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Washington University image a winner in BioArt competition

High-powered microscope zooms in on urinary tract infection

by Caroline ArbanasDecember 7, 2016

S. Hultgren, V. O'Brien, M. Joens, J. Fitzpatrick

An alluring image of hot pink bacteria and chartreuse immune cells on a backdrop of a steel-blue bladder wall is a winner in the annual BioArt competition sponsored by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). The image was submitted by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

It highlights on a microscopic scale a recurrent urinary tract infection – a troublesome and often painful bacterial condition. An estimated 50 percent of U.S. women will develop a UTI during their lifetimes, which puts them at risk of recurrent infections.

Among entries submitted from across the United States, 10 images were selected as winners and will be exhibited at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Washington University image was submitted by Scott Hultgren, the Helen L. Stoever Professor of Molecular Microbiology; Valerie O’Brien, a graduate student in Hultgren’s lab; James Fitzpatrick, PhD, director of the Center for Cellular Imaging; and Matthew Joens, a staff scientist in the Department of Neuroscience.

Hultgren and O’Brien mimic human UTIs in mouse models to determine how severe infections alter the animal’s immune response, potentially opening the door to recurrent infections. Such work could lead to more effective treatments. Fitzpatrick and Joens created the 3D topographic image using a scanning electron microscope that magnifies the image by 2,500 times what the eye can see.

“A picture really is worth 1,000 words,” said O’Brien. “Images like this one are invaluable to our work. This particular image helps us learn a lot about how bacteria are behaving in the bladder and how recurrent UTIs differ on a microscopic level from an initial UTI.”

The research is funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the Office of Research on Women’s Health, all at the NIH.

“It’s so important to seize opportunities to share the wonder of discovery with the public,” said Hudson Freeze, PhD, FASEB president. “The BioArt images showcase the beauty of scientific research and are a great place to start the conversation.”

Each day, scientists produce thousands of images and videos as part of their research; however, only a few are ever seen outside of the laboratory. Through the BioArt competition, FASEB aims to share the beauty and breadth of scientific images with the public. To view all the winning images, click here.

Caroline oversees the News Team and leads efforts to cover and publicize research news. She worked as a newspaper journalist at the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock and the Idaho Statesman in Boise and as a freelance writer and editor before joining Medical Public Affairs in 2006. Caroline has a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's in journalism, both from the University of Missouri.