Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How do mom's microbes affect pregnancy outcomes? UAB research aims to find out

As a baby slides out of the birth canal, on the way to its first breath, its body becomes coated in its mother’s microbes. This first interaction with outside organisms could be key to shaping the development of the baby’s immune system.

Our microbes, collectively called the microbiome, most often live in harmony with our bodies. They support the immune system, help to digest food and keep the metabolism on track, and fight off disease-causing bacteria. But researchers suspect that mom’s microbiome could play a role in when her children are born, and what happens to them as they grow.

“Most people know about the microbes that colonize the gut,” says Rodney Edwards, M.D., an associate professor in UAB’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “But there are bugs in and on us in many other sites—our skin, our mouths, our noses, our genitalia.”

During pregnancy, it turns out, the new needs and demands of a woman’s body change the numbers and types of these microbes. Alterations in how the body divvies up nutrients, stores fat, and produces hormones shift the properties of the microbes’ environments. But exactly how the microbiome changes over this nine-month period varies between pregnancies. And these variations, researchers are discovering, could impact not only the well being of a pregnant women herself, but the likelihood of pregnancy complications and the long-term health of a baby.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Scanning Electron Microscope

The high-tech look of UAB's Scanning Electron Microscope facility makes it a popular spot on campus tours, but the machine's ability to image everything from exotic metals to living tissues makes it an invaluable research tool, says facility director William Stonewall Monroe (above).

When you need to see something so tiny that light skips right over it—and you don't want it vacuum-sealed and messed with in the way that a transmission electron microscope requires—you're in the market for a scanning electron microscope (SEM).

An SEM is the go-to machine for materials engineers, who are very interested in close-up pictures of faulty pipes or the inner workings of exotic, lab-created composites. That's why UAB's SEM is located on the ground floor of the School of Engineering. But the device is also gaining a following with researchers all over campus, says William Stonewall Monroe, director of the UAB Scanning Electron Microscope facility.

"If you want to look inside something, you use a transmission electron microscope," Monroe says. "That's what most people think of as an electron microscope. But the samples have to be elaborately prepared and able to survive the vacuum conditions."