Research News Briefs

A digest of new and noteworthy research to complement UC Berkeley press releases. A complete archive of all campus research news is available online.

Star-nosed mole touches a nerve

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Star-nosed mole

The snout of the star-nosed mole is exquisitely sensitive thanks to many touch receptors. Because the nose has few pain receptors, it is easier to isolate touch from pain in these animals. Photo by Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University.

Berkeley – Despite a face only a mother could love, the star-nosed mole is the darling of researchers interested in how animals and humans detect touch and its extreme – pain.

UC Berkeley physiologist Diana Bautista reported in the Jan. 30 issue of the journal PLOS ONE that she has found 20 new touch and pain receptors in the mole that have counterparts in humans. The finding could jump-start pain research, which has been difficult because touch and pain receptors are intermixed in the skin. Since moles’ snouts are uniquely innervated with mostly touch sensitive cells, Bautista and her colleagues were able to isolate and discover the genes expressed in them.

“The hope is that we identify new drug targets,” Bautista said. “A lot of approved painkillers have side effects like drowsiness because of effects on the central nervous system; we would like to see treatments that stop pain at the source. If we can find peripheral targets, we could make much better drugs with fewer side effects.”



Endowing cells with a magnetic personality

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

magnetotactic bacteria

Magnetotactic bacteria make their own tiny bar magnets (black dots) and use them to navigate the globe. Since they show up well on MRI scans, they should make a great tag for following cells in the body or molecules inside a cell. Courtesy of Komeili lab.

Berkeley – Some bacteria make their own tiny magnets to navigate the oceans. But these tiny compasses also show up beautifully in 3-D magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, inspiring UC Berkeley scientists to use them to track the movement of cells in the body or molecules within cells.

Researchers today label genes or proteins with green fluorescent protein (GFP) – a development honored in 2008 with a Nobel Prize. But GFP is only useful for looking at cells on the body surface or inside transparent embryos. With a $1 million high-risk, high-reward grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation, the team plans to implant the relevant genes from magnetotactic bacteria into mammalian cells so they can make their own magnets. Mikhail Shapiro, one of the project’s leaders, says the technique will help scientists explore how tumors spread, immune cells find pathogens or brain cells degenerate.

“If we can transplant the genetic machinery that makes these strong and beautifully magnetic structures into mammalian cells, you would fulfill the dream of a magnetic, non-invasive version of GFP that allows really sensitive imaging of gene expression.” he said.


Nature-inspired awe brings out our inner saints

By Yasmin Anwar, Media Relations

the sun shines through a grove of tall trees

iStock photo

Berkeley — Albert Einstein once noted that “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead.” And a new UC Berkeley study lends credence to that sentiment.

It suggests that awe – a sense of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder – can inspire people to be less self-centered and more generous and helpful. The results have implications for philanthropy and make a strong case for spending more time in the scenic wilderness.

“Awe is a transformative emotion, it makes us feel part of something bigger and drives collective behavior,” said Paul Piff, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology. His preliminary findings were presented this month at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

In one experiment, half the participants gazed at towering trees in the campus’s historic Eucalyptus Grove while the other half stared at the campus’s Valley Life Sciences Building. Overall, people who looked at the trees reported feeling more humility, compassion and cooperation “Whether through art, music, or nature, we should have experiences that make us feel part of something greater than ourselves,” Piff said.