Atg) proteins, initiate the formation of membrane precursors, termed phagophores. Under physiological conditions these cup- shaped structures can capture cytoplasmic material highly selectively. Starvation or cytotoxic stresses, however, initiate the formation of much larger phagophores to enclose cytoplasm nonselectively. The biogenesis of nonselective autophagosomes is initiated by the hierarchical assembly of the Atg1 kinase complex and the recruitment of Atg9 vesicles at the phagophore assembly site (PAS). In this punctum we summarize our recent findings regarding tethering of Atg9 vesicles by the Atg1 kinase complex. We discuss membrane tethering by and activation of its central subunit Atg17 in the context of other canonical membrane tethering factors. Our results show that Atg17 suffices to bind and tether Atg9 vesicles. The Atg31-Atg29 subcomplex inhibits Atg17 activity, and activation of Atg17 depends on the formation of the Atg1 kinase complex that involves recruiting Atg1-Atg13. Our studies lead to a model of unconventional membrane tethering in autophagy.


 

Once together, never apart – isn’t that how the saying goes? Not so in meiosis, the special type of cell division in which gametes, sperm and egg cells are formed. At the start of meiosis the ring-shaped protein complex, referred to as cohesin, is the string that ties the chromosome strands together. The chromosomes are where the blueprint for the body is stored. If each egg cell and each sperm is to come out of meiosis with only one set of chromosomes, these strings need to be cut up in a precise pattern. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry have demonstrated in baker’s yeast how a kinase enzyme, which is also present in the human body, controls the cleavage of the cohesin rings and coordinates it with the exit from meiosis and gamete formation. It is a mechanism, which could explain how chromosome segregation is regulated, or goes wrong, in human sperm and egg cells.

Why is it that children look like their parents? Most of the cells in our body are diploid, which means that they have two copies of each chromosome – one from the mother and one from the father. Only gametes, in other words egg and sperm cells, contain a single copy. So the cell has to halve its double set of chromosomes in order to be able to make haploid gametes. This happens in a special type of cell division called meiosis. However, meiosis is surprisingly complicated. Instead of just dividing up the maternal and paternal chromosomes between two daughter cells, the chromosomes are first duplicated so that they each consist of two strands, or chromatids. Duplicated paternal and maternal chromosomes then align and the chromosome arms are spliced together. This produces new chromosomes out of four chromatids held together by ring-shaped protein complexes, the cohesins, which act like strings. Two divisions of the nucleus are needed in order to split these chromosomes up into their chromatids again in processes referred to as the first and the second meiotic divisions. In the first division, the cohesin rings on the chromosome arms are cut up by the enzyme separase, which acts like a molecular pair of scissors. This results in X-shaped chromosomes consisting of two chromatids held together by cohesin rings only in their centre, known as the centromer. The second meiotic division is when the separase scissors ultimately cut the cohesin rings at the centromer. Four haploid gamete nuclei are produced, each of which contains one chromatid from each chromosome, in other words a blueprint for the body. If the egg is fertilized, the genetic material from the mother and the father combines and a new diploid chromosome set is produced, or to put it simply: a baby with daddy’s nose and mummy’s eyes.

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