LabBook June 22, 2012

The crystal structure of the enzyme peptidase MccF from the human pathogen Bacillus anthracis. (Courtesy of Andrzej Joachimiak/UChicago News)

Welcome to LabBook, our weekly roundup of University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences research news from around campus and the world wide web. Each Friday, LabBook will recap the week on the blog, link to news stories about our faculty and studies, and briefly summarize a handful of recent publications by our researchers.


A by-product of electronic health records is that more and more doctors are being asked to enter information into a computer during patient examinations. To prevent the doctor from spending more time looking at the laptop screen instead of the patient, two University of Chicago Medicine research fellows are a developing a new curriculum to teach students “desktop manner.” “I think it’s a larger issue of how you use all these things and still be respectful, engaging and compassionate,” said Maria Alcocer Alkureishi. “You have to acknowledge its presence with the patient, but don’t let it dominate what’s going on in that room.”

In a belated Father’s Day post, we looked at how fathers teach their sons how to sing in an Australian bird species called splendid fairy-wrens. The wrinkle: unbeknownst to the dads, roughly half of those sons are the offspring of other males, the product of extra-pair mating. This daytime talk show drama created a perfect natural experiment for Emma Greig and Stephen Pruett-Jones to test the relative contributions of genetics and social upbringing to language learning in fairy-wrens.

Last month, thousands of people walked the streets of Chicago in protest of the NATO summit that brought foreign leaders to the city. One lingering effect of that hectic weekend has nothing to do with politics or economics: the long-delayed funding of a city-wide emergency response system for the most deadliest of heart attacks. Department of Homeland Security funding for NATO preparation, combined with the pressure applied by a front page Chicago Tribune article, gave the Chicago Fire Department the technology and cooperation it needed to get heart attack patients to the right hospital as quickly as possible.


Call it the Pathogen 500: A collaboration between researchers from the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, and Northwestern University reached a milestone this week of sequencing their 500th protein structure from the bacteria and viruses that cause deadly diseases. Over the last five years, scientists have sussed out the shape of proteins from Bacillus anthracis, Yersinia pestis, Salmonella enterica and Vibrio cholera — a murderer’s row of microbes that cause diseases such as plague, anthrax, and cholera. The structural information will now help researchers develop new more effective drugs against these diseases. “It used to take four years to determine one structure,” said project leader Wayne Anderson. “Now we can do about three per week.”

It’s bad enough when a person working a desk job shows up to work sick, putting his or her co-workers at risk of catching their illness. But it’s even more concerning when a physician decides not to tough it out and work while ill, a choice that could potentially endanger their patients. A study by Vineet Arora and colleagues in Archives of Internal Medicine found that more than half of the resident physicians they surveyed had shown up to work sick at least once in the past year, a finding that attracted coverage from outlets including The Huffington Post and HealthDay.

Twenty years ago, University of Chicago geneticist Manyuan Long needed to name a fruit fly gene he had recently discovered. Given the tradition of giving mutant fruit flies colorful and descriptive names such as “lava lamp” or “cheapdate,” Long felt pressure to come up with a suitably evocative name. His choice, “jingwei” drew upon an ancient Chinese myth about a reincarnated princess. To hear the full story of how Long chose this name, visit Hilary Rosner’s excellent blog at PLoS.


Is it the flavor or the nutritious value of food that our brain finds rewarding? In a world saturated with sugary food and drinks, the answer provided by this new study in the European Journal of Neuroscience may surprise you. A team led by Xiaoxi Zhuang and Jeff Beeler of the Department of Neurobiology compared the rewarding effects of sucrose and saccharin in rats, and found that the allure of taste without nutritional value fades with time.

Using self-assembling peptides boost the immune response against malaria? An intriguing bioengineering project led by Joel Collier of the University of Chicago Medicine is published in the journal Biomaterials.

Can transporting blood samples from offsite clinics to a hospital laboratory change the content of the sample? A study commissioned by University of Chicago Medicine to look for the source of artificially high potassium readings in patient samples found that “sample jostling and perturbations” could indeed change the ion concentrations, producing false readings. The team concluded that offsite clinics should collect serum samples instead of whole blood.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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