Blogging at meetings

Social media are rapidly becoming a part of scientific meetings. It is no longer unusual to tweet from meetings and summary reports of talks can often be found on blogs.

Many meeting organizers support bloggers and microbloggers. To give only a few examples: the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s (FASEB) upcoming meeting on Experimental Biology is supportive of scientist bloggers discussing the meeting content online. For the past few years the International conference on intelligent systems for molecular biology (ISMB) has linked FriendFeed discussions about every talk to the meeting’s homepage, assuring that these exchanges are archived and easily accessible.

Organizers at the recent Keystone meeting on Stem Cells, Cancer and Metastasis provided a Twitter hashtag to initiate dialog between meeting participants and discuss questions raised at the meeting. Similarly, at the Workshop on visualizing biological data in March, tweeting was encouraged and eagerly embraced by attendees.

At this year’s Advances in Genome Biology and Technology meeting one speaker underscored his support of social media by wearing a T-shirt displaying “Tweet me” in large print. While we do not suggest such a dress code be made mandatory, we do, in principle, support the spirit behind the openness, as long as reasonable and clearly communicated restrictions by presenters are honored, as discussed in the editorial in our April issue.

Given that social media are still rapidly evolving the scientific community needs to keep up a dialog as to how to best use them. We are keen to hear about our readers’ experiences with meeting blogs and tweets.

DNA origami on the rise

Nanotechnology is all the rage these days but its use by practicing biologists is still very limited. A recent entry in the nanotechnology arena is DNA origami, a method for creating nanostructures out of DNA that is more accessible than previous methods and allows larger and more complex structures to be created with greater ease.

In the April issue of Nature Methods you will find a primer to DNA origami that provides an excellent introduction to this technology with valuable practical advice on designing and synthesizing DNA nanostructures using the DNA origami methodology. We hope that this primer will stimulate biologists or others new to this field to take a look at this technology and dream up exciting new applications.

One of the crucial steps of DNA origami is isolating your properly folded structure. A Correspondence by William Shih, one of the pioneers of DNA origami, describes some simple but very useful modifications to an agarose gel electroelution method that many people use for isolating PCR products or small DNA fragments from restriction digests. These changes greatly increase the efficiency of isolating intact large DNA nanostructures compared to existing methods.

Finally, the Editorial discusses the prospects of DNA nanostructures created using DNA origami as biological research tools.

Based on the number of posters describing applications of DNA origami at the 2010 Gordon Research Conference on Single Molecule Approaches to Cell Biology, compared to previous years the biological community and the single molecule biophysics community in particular is showing interest in the methodology. Only time will tell if it fairs better among biologists than other promising nanotechnology tools and methods.

We’d like to know what our readers think of the biological research prospects of this technology, or other nanotechnology tools and methods for that matter. Tell us what you think.

Research collaboration

The Editorial in the February issue of Nature Methods discusses the critical role that interdisciplinary collaboration plays in modern biomedical research. Although there are certainly notable exceptions, researchers seem to be increasingly using collaborations with experts outside their own area of expertise to bring new insights and technologies to their research projects. Increasing numbers of studies claim to back up the assumption that collaboration is beneficial.

As highlighted in a 2008 News Feature in Nature, collaborations can also go horribly wrong and an accompanying editorial urged researchers to take some basic steps to avoid unforeseen complications.

At Nature Methods we were curious if the methods papers we had published showed any evidence of benefits arising from interdisciplinary collaboration. We calculated the number of citations per year that each of our research papers published between 2004 and May 2010 had received and analyzed the author patterns of those in the top and bottom quartiles. As briefly described in the February Editorial we detected what seemed to be a positive effect of interdisciplinary collaborations on the apparent impact of the work. This was by no means a rigorous study and there are many caveats, but it certainly suggests that even in methods development, collaboration is beneficial.

Do you have anything to share about your experiences with collaboration? We’d love to hear them.

Method of the Year 2010: Optogenetics

The time to celebrate methods has come and this year we have chosen to devote our end of year special feature to Optogenetics.

While neuroscientists will hardly need any introduction to this booming technology, recent developments have shown that this technique can go beyond controlling the activity of neurons in the brain and has the potential to open new avenues of experimentation across multiple other biological fields as well.

The term optogenetics was only coined 4 years ago but the technology has already matured to the point that it is having a substantial impact on basic biological research. Because of the transformative effect that it has already had in neuroscience studies and the excitement of its future prospects in other fields, it’s nomination as Method of the Year has not been a difficult one.

You can read more about this choice in the editorial of our January issue and access all the content of our special issue here.

We hope that you will share our excitement for this technology and we welcome any comments on our selection!

Brains at work

Neuroscience is a field where much still needs to be learned and for that, technology development is increasingly necessary. Recent developments have greatly expanded our capacity to visualize the activity of neurons using genetically encoded fluorescent probes and optogenetic tools now enable precise modulation of this activity.

But the brain is contained in a protective skull and peeking into it is usually an invasive process. In this month’s editorial we discuss recent technical developments and future prospects that will take us a step closer to a minimally invasive form of ‘transcranial neuroscience’. Despite the big progress, much work remains but we are hopeful that with the right technology and motivation, the field will soon approach the holy grail of performing non-invasive cellular-level functional studies of the entire brain.

Any thoughts about this? Tell us what’s on your mind!

Nobel thoughts

The Nobel Prize is quite possibly the most anticipated annual event in the scientific community. This year the winners again highlighted the importance of methodological development in scientific progress. Remarkably, the physics, chemistry and medicine prizes all rewarded method and tool developments. This continues, and possibly strengthens, a trend that has become more evident in recent years.

An editorial in the November issue of Nature Methods provides our thoughts on the Nobel Prize and suggests that the addition of a prize dedicated to biology might reduce some of the strain the prize has been experiencing recently and help protect the prize from an erosion of the community support it relies on.

What do you think? Is it ill advised to tamper with something of such stature and history or is it a long overdue change?

Stem cell whiplash

When we wrote our editorial for the October 2010 issue of Nature Methods, we didn’t know whether human embryonic stem cell research in the US would be effectively shut down by the time the issue was printed.

Fortunately, the stay of the injunction that resulted from last month’s ruling – which held that the 2009 NIH guidelines for hESC research are illegal – has been extended, and federal activities related to hESC research can continue for the moment. But this could change with the next decision in the courts.

As we discuss in this editorial, this is a serious blow to US hESC research and will slow down progress to understanding induced pluripotent stem cells too. This is a very unfortunate state of affairs. Its exciting potential notwithstanding, research on human pluripotent stem cells is still in relatively early days. If it is to lead to deeper biological understanding and to cures for human disease, it needs support outside of the lab as well as within it.

Tell us what you think!

Spotlight on the human proteome

Ambitious plans are underway for an internationally coordinated Human Proteome Project, as discussed in this month’s Editorial.

The proteomics field has certainly had its share of ups and downs. Mass spectrometry, the key technology used for proteome analysis, has been long criticized as being an irreproducible technique. In a Commentary this month, six leaders in the field argue that the technology has greatly matured over the past decade and when it is properly applied, it is highly reproducible. The technology is also getting more and more sensitive; mass spectrometry has been used to detect large portions of the proteome of several cell types.

However, the human proteome is enormously complex, when one considers all the diverse tissues, fluids and cell types present, and all the possible protein post-translational modifications and alternative splicings. Whether it is realistic to carry out a Human Proteome Project at all and what the scope of the project should look like are questions that the proteomics field does not agree on. The anticipated cost and scale of such a project would be on the order of the Human Genome Project, so it is important for the field to come to a consensus on these issues.

What do you think about the proposed Human Proteome Project?

Methods and more

This month’s editorial describes recent changes that have been taking place inside the journal, most notably the addition of two new journalistic pieces “The Author File” and “Points of View”. The latter is a new monthly column with tips on how to graphically present scientific data written by Bang Wong. More information about Bang can be found on his website.

As Nature Methods strives to provide more useful and engaging content for our readers we hope you will let us know how we are doing, and what we could do better. We welcome your input and suggestions.

Cloud computing in biology

The sheer amount of data being generated in large-scale high-throughput biological studies is challenging current capabilities for data storage and analysis. One solution to this has been to move to cloud computing. In our editorial this month we discuss current efforts in this direction and the particular challenges of biological analysis in the cloud.