I think that a lot of people have a romantic notion that science is filled with excitement from great discovery and interesting investigations with immediate application and impact. This is especially true of those folks who have automatically asked me why I do what I do, "So, what will this cure?" More often than not, a lot of time and effort go in and a very small result comes out! Last summer I was introduced to the less glamorous side of science while in Japan.
I worked with Dr. Taro Uyeda in the National Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Research (NAIR),which is under the direction of the Agency for Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) under the aegis of the Ministry for International Trade and Industry (MITI), in Tsukuba, "Science City", Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. Whew! The AIST oversees fifteen national research laboratories in Japan, eight of which are on the Tsubka campus. Also in Tsukuba are the National Space Development Agency (NASDA), the KEK Particle Accelerator Laboratory, Tsukuba University, and about one hundred other public and private science-investigating entities. Tsukuba was founded with the idea of creating a science city where research and education would be centered. There is little but science happening in Tsukuba, so it is a good place for research, but little else. It is situated in the Ibaraki Prefecture on the largest plain in Japan, far out in the country, about one-hour northeast of the distractions found in Tokyo, the world's second most populous city.
NAIR was founded with the objective of pursuing interdisciplinary research themes combining fundamental and frontier areas of industrial science. This institute is unique in that it combines resources and collaborative effort from the three areas of industry, academia, and government in an international cooperative effort. Private and government research organizations from many nations are engaged in intensive, joint research. As a result of my stay, I have many new friends from Scotland, Brazil, Germany, Holland, Italy, China, Japan and the US. NAIR has four research groups: Atom Technology, Cluster Science, Optical Memory, and Bionic Design.
The Bionic Design Group, now the Biomolecular Research Group, within NAIR is comprised of four teams of researchers with the objective of clarifying the structures of biological systems in order to some day create prosthetic devices for bone, muscle and blood vessels and biomimetic molecular machines. The Soft Tissue Team is investigating development of artificial tissues such as blood vessels, and more recently, ligaments and tendons. The Hard Tissue Team is working on materials that are biocompatible with bone and investigate bone remodeling, and they have been able to directly observe crystal growth of bone minerals in vitro. The Molecular Architecture Team has successfully constructed artificial photosynthetic reaction centers. The Molecular Motor Team studies kinesin and myosin in an attempt to understand these crucial cellular components. I had the privilege of working with this last team of researchers headed by Dr. Uyeda.
I had been attempting to complete biochemical characterization of several primary and secondary, suppressor mutations in myosin, isolated in Dr. Bruce Patterson's lab. Myosin is the molecular motor of muscle and is responsible for a host of other processes in non-bacterial cells, such as cytokinesis, in which myosin moves actin filaments. These reactions are powered by ATP hydrolysis, but not much is understood concerning the mechanics of its cycle. Many proteins share some of the characteristics of myosin, ATP hydrolysis or binding of actin filaments for example, but none share all of these characteristics and perform in a coordinated fashion as myosin does. For this reason myosin provides a window for investigation of protein mechanics.
For myosin research, we use Dictyostelium discoideum, a cellular slime mold, as the model system because there are many myosin-dependent phenotypes that empower a genetically driven approach to mutant and suppressor Dictyostelium and also allow easy purification of myosin. We have found that suppressors of a given mutation tend to show a non-random distribution in the three dimensional structure of myosin. Moreover, in a previous study of the biochemical characteristics of a family of suppressors, there was a similar "theme" for the biochemical fix provided by the secondary mutations with respect to the characteristics of primary mutation. In the study carried out in Japan, I was attempting a similar characterization of three suppressors and two primary mutations in neighboring regions. From the outset, my research faced several roadblocks. Dicty grow slooooowly. Then I found that molds find the moist summer heat on this island nation salubrious. Somehow a large bottle of contaminated media found it's way into my hands and onto my plates, wiping out the first three weeks of growth. This contamination did not only touch me. A post-doc showed me stacks of cell cultures two meters high with the offending mold growth. After several other difficulties, I managed to carefully measure the ATPase and actin binding characteristics of the mutant myosin.
Fortunately, the slow growth of Dicty allowed me several days to explore Tokyo and other parts of Japan. Even if someone has described the mass of people running about all day long is this megalopolis; you must see it to believe it. I can say, however, that I managed never to take the wrong train or to get off at the wrong stop, even when I fell asleep on a particularly long journey. This does require attempting to study kanji and being on the alert for quickly passing signs.
My experiences in Japan became pivotal in reaching decisions regarding my future. I have been invited back to join the lab of Dr. Uyeda for the next few months. I will then begin medial school in Ohio. A word of advice to all future UBRPers is to increase the time that you think it will take to compete your project. When setbacks occur, they could make it uncomfortable or impossible to finish the work as you watch the days count down to your return.
I want to thank Dr. Uyeda, Dr. Patterson, and Carol Bender for making this trip possible.
Leonardo Mendoza, BRAVO! Participant in Dr. Patterson's lab, Molecular & Cellular Biology.