Seeing science with an artist's eye

February 28, 2012

For many, the words “scientific research” call to mind a collection of cartoonish clichés – white lab coats and goggles, microscopes and bubbling beakers. But research isn’t just a set of props and piles of data. It’s a story that starts with a question and journeys to an answer, an ongoing narrative that can be told in a variety of ways.

Heather Bimonte-Nelson, a neuroscientist at Arizona State University, explores the brain and its functions through science and explains her science through art. Armed with spatulas, acrylic paints, inks and a handful of appropriated household tools, she produces intensely detailed paintings that further the story of her research. Heather Bimonte-Nelson painting Download Full Image

“Science is really about convincing people that your hypothesis or theory could be the truth in nature,” says Bimonte-Nelson, an associate professor of psychology. “And if you’re not a good storyteller, people will never believe it. You could have the best theory ever, but if you can’t communicate it effectively so others understand it, it doesn’t count.”

Bimonte-Nelson is the head of the Memory and Aging Laboratory, which focuses on learning, memory and brain changes that occur as we age. Recently, researchers in the lab demonstrated a link between the birth control shot and memory loss in rodents. The scientists juggle multiple projects, mostly related to hormone therapies and the impact they have on brain functions and memory. Bimonte-Nelson's paintings are reflections of her research work, depicting spidery neurons, fading memories and cell death.

While she describes herself as “always crafty,” Bimonte-Nelson only began painting about a year ago, and has since then produced an estimated 40 pieces. Some adorn her office, others she’s given to students and friends. Works in progress and finished pieces dominate her dining room, which serves as her makeshift studio.

A cut above a diagram in the average psychology textbook, the paintings explain the interworking of the mind in intricate and striking detail.

Bimonte-Nelson and her husband Matthew Nelson have two daughters, Hailey, 8, and Brooke, 6. Both girls have a history of epilepsy, and while their conditions are in remission, it’s always at the forefront of Bimonte-Nelson’s mind – and her art.

One painting, simply titled “GABA,” functions as a portrait of her daughters’ seizures, and the quest to control them. Even tones of light green and cerulean blue streak down the canvas, but are disrupted on one side in a dramatic blood-red band.

The colors represent neurotransmitters in the brain. The blues and greens are the inhibitory gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, and the red is glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter.

“GABA is very soothing, a great inhibitor,” explains Bimonte-Nelson. “Without GABA, you’d be running around with no control. With a seizure, there’s a big imbalance between these inhibitory and excitatory systems in the brain.”
While “GABA” could be considered as more of a personal piece, Bimonte-Nelson’s inspiration to paint first came in the form of writer’s block.

“I was writing a grant and I had a vision of a painting in my head. I couldn’t really formulate the words for it, but I saw the picture,” she recalls.

After painting for a while, Bimonte-Nelson understood the connection she was looking for. She had found the right words for her grant, and was able to complete it. After she finished that first piece, “Dancing Neurons,” she says she felt a sense of accomplishment and a greater understanding of the science she was working on at the time.

Since the completion of “Dancing Neurons,” writing and painting has become all one process for Bimonte-Nelson. Her desk is littered with Post-it notes, some with little scribbled sketches on them. She said sometimes just sketching out a painting helps her research along.

Artistic expression “drives my understanding of science,” she says. “I think it’s made me more of an intellect, because it’s carried my science to a new level. I am not doing anything when I’m painting. I’m thinking about the science I’m doing, but not so much consciously.”

Another painting, “Synchrony of Memories in Replay,” is a more textured piece, with a shimmering black neuron raised slightly off the canvas, which is covered in deep, midnight blues. A network of black neurons dominates the painting, with different color pockets evenly distributed across the canvas, representing the different neurotransmitters inside the brain.

During sleep, your brain goes through a process called consolidation, in which the neurons that have fired throughout the day in a specific pattern fire in again that pattern, said Bimonte-Nelson. Consolidation is how information goes from short- to long-term memory.

The prominent dark blue hues give “Synchrony of Memories in Replay” a calming, restful feel, while the neuron seems to crackle with the electricity of coding memories.

“Synchrony of Memories in Replay” exemplifies the most engaging attribute of Bimonte-Nelson’s paintings. As art, they’re attractive enough to find a home in an ornate frame. But it’s the inspiration, the science from which they are derived, that makes them interesting, captivating pieces. Even people with little or no understanding of science can understand the processes her paintings depict.

Bimonte-Nelson’s husband of nearly 10 years, Matthew, sees that accessible quality in his wife’s work.

“People tend to reach a point when talking to scientists where they just glaze over,” says Nelson, a research operations manager at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. “With something like Heather’s paintings you don’t get lost in the words, you just get lost in the art.”

These literal representations of cerebral processes are engaging to not only the scientifically challenged but also those intensely familiar with science.

“As a scientist, I think the mixture of art and science is absolutely beautiful,” says Jazmin Acosta, a postdoctoral fellow in Bimonte-Nelson’s lab. “Not only can we see a representation of what we’re studying, but it also gives us another perspective. It illustrates things very clearly.”

Bimonte-Nelson’s husband, who worked as a researcher for 15 years prior to moving into administration, asserts that most scientists fail to become independent researchers because they can’t sell their ideas. In other words, they can’t tell their story.

Bimonte-Nelson doesn’t seem to have that problem. In her lectures, she’s animated and full of energy. In her lab, she sells the story of her research with words and data. In her art, she provides an unconventional and beautiful way to look at science.

“In anything you are passionate about, it is necessary to be a good communicator and storyteller – you can do that through art, through words or through presentations,” Bimonte-Nelson says. “Silence does not change the world. You have to be good at conveying information, or your ideas – scientific or not – will never come across. If you cannot express, in some form, what you want the world to hear or interpret, it is as if that thought never existed.”

Written by Pete Zrioka, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development

Director, Knowledge Enterprise Development


Paternal components in fruit flies, humans may contribute to fertilization, embryonic development

February 28, 2012

It had long been assumed that the human sperm cell’s mission in life ended once it had transferred its freight of parental DNA to the egg. More recently however, other components of sperm have been implicated in fertilization, and perhaps even in subsequent embryonic development.

In a new study appearing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Timothy Karr, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, along with colleagues from the Universities of Cambridge and Bath, England, examine messenger RNA (mRNA) transcripts present in the sperm of both fruitflies (Drosophila melanogaster) and humans. Download Full Image

The new report characterizes the complement of mRNA carried by Drosophila sperm cells, representing the first description of an invertebrate spermatozoal transcriptome. A close correlation is observed between fly and human mRNAs and in both cases, transcripts were delivered to the egg during fertilization.

“The observed evolutionary conservation between human and insect sperm mRNA suggests that Drosophila may present a useful alternative model organism to study the functions of these molecules,” Karr says. 

In addition to strengthening the case for sperm’s enhanced responsibility in the reproductive process, the research may eventually lead to improved diagnosis and treatment of male factor infertility and inform new reproductive technologies. (Comparisons between sperm from fertile and infertile males have already implicated RNA transcripts as an essential ingredient for proper sperm function and highlighted their diagnostic potential.)

Until recently, the male genome was assumed to be the only vital information transferred to the egg during the process of fertilization. The discovery that mammalian sperm also delivers a centrosome and a soluble factor that activates the egg was therefore a revelatory advance and pointed to the possibility that other components found in sperm may play an as-yet unrecognized role.

Sperm are highly specialized cells, which undergo a dramatic transformation in the course of what is known as spermiogenesis. The once-spherical spermatogonium cell undergoes a process of mitosis to produce spermatocytes, followed by a first and second division through meiosis to produce spermatids. It is these spermatids that will eventually elongate, grow a tail and assume the characteristic shape and function of mature sperm cells or spermatozoa.

Mature sperm cells are often said to be ‘transcriptionally silent,’ meaning that the process of copying segments of a cell’s DNA into the RNA templates necessary for protein synthesis has been shut down. Mature spermatozoa nevertheless have been found to contain a complex population of mRNA transcripts, at first presenting a conundrum to researchers.

The common assumption was that these transcripts represent remnants of mRNA produced prior to the shutdown of transcription and stored for use during the process of differentiation of sperm into their mature form. The approximate similarity of the mRNAs present in mature sperm to those found in immature sperm in the testis gave some support to the idea.

The new research however, strongly suggests that at least some of the mRNA transcripts in mature sperm are neither remnants strictly related to sperm development and maturation nor contaminants from nearby somatic cells contained in accessory glands, leaving the function of these transcripts an open question.

Previous studies have shown that mature mammalian spermatozoa carry a population of these mRNA molecules, which are transferred to the egg at the time of fertilization, though the function of these transcripts, if any,  has remained obscure. Karr’s team investigated the evolutionary conservation of this aspect of sperm biology by analyzing highly purified populations of mature sperm from the fruitfly.

Using DNA microarray analysis, Karr and his group analyzed isolated sperm samples for their RNA content. The highly purified samples were obtained from dissected seminal vesicles, which are almost entirely composed of mature sperm. By labeling three particular mRNA transcripts in fruitfly sperm, Karr and his colleagues demonstrated that they are indeed transferred to the egg at fertilization and can be detected before, and at least until, the onset of gene expression by the egg.

Additionally, the team found that 35 functional annotations – pertinent information added to the genome database – were conserved between human and fly mRNAs.  In particular, mRNAs coding for ribosomal proteins were found in high proportions in both the human and fruitfly spermatozoal samples.

Comparison of mRNA transcripts from the testes and accessory gland confirmed that the majority of mRNA transcripts found in mature sperm were distinct and not the result of sample contamination. Further, it was found that 33 percent of mRNA transcripts from mature sperm encode components of ribosomes, compared with genes in the testis/accessory gland transcriptome, which are instead involved primarily in hormone activity.

Karr stresses that the high degree of functional coherence observed between human and fruitfly mRNAs may permit the use of Drosophila genetics to further probe the implications of such mRNA transcripts to the developing egg after fertilization: “The observed evolutionary conservation raises the exciting possibility that Drosophila can be used as an effective model organism for elucidating the function of sperm-derived mRNAs in both fertilization and early embryonic development.”  

The current study demonstrates for the first time that non-mammalian sperm also deliver mRNA transcripts to the egg during fertilization, possibly sending signals of some type to the developing embryo.  Whatever the precise role of these paternal mRNA transcripts, their remarkable evolutionary conservation between human and insect implies a practical importance requiring further inquiry. Additionally, the functional correspondence with human sperm suggests that the powerful tools of fly genetics may be brought to bear to further investigate the contributions of these transcripts to reproductive biology.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU