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    The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
    • 2019-02-05 12:05:14
    • Article ID: 707554

    Tree of life: Poplar studies yield human cancer insights

    • Credit: Dan Jacobson/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

      This visualization shows the genes (yellow squares) and networks of associated genes that control callus formation in poplar. In humans, equivalent genes regulate tumor formation.

    • Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

      Callus forms on a segment of poplar leaf, an essential step in bioengineering new plants with desired characteristics such as higher yields of biomass.

    • Credit: Carlos Jones/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

      Plant geneticist Wellington Muchero works with poplar trees at the Center for Bioenergy Innovation at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    While studying the genes in poplar trees that control callus formation, scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have uncovered genetic networks at the root of tumor formation in several human cancers.

    The research team found, with some surprise, that plants and humans share the same genes that trigger or suppress the uncontrolled growth of clusters of cells—forming callus in poplar and tumors in humans. The genes originated billions of years ago when plants and animals shared a common ancestor.

    “We’d never thought about such genes being conserved,” said ORNL plant biologist Wellington Muchero. “But what we are seeing is this really surprising conservation of function between plants and humans.”

    The research findings, detailed in PLOS One, have applications in engineering better plants for bioenergy production as well as identifying new targets for cancer treatment.

    A boon for bioenergy

    Populus or poplar trees show great promise as a bioenergy crop. Scientists at the Center for Bioenergy Innovation at ORNL are studying genetic variations in these woody perennials that can increase drought- and disease-resistance and yield more biomass to convert into biofuels and bioproducts.

    The researchers’ toolbox includes gene editors like CRISPR/CAS-9, a powerful database of genomic information from 882 poplar varieties, high-performance computing capabilities, and expertise stretching across multiple institutions. The bottleneck for enhancing key characteristics in poplar, according to Muchero, is callus formation.

    Some plants grow callus easily. Others grow none at all. The research team used leaves cut from poplars of different genotypes to determine which genetic variations result in callus formation. Their analysis identified genes that trigger rapid cell division and genes that restrict it.

    “Callus formation is an important step in creating new genetically engineered plants,” said Muchero. “Without the ability to form callus, you are at a dead end. You can introduce your gene, but you cannot grow the plant.”

    “Rapid regeneration of plants is one of the goals we are working towards,” said Jerry Tuskan, ORNL corporate fellow and director of CBI. “We are studying cell proliferation as a means of increasing transformation efficiency.”

    What is healthy for poplar—active callus inducers paired with inactive callus suppressors—can be a recipe for cancer in humans.

    Targeting new cancer treatments

    All eight of the key genes for poplar callus formation have equivalents in humans. These same genes are associated with specific diseases, including chronic myeloid leukemia, breast cancer, and stomach cancer. While these cancer-causing hub genes are well known, it was only by examining them in poplar that scientists could see the connections between the hub genes and the array of associated genes that play a role in their regulation.

    “We were able to build these networks of how these genes were related to each other and the intermediate signals that were co-occurring,” said Tuskan. “With this library of co-expressed genes, pharmaceutical companies could begin identifying new targets for therapy.”

    A new drug could inhibit an associated enzyme from functioning, for instance, and switch off or block the genetic pathway that triggers a tumor to form. Poplar trees can help root out the best targets for drug development.

    New platform for testing

    Since poplars have never been domesticated, individuals vary widely in their genetic makeup. Scientists can often identify the genetic variant that results in a specific phenotype or characteristic by examining a few hundred trees. In comparison, it would take hundreds of thousands of individuals to make a similar finding in humans, who are 99.9 percent identical in their DNA.

    Stresses that cannot be applied to humans or laboratory rats can be used in controlled plant experiments to verify that a gene results in a phenotype under varied conditions. This richer understanding of how these genetic networks function could complement results from traditional mice studies to increase the efficacy of new drugs going to clinical trials.

    “While we at CBI are focused on new knowledge and technologies for biofuels and bioproducts, it is very rewarding to know our work has broader applications to improve human health,” said Tuskan.

    This research was supported through the DOE Office of Science and used resources from the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science User Facility, as well as the Compute and Data Environment for Science at ORNL.

    UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the DOE's Office of Science. The DOE Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit science.energy.gov.   —Kim Askey

     

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    Science Snapshots from Berkeley Lab

    Science Snapshots from Berkeley Lab

    Berkeley Lab-developed machine learning tool can also calculate the optical properties of a known structure; CUORE experiment in Italy is designed to find theorized process called neutrinoless double-beta decay

    Story tips: Air taxis, fungi speak, radiation game and climate collab

    Story tips: Air taxis, fungi speak, radiation game and climate collab

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    Advancing the arrival of fusion energy through improved understanding of fast plasma particles

    PPPL scientists have developed a unique program to track the zig-zagging dance of hot, charged plasma particles that fuel fusion reactions.


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    PNNL Scientists Elected AAAS Fellows

    PNNL Scientists Elected AAAS Fellows

    Two Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers, one a world-leading authority on microorganisms and their impact on soil and human health, and the other an expert on coastal ecosystem restoration, have been elected fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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    Brookhaven's Kevin Yager Named Oppenheimer Leadership Fellow

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    PPPL awarded total of $4 million to simplify design and construction of stellarator fusion energy facilities

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    Design and construction of start of unique permanent magnet stellarator funded to begin.

    $2.5 million DOE grant to help MSU researchers measure benefits of growing trees for biofuel

    $2.5 million DOE grant to help MSU researchers measure benefits of growing trees for biofuel

    A $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will benefit Mississippi State researchers in the university's Forest and Wildlife Research Center studying the economic and ecological benefits of growing trees for biofuel production.

    8 Berkeley Lab Scientists Named 2020 AAAS Fellows

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    The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general scientific society, today announced that 489 of its members, among them eight scientists at Berkeley Lab, have been named Fellows. This lifetime honor, which follows a nomination and review process, recognizes scientists, engineers, and innovators for their distinguished achievements in research and other disciplines toward the advancement or applications of science.

    Argonne team collects Best Paper Award at SC20

    Argonne team collects Best Paper Award at SC20

    The research described in the winning paper is focused on using a high-performance, iterative reconstruction system for noninvasive imaging at synchrotron facilities.

    Utah State University's Seth Manesse wins first individual CyberForce Competition(tm)

    Utah State University's Seth Manesse wins first individual CyberForce Competition(tm)

    After a tough, day-long contest, Seth Manesse from Utah State University won the sixth CyberForce Competition.

    Quantum X-ray Microscope Underway at Brookhaven Lab

    Quantum X-ray Microscope Underway at Brookhaven Lab

    UPTON, NY--Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have begun building a quantum-enhanced x-ray microscope at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II). This groundbreaking microscope, supported by the Biological and Environmental Research progam at DOE's Office of Science, will enable researchers to image biomolecules like never before.


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    Harvesting Energy from Light using Bio-inspired Artificial Cells

    Harvesting Energy from Light using Bio-inspired Artificial Cells

    Scientists designed and connected two different artificial cells to each other to produce molecules called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

    Engineering Living Scaffolds for Building Materials

    Engineering Living Scaffolds for Building Materials

    Bone and mollusk shells are composite systems that combine living cells and inorganic components. This allows them to regenerate and change structure while also being very strong and durable. Borrowing from this amazing complexity, researchers have been exploring a new class of materials called engineered living materials (ELMs).

    Excavating Quantum Information Buried in Noise

    Excavating Quantum Information Buried in Noise

    Researchers developed two new methods to assess and remove error in how scientists measure quantum systems. By reducing quantum "noise" - uncertainty inherent to quantum processes - these new methods improve accuracy and precision.

    How Electrons Move in a Catastrophe

    How Electrons Move in a Catastrophe

    Lanthanum strontium manganite (LSMO) is a widely applicable material, from magnetic tunnel junctions to solid oxide fuel cells. However, when it gets thin, its behavior changes for the worse. The reason why was not known. Now, using two theoretical methods, a team determined what happens.

    When Ions and Molecules Cluster

    When Ions and Molecules Cluster

    How an ion behaves when isolated within an analytical instrument can differ from how it behaves in the environment. Now, Xue-Bin Wang at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory devised a way to bring ions and molecules together in clusters to better discover their properties and predict their behavior.

    Tune in to Tetrahedral Superstructures

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    Shape affects how the particles fit together and, in turn, the resulting material. For the first time, a team observed the self-assembly of nanoparticles with tetrahedral shapes.

    Tracing Interstellar Dust Back to the Solar System's Formation

    Tracing Interstellar Dust Back to the Solar System's Formation

    This study is the first to confirm dust particles pre-dating the formation of our solar system. Further study of these materials will enable a deeper understanding of the processes that formed and have since altered them.

    Investigating Materials that Can Go the Distance in Fusion Reactors

    Investigating Materials that Can Go the Distance in Fusion Reactors

    Future fusion reactors will require materials that can withstand extreme operating conditions, including being bombarded by high-energy neutrons at high temperatures. Scientists recently irradiated titanium diboride (TiB2) in the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) to better understand the effects of fusion neutrons on performance.

    Better 3-D Imaging of Tumors in the Breast with Less Radiation

    Better 3-D Imaging of Tumors in the Breast with Less Radiation

    In breast cancer screening, an imaging technique based on nuclear medicine is currently being used as a successful secondary screening tool alongside mammography to improve the accuracy of the diagnosis. Now, a team is hoping to improve this imaging technique.

    Microbes are Metabolic Specialists

    Microbes are Metabolic Specialists

    Scientists can use genetic information to measure if microbes in the environment can perform specific ecological roles. Researchers recently analyzed the genomes of over 6,000 microbial species.


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