In the wild, cone snails harpoon their prey as it swims by. In the lab, the cone snail has learned to exchange venom for dinner. Here, a snail extends its proboscis and discharges a shot of venom into a latex-topped tube. Photo Credit: Alex Holt/NIST

Cone snails have inspired humans for centuries. Coastal communities have often traded their beautiful shells like money and put them in jewelry. Many artists, including Rembrandt, have featured them in sketches and paintings. Now, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are finding these deadly predators inspiring, too, as they seek new ways to cure old medical problems using the poisonous snails as models.

“This is the same venom used to kill dinosaurs in ‘Jurassic Park,’” says NIST biochemist Frank Marí, with a chuckle. “It is scary stuff, but that power could be used for a different kind of good in real life.”

Like all NIST scientists, Marí measures things. Specifically, he measures RNA and the associated proteins at work inside marine animals. As technology has improved over the years, he and his team have become better able to examine, analyze and catalog the molecules at work in some of the ocean’s lesser-known creatures, including cone snails. This year, his lab made several significant discoveries about their venom, discoveries that might ultimately lead to the development of new medicines for hard-to-treat diseases. By imitating the way that these small, quiet creatures deliver poison, scientists may be able to better deliver cures.

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Matt Swayne

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Scientists may be able to minimize the failure rate of drugs for diseases linked to high-calorie diets, such as colon cancer and type 2 diabetes, if they test treatments using a pig model, according to an international team of researchers.

In a study, researchers found that pigs, which have gut bacterial profiles and immune systems similar to humans, also maintain two distinct colonic stem cell populations – ASCL-2 and BMI-1. Mice lack colonic BMI-1 stem cells that play a critical role in how colon cancer forms – or carcinogenesis – and how material passes through the cell lining of the intestinal wall – or gut permeability.

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Lipid nanoprobes (blue, green and yellow colored) spontaneously insert into lipid bilayer of three extracellular vesicles. The cargo content of extracellular vesicles includes proteins, DNA and RNA. The lipid nanoprobe-labeled extracellular vesicles are captured onto the surface of a magnetic bead (black, bottom) through interaction with conjugated avidin molecules (red). Exosome isolation and its cargo analysis offers new opportunities for a diverse range of molecular analyses, including mutation detection from blood plasma of cancer patients. Image: Xin Zou/Penn State

Walt Mills

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A nanoscale product of human cells that was once considered junk is now known to play an important role in intercellular communication and in many disease processes, including cancer metastasis. Researchers at Penn State have developed nanoprobes to rapidly isolate these rare markers, called extracellular vesicles (EVs), for potential development of precision cancer diagnoses and personalized anticancer treatments.

"Most cells generate and secrete extracellular vesicles," says Siyang Zheng, associate professor of biomedical engineering and electrical engineering. "But they are difficult for us to study. They are sub-micrometer particles, so we really need an electron microscope to see them. There are many technical challenges in the isolation of nanoscale EVs that we are trying to overcome for point-of-care cancer diagnostics."

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By Sara LaJeunesse

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A core set of genes involved in the responses of honey bees to multiple diseases caused by viruses and parasites has been identified by an international team of researchers. The findings provide a better-defined starting point for future studies of honey-bee health, and may help scientists and beekeepers breed honey bees that are more resilient to stress.

"In the past decade, honey-bee populations have experienced severe and persistent losses across the Northern Hemisphere, mainly due to the effects of pathogens, such as fungi and viruses," said Vincent Doublet, postdoctoral research fellow, University of Exeter. "The genes that we identified offer new possibilities for the generation of honey-bee stocks that are resistant to these pathogens."

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NIST researchers have devised a way to synchronize the time of two different clocks – separated by as much as 4 km of open, turbulent air – to within a few millionths of a billionth of a second using optical light pulses. That constitutes a thousand-fold improvement in sensitivity compared to the best conventional methods that connect and control clocks at radio frequencies.

A network of such clocks, synchronized on a femtosecond (fs, 10-15 s) time scale, could enable dramatic advances in tests of general relativity, coherent sensing, the future redefinition of the second, and even such exotic applications as searches for dark matter.*

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Structure of the RNA-modifying protein RlmN, shown in a ribbon-diagram. The RlmN (blue ribbon) is trapped in the middle of its reaction while it is bound to transfer RNA (shown in grey, stick format). Iron and sulfur atoms are shown as orange and yellow spheres. Selected amino acids, cofactors, and nucleobases are shown in stick format and are colored by atom type. Image: Penn State University

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The structure of a bacterial RNA-binding protein has been determined in the act of modifying a molecule of RNA -- an achievement that provides researchers with a unique view of the protein's function in action and could lead to clues that would help in the fight against the development of antibiotic-resistant infections. A paper describing the findings by a team of Penn State University researchers is published in the current issue of the journal Science.

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