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As Halloween approaches, lots of kids and kids-at-heart will be watching out for ghosts and goblins. So, to help meet the seasonal demand for scary visuals, I’d like to share this award-winning image that’s been packaged into a brief video.

The “ghoul” you see above is no fleeting apparition: it’s a mouse cell labelled to reveal its microtubules, which are dynamic filaments involved in cellular structure, transport, and motility. Graduate student Victor DeBarros captured this image a couple of years ago in the NIH-supported lab of Randall Duncan at the University of Delaware, Newark, as part of research on the rare skeletal disorder metatropic dysplasia (MD).

MD is caused by a spontaneous mutation in the gene that codes for TRPV4, a protein that’s part of a channel that helps to regulate calcium levels within the cell. If the channel allows too much calcium into cartilage progenitor cells, called chondrocytes, it interferes with their ability to form the template used to build the skeleton. In lab studies involving cells from MD patients, the University of Delaware lab meticulously characterized the effects of mutated TRPV4, leading to a hypothesis that microtubules that interact with the protein may play a role in dysregulating calcium flow.

So, DeBarros was asked to investigate that hypothesis using a mouse cell line that serves as a valuable laboratory model for studying chondrocytes. As part of his experiments, DeBarros used a confocal microscope to produce this image, in which antibodies tagged with fluorescent markers outline a healthy cell’s cobweb-like pattern of microtubules.

DeBarros is still putting finishing touches on his research exploring the possible role of microtubules in MD. But the young researcher already has one positive outcome to report: his image was among those chosen for the University of Delaware’s 2017 Art in Science exhibit. Congrats, Victor. And Happy Halloween, everyone!

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