June 20, 2013

William R. Brody


The complexity of human biology can be incredibly daunting. All humility intended, we are remarkable creatures, and understanding our development, our physiology and our exceptional brains is no small task. So how do Salk scientists tackle this immense problem? They simplify.

One of Salk's faculty, Sreekanth "Shrek" Chalasani, reinforced this notion for me in a recent talk here at the Institute about his work with roundworms. Shrek explained how research on the relatively simple nervous system of the humble roundworm is yielding profound insights into the human brain. Through studying the neural basis for roundworm behavior, Shrek is helping to explain human behavior. This in turn sheds light on the underlying causes of mental disorders such as autism that impair people's ability to interact normally with their environment.

People sometimes ask me why at Salk we spend so much time studying organisms like roundworms, to which I answer that these creatures often offer the fastest way to make discoveries about humans. And the faster we make discoveries, the faster we find new cures.

Yours in discovery, 

 William R. Brody

The Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center's Second Annual Symposium

At the Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center's Second Annual Symposium, Salk's Terry Sejnowski asked: How many proteins are in one Escherichia coli bacterium? (Hint: E. coli is approximately two micrometers in size, too small to be seen with the naked eye.)


After audience members shouted out suggestions ranging from 5,000 to 50 million, Sejnowski delivered the punchline, "We don't know the actual number, but it's probably in the range of about 50 million---plus or minus an order of magnitude."


His example neatly sums up the theme of the symposium: the extraordinary complexity of living organisms. The one-day series of talks, organized by Salk faculty members, Martin Hetzer and Axel Nimmerjahn and biophotonics core facility director, James Fitzpatrick, brought together an all-star scientific line-up to discuss the latest discoveries at scales ranging from single proteins to the entire mouse brain. "What they all have in common is the desire to understand the three-dimensional architecture and how it relates to biological function," says Hetzer.


As showcased during the symposium, scientists do so using a wide range of innovative tools, from fluorescent imaging to computer modeling. Sejnowski's colleague Tom Bartol, for example, took a probabilities technique developed at Los Alamos to understand neutron diffusion, and applied it to biological processes. Called MCell, it follows molecules as they diffuse throughout a system, yielding insights into everything from E. coli to synapses in the human brain.

Biophotonics Seminar

The Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center's Second Annual Symposium     

C. elegans, the Super Worm of Science

Shrek Chalasani
Sreekanth Chalasani

In the last of this year's "PIs and their Passions" talks,  Sreekanth Chalasani told us about his work on the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. "Worms and humans have similar ways of solving problems," says Chalasani. "For example, the circuit motif that the worm uses to enhance contrast is also used by our photoreceptors to enhance contrast."


Sydney Brenner, senior distinguished fellow of Salk's Crick-Jacobs Center, established C. elegans as a model organism for biology, and sequenced its genome. Brenner used the worm to make discoveries about such fundamental topics as cell death, which is critical to our understanding of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. His worm-based genetics research led to his receiving the Nobel Prize.


Among other interests, Chalasani and his lab are using their worms to learn more about the gene neuroligin. Mutated forms of it are found in about nine percent of people with familial autism spectrum disorders (ASD), but scientists are still uncertain of its role. Recently, Chalasani's lab discovered that worms with mutated neuroligin displayed two well-known symptoms of ASD: They had diminished social interactions and difficulty integrating information. "Invertebrate systems are very important to biomedical research," says Chalasani. "These worms may give us insights into potential targets for developing therapeutics against ASD."

Sreekanth Chalasani video

Watch video>> 

First-Annual Alumni Mixer 


On May 14, Salk faculty, postdocs, graduate students and alumni gathered to attend the first-ever Alumni Mixer hosted by the Institute. "It's our hope that Salk alumni and current scientists can continue to build meaningful connections around our shared experience of the Institute," says Chris Kintner, Salk faculty chair, about the new annual event.


The evening included a panel discussion for Salk postdocs and graduate students featuring Salk alumni William Alaynick, Beth Anne Baber, Anthony Craig, and Philip Low. Afterwards, Salk faculty, alumni, postdocs and graduate students enjoyed poster sessions on Salk's current research. A special highlight was a talk by this year's Alumni-Faculty Fellowship recipient, Kevin Curran, about his collaboration with Sreekanth Chalasani on C. elegans research.   


Save the date for the next Alumni Mixer on June 19, 2014.


To learn more about the program, please visit the Salk Alumni page



We are pleased to announce that Beverly M. Emerson, Christopher R. Kintner and Paul E. Sawchenko have been selected as the inaugural holders of three new endowed chairs that were created through the Joan Klein Jacobs and Irwin Mark Jacobs Senior Scientist Endowed Chair Challenge. Emerson was appointed holder of the Edwin K. Hunter Chair, Kintner was named the Rita and Richard Atkinson Chair holder and Sawchenko was selected as the inaugural holder of the Wylie Vale Chair.

Faculty chairs
Bev Emerson, Chris Kintner, and Paul Sawchenko
Science News 

A survival mechanism that occurs in breast cells that have just turned premalignant may eventually lead to new ways of essentially stopping tumors before they start, according to
Beverly "Bev" Emerson and her colleagues. Emerson reports that a protein known as transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β), considered a tumor suppressor in early cancer development, can actually promote cancer once a cell drifts into a pre-cancerous state.


Salk researchers find breast cancer trigger

San Diego Union Tribune  



Satchin Panda's finding that mouse hair operates on a circadian clock has given researchers hope that cancer radiotherapy and chemotherapy could be scheduled later in the day in order to minimize hair loss in patients. The study, done in collaboration with scientists from University of Southern California and the University of California, Irvine, revealed that rodents undergo a 24-hour cycle of hair growth followed by restorative repair. It demonstrated dramatic reductions in hair loss where mice lost 85 percent of their hair if they received radiotherapy in the morning and just 17 percent if treatment occurred in the evening.


Cancer radiation therapy may minimize hair loss

MSN Lifestyle 



Dave Schubert's lab has developed a new drug candidate, called J147, that reduces memory loss in mice and may one day offer help to Alzheimer's patients. The study builds on his earlier research finding that the drug preserves brain function when given to Alzheimer's model mice. The compound, derived from the curry spice component curcumin, has low toxicity and actually reverses damage in neurons associated with Alzheimer's. The new compound could potentially help treat millions of people living with the disease and could possibly even yield a cure, according to researchers.
Read more>>


Salk researchers halt the progression of Alzheimer's in very old mice 


Save the Date

 Katharine McPhee

The 18th annual Symphony at Salk will be held on Saturday, August 24, 2013, and will feature singer and actress Katharine McPhee!

McPhee will join the San Diego Symphony, led by returning Maestro Thomas Wilkins, for a spectacular evening performance.

For more information on this event, visit the website at: www.salk.edu/symphony. Tickets go on sale July 8, 2013.

Symphony at Salk

Question of the Month


One for the architecture fans:


The walls of the Salk Institute are made of concrete panels poured in place on site and then tied with metal bars to keep the slabs uniform and flat as they set. Normally, after concrete has hardened, the bars are removed, and the holes left behind are filled in and smoothed out so that no indication of them remains. Louis Kahn famously preferred the aesthetic with the holes and they were incorporated as part of his overall design. What material was used to partially fill the iconic holes---and what does it protect the concrete against?


Post your answer to our Facebook page:


One randomly chosen winner from the entries with the correct answer will win a special memento of Salk merchandise. (Your choice of a t-shirt or hat.) 


Thank you to everyone who participated in last month's question for correctly identifying May's question of the month as Arabidopsis thaliana. Scientists find the tiny plant a useful organism for study because of its rapid life cycle, prolific seed production and its small genome, which was successfully sequenced in 2000. Our lucky winner is Alex Levine, a professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Congratulations, Alex! Let's keep the answers coming!  

Issue: 5   
Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center's Symposium
The Super Worm of Science
First-Annual Alumni Mixer
Science News
Save the Date
Question of the Month

Upcoming Events



Cell Cycle Meeting

June 19-22, 2013




Mechanisms and Models
of Cancer

August 7-10, 2013




Symphony at Salk 

August 24, 2013











Each month our featured image will provide a shot of art and science. Download the image and use it as your computer desktop wallpaper, smartphone background or facebook timeline photo. Download>>   


Salk's pioneering biomedical research has transformed our understanding of the most critical health-related problems of the 21st century.

Salk Institute