All living things are made of cells. Thus, cellular malfunction plays a critical role in many diseases, ranging from cancers resulting from abnormal cell growth, to neurodegenerative disorders that result from nerve cell death. Cell biological research in the Intramural Research Program (IRP) reflects this spectrum, with concentrated expertise in six key areas that span multiple biological systems:
- Apoptosis – In every healthy organism, cells die through a carefully regulated process of programmed cell death, known as apoptosis. Apoptosis is common to many biological systems with fundamental relevance to neurobiology, immunology, aging, and development, as well as diseases such as cancer, autoimmunity, and degenerative diseases.
- The Cell Cycle – Cells continue to grow and divide in a carefully controlled manner throughout our lives. The molecular and cellular events that regulate the cell cycle are of critical importance to many diseases in which the normal regulation of growth is impaired.
- Glycobiology – Glycans are a biologically important class of carbohydrates. Glycan-binding proteins (lectins) bind to specific cellular glycans/ligands and play crucial roles in cell recognition, motility/homing to specific tissues, signaling processes, cell differentiation, cell adhesion, microbial pathogenesis, and immunological recognition.
- Mitochondria – Known as the “power houses” of the cell, mitochondria provide the energy that cells need to survive. Increasing evidence places these organelles front and center in diseases ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s disease.
- Motility – A microscopic nerve cell that originates in the brain and extends its processes to the base of the spinal cord needs to move molecules over vast distances compared to its size. IRP scientists use a variety of techniques and approaches to study how cells and their internal molecules and organelles move.
- Protein Trafficking – You can tell where you are in a cell by the proteins found there. Proteins are made in the nucleus and then must be positioned correctly to take on their cellular roles. Protein trafficking is therefore central to all cellular systems, and its dysfunction is involved in diseases ranging from cystic fibrosis to Alzheimer’s disease.
The cellular basis of life may seem obvious in the modern era of biology, but before the development of the first microscopes in the early nineteenth century, it could only be a matter of speculation. The size of a typical human cell is about five times smaller than anything we can see with the naked eye. Therefore, advances in our understanding of the inner workings of cells—including cellular pathophysiology—have gone hand-in-hand with advances in the technology available to visualize and study them.
As part of our ongoing commitment to uncovering the secrets of the living cell, we have formed a trans-NIH Imaging Initiative. Bringing together the biological and technical expertise of investigators from across the IRP (and, in particular, from the NIBIB Intramural Program), we aim to improve resolution for molecular and cellular imaging by developing better technologies and novel chemical probes.