October 13, 2011

Cell Biology Changed Forever

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Rewrite the textbooks and revisit old experiments! There is a new player in town and it is changing the face of cellular research. A breakthrough discovery could help resolve scientists' lingering questions.

Inside every cell that isn't bacterial, there is a "membrane trafficking system." It has long been known to have four protein complexes, called adaptins, which are involved in moving things in, out and around the cell.

Now, researchers from the University of Alberta and the University of Cambridge Institute for Medical Research have discovered a fifth adaptin. According to their research it has been around for billions of years, but no one has been able to spot it.

"We thought there were four big players in the processes of how things got moved around in the back half of the cell. There's a fifth player on the field; we just couldn't see it," Joel Dacks, Department of Cell Biology in the University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry was quoted as saying.

Why is the discovery so important? According to the article, understanding how trafficking works in cells is vital because when something goes wrong, disease often occurs.

Mutations in genes involved in trafficking are implicated in a number of neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer's, Huntington's disease and ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

"It goes back to that idea that to understand the diseased cell, we have to know what a healthy one really looks like. You need to understand the basic map of the cell to be able to identify how it has gone wrong. We have discovered a previously unrecognized, major feature on that map," Dacks was quoted as saying.

The new machinery was found to be widespread, occurring not only in humans, but plants, parasites and algae. According to Dacks, this means that it's not only a general feature of cells, but is also ancient. The more they learn about this fifth adaptin, the more insight will be gained about the earliest events - the building of cells.

"Scientists have to build explanations using the pieces that they know exist. This may help to incorporate some observations that didn't fit, because now you can explain things with five guys, not four," Dacks explained.

The extra adaptin was found by Dacks in a soil amoeba. After realizing the same protein is also found in human cells, he contacted colleague Margaret Robinson to analyze the biology of the adaptin in her lab at Cambridge. After three years of analyzing, she passed it back to Dacks so he could study the evolutionary genomics.

"What this does for cell biology is open up a whole new avenue of research," Dacks was quoted as saying.

The discovery will likely change a lot of cell biologists' research. For Dacks, the next step is to integrate his lab's theories and create a better idea of how the cell evolved.

SOURCE: PLos Biology, published online October 11, 2011