domenica 28 giugno 2009

Implant Bacteria, Beware: Researchers Create Nano-sized Assassins


ScienceDaily (June 28, 2009) — Staphylococcus epidermidis is quite an opportunist. Commonly found on human skin, the bacteria pose little danger. But S. epidermidis is a leading cause of infections in hospitals. From catheters to prosthetics, the bacteria are known to hitch a ride on a range of medical devices implanted into patients.
Inside the body, the bacteria multiply on the implant's surface and then build a slimy, protective film to shield the colony from antibiotics. According to a study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, up to 2.5 percent of hip and knee implants alone in the United States become infected, affecting thousands of patients, sometimes fatally.
More ominously, there is no effective antidote for infected implants. The only way to get rid of the bacteria is to remove the implant. "There is no [easy] solution," said Thomas Webster, a biomedical engineer at Brown University.
Now, Webster and Brown graduate student Erik Taylor have created a nano-sized headhunter that zeroes in on the implant, penetrates S. epidermidis's defensive wall and kills the bacteria. The finding, published in the International Journal of Nanomedicine, is the first time iron-oxide nanoparticles have been shown to eliminate a bacterial infection on an implanted prosthetic device.
In lab tests, Taylor, the lead author, and Webster, associate professor of engineering and orthopaedics, noted that up to 28 percent of the bacteria on an implant had been eliminated after 48 hours by injecting 10 micrograms of the nanoparticle agents. The same dosage repeated three times over six days destroyed essentially all the bacteria, the experiments showed.
The tests show "there will be a continual killing of the bacteria until the film is gone," said Webster, who is editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed journal in which the paper appears.
A surprising added benefit, the scientists learned, is the nanoparticles' magnetic properties appear to promote natural bone cell growth on the implant's surface, although this observation needs to be tested further.
To carry out the study, the researchers created iron-oxide particles (they call them "superparamagnetic") with an average diameter of eight nanometers. They chose iron oxide because the metallic properties mean the particles can be guided by a magnetic field to the implant, while its journey can be tracked using a simple magnetic technique, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Moreover, previous experiments showed that iron seemed to cause S. epidermidis to die, although researchers are unsure why. (Webster said it may be due to iron overload in the bacteria's cell.)
Once the nanoparticles arrive at the implant, they begin to penetrate the bacterial shield. The researchers are studying why this happens, but they believe it's due to magnetic horsepower. In the tests, the researchers positioned a magnet below the implant, producing a strong enough field to force the nanoparticles above to filter through the film and proceed to the implant, Webster explained.
The particles then penetrate the bacterial cells because of their super-small size. A micron-sized particle, a thousand times larger than a nanoparticle, would be too large to penetrate the bacterial cell wall.
The researchers plan to test the iron-oxide nanoparticles on other bacteria and then move on to evaluating the results on implants in animals. The research was funded by the private Hermann Foundation Inc. In addition, Taylor's tuition and stipend are funded through the National Science Foundation GK-12 program.
Adapted from materials provided by Brown University.

sabato 27 giugno 2009

Scientists Identify Key Factor That Controls HIV Latency


ScienceDaily (June 27, 2009) — Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes of Virology and Immunology (GIVI) have found another clue that may lead to eradication of HIV from infected patients who have been on antiretroviral therapy. A real cure for HIV has been elusive because the virus can "hide" in a latent form in resting CD4-T cells. By understanding this "latency" effect, researchers can identify ways to reactivate the virus and enable complete clearance by current or future therapies.
Researchers in the laboratory of GIVI Associate Director Eric Verdin, MD have found that methylation of cytosine in the DNA of infected cells is associated with HIV latency and that inhibition of DNA methylation causes the reactivation of latent HIV. These observations offer a potential new strategy for inhibiting HIV latency and reactivating the virus. The discovery was reported in the current edition of PLoS Pathogens.
"While HIV-1 latency is likely to be a multifactorial process, we have shown that inhibiting the methylation of the provirus contributes to an almost complete reactivation of latent HIV-1," said lead author Steven E. Kauder.
The research team, which also included scientists from the University of Utah and Stockholm's Karolinska Institute, developed in vitro models of HIV-1 latency in T cells that harbor a full-length HIV genome. The provirus in the cell lines also encoded a fluorescent marker to illuminate HIV-1 transcriptional activity.
In addition to finding that DNA methylation is a mechanism of latency, the scientists also discovered that a host protein, called methlyl-CpG binding domain protein 2 (MBD2) binds to the methylated HIV DNA and is an important mediator of latency.
"Interfering with methylation greatly potentiates the reactivation of HIV," Kauder said. In this study, the researchers found that the drug 5-aza-2'deoxycytidine (aza-CdR) can inhibit HIV methylation and cause the virus to reactivate.
"Combined with other areas of our investigation into HIV latency, this research provides important new knowledge about the process and opens many new pathways for future study," said Dr. Verdin, senior author of the study.
The research team included Alberto Bosque and Vicente Planelles of the University of Utah and Annica Lindqvist of Karolinska University. The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health
Eric Verdin's primary affiliation is with the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology, where his laboratory is located and all his research is conducted. He is also professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Adapted from materials provided by Gladstone Institutes, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

giovedì 25 giugno 2009

Artificial Liver For Drug Tests.

ScienceDaily (June 25, 2009) — If you have hay fever, headaches or a cold, it’s only a short way to the nearest chemist. The drugs, on the other hand, can take eight to ten years to develop. Until now animal experiments have been an essential step, yet they continue to raise ethical issues. “Our artificial organ systems are aimed at offering an alternative to animal experiments,” says Professor Heike Mertsching of the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB in Stuttgart.
“Particularly as humans and animals have different metabolisms. 30 per cent of all side effects come to light in clinical trials.” The test system, which Professor Mertsching has developed jointly with Dr. Johanna Schanz, should in future give pharmaceutical companies greater security and shorten the path to new drugs. Both researchers received the “Human-centered Technology” prize for their work.
“The special feature, in our liver model for example, is a functioning system of blood vessels,” says Dr. Schanz. “This creates a natural environment for cells.” Traditional models do not have this, and the cells become inactive. “We don’t build artificial blood vessels for this, but use existing ones – from a piece of pig’s intestine.” All of the pig cells are removed, but the blood vessels are preserved. Human cells are then seeded onto this structure – hepatocytes, which, as in the body, are responsible for transforming and breaking down drugs, and endothelial cells, which act as a barrier between blood and tissue cells.
In order to simulate blood and circulation, the researchers put the model into a computer-controlled bioreactor with flexible tube pump, developed by the IGB. This enables the nutrient solution to be fed in and carried away in the same way as in veins and arteries in humans. “The cells were active for up to three weeks,” says Dr. Schanz. “This time was sufficient to analyze and evaluate the functions. A longer period of activity is possible, however.”
The researchers established that the cells work in a similar way to those in the body. They detoxify, break down drugs and build up proteins. These are important pre-conditions for drug tests or transplants, as the effect of a substance can change when transformed or broken down – many drugs are only metabolized into their therapeutic active form in the liver, while others can develop poisonous substances. The researchers have demonstrated the basic possibilities for use of the tissue models – liver, skin, intestine and windpipe. At the moment, the test system is being examined. Within two years it could provide a safer alternative to animal experiments.
Adapted from materials provided by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.

Contrary to predictions, males of high genetic quality are not very successful when it comes to fertilizing eggs.


Contrary to predictions, males of high genetic quality are not very successful when it comes to fertilizing eggs. A new study on seed beetles by Swedish and Danish scientists Göran Arnqvist and Trine Bilde shows that when a female mates with several males, the males of low genetic quality are the most successful in fertilizing eggs. The study is published in this week's issue of Science.
In almost all animals, females mate with several different , despite the fact that a single mating is often sufficient to fertilize her eggs. Multiple mating also carries costs to females, such as the risk of catching sexually transmitted diseases.
One commonly held belief is that this behaviour may allow females to choose the of the male with highest genetic quality to fertilize her eggs. Professor Göran Arnqvist from the Department of Ecology and Evolution, Uppsala University and associate professor Trine Bilde from the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Aarhus, have tested this possibility directly for the first time and shown that it is not true.
Their study on seed beetles shows that, contrary to predictions, males of low genetic quality are more successful in fertilizing eggs. Males who gained the highest share of paternity were actually males with low genetic quality. These males also fathered offspring that did less well.
"The results support the suggestion that that are good for males may often be bad for their mates. Therefore, in beetles at least, multiple mating does not award with genetic benefits," says Göran Arnqvist.
Source: Uppsala University (news : web)

Structural biology scores with protein snapshot.


Surface-filled representation of diacylglycerol kinase. The "porch-like" structure of the enzyme is highlighted, and the substrate diacylglycerol is depicted bound to the active site. Investigators at the Vanderbilt Center for Structural Biology used NMR methods to determine the structure of diacylglycerol kinase, the largest membrane-spanning protein studied by NMR to date. Credit: Charles Sanders, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University Center for Structural Biology.
In a landmark technical achievement, investigators in the Vanderbilt Center for Structural Biology have used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) methods to determine the structure of the largest membrane-spanning protein to date.
Although NMR methods are routinely used to "take molecular pictures" of small proteins, large proteins - and particularly those that reside within the cell membrane - have been reluctant to smile for the camera.
In the June 26 issue of Science, Charles Sanders, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry, and colleagues report the NMR structure of the large bacterial diacylglycerol kinase (DAGK), a complex of three subunits that each cross the membrane three times (for a total of nine membrane spans).
The group's ability to determine the NMR structure of DAGK suggests that similar methods can now be used to study the structures of other .
"We're taking the methods that we used for diacylglycerol kinase and applying them to high value targets such as G protein-coupled receptors," Sanders said.
G protein-coupled receptors - the largest family of cell signaling proteins - are targets for about half of all pharmaceuticals. Sanders is collaborating with other Vanderbilt investigators to tackle G protein-coupled receptor structure using both NMR and a complementary structural approach, X-ray crystallography.
DAGK may be a therapeutic target for certain types of bacterial infections. It is a virulence factor in the bacteria Streptococcus mutans, which causes .
Sanders selected DAGK as a model for studying membrane enzymes when he started his own research lab 17 years ago. DAGK is the smallest known kinase (a protein that adds chemical groups called phosphates onto other molecules), and it is not similar to any other known proteins.
The DAGK structure, Sanders said, "confirmed that this is a really strange kinase." The enzyme has a porch-like structure, with a wide opening for its substrate diacylglycerol and the active site at the top of the porch.
"The active site looks nothing like any other kinase active site - it's a unique architecture," Sanders said.
The researchers also performed exhaustive mutagenesis studies in which they characterized mutations at each amino acid in DAGK and used the data to map the active site of the enzyme onto the structure. They identified two sets of mutations that resulted in non-functional DAGK. One set altered the active site so that it no longer did its job, and the second set caused the protein to fold incorrectly (misfolding).
Sanders said the team was surprised to find that nearly all of the mutations that caused misfolding were in the active site. The expectation, he explained, is that mutations in the active site would cause a loss of function but would not usually affect protein folding, whereas key residues for folding would be located elsewhere in the protein to underpin the scaffold for the active site.
"Our study shows that you can't make that assumption," he said.
Sanders cautions that investigators cannot simply predict the impact of a mutation based on it being located in the active site. The finding has implications for personalized medicine, which aims to use the predicted impact of disease-causing mutations to make therapy decisions.
"The therapeutic strategy for addressing catastrophic misfolding versus simple loss of function may be very different," Sanders said.
Sanders and his team, who got interested in protein folding because of their work with DAGK, are now pursuing structural studies of misfolded that cause diseases including peripheral neuropathy (Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease), diabetes insipidus and Alzheimer's disease.
"For proteins that misfold because of mutations, we're using NMR tools to understand exactly what the mutations do to the proteins in terms of structure and stability," Sanders said. "We believe that understanding will lead to predictions about how to intervene and avoid misfolding."
Source: Vanderbilt University Medical Center (news : web)

venerdì 19 giugno 2009

TRAPping Proteins That Work Together Inside Living Cells

ScienceDaily (June 18, 2009) — DNA might be the blueprint for living things, but proteins are the builders. Researchers trying to understand how and which proteins work together have developed a new crosslinking tool that is small and unobtrusive enough to use in live cells. Using the new tool, the scientists have discovered new details about a well-studied complex of proteins known as RNA polymerase. The results suggest the method might uncover collaborations between proteins that are too brief for other techniques to pinpoint.
"Conventional methods used to find interacting proteins have limitations that we are trying to circumvent," said biochemist Uljana Mayer of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "They also create conditions that are different from those inside cells, so you can't find all the interactions that proteins would normally engage in."
Proteins are the workhorses in an organism's cells. Whole fields of research are dedicated to teasing out which proteins work together to make cells function. For example, drug researchers seek chemicals that disrupt or otherwise change how proteins interact to combat diseases; environmental scientists need to understand how proteins collaborate in ecosystems to make them thrive or fail.
To learn about protein networks, scientists start with a familiar one and use it as bait to find others that work alongside it. To pin down the collaborators, researchers make physical connections between old and new proteins with chemicals called crosslinkers. The sticky crosslinkers will only connect proteins close enough to work together, the thinking goes. But most crosslinkers are too large to squeeze into living cells, are harmful to cells, or link proteins that are neighbors but not coworkers.
To address these issues, Mayer and her PNNL colleagues developed a crosslinking method that uses small crosslinkers whose stickiness can be carefully controlled. To find coworkers of a protein of interest, Mayer and her colleagues build a tiny molecule called a tag into the initial protein. They then add a small molecule called TRAP to the living cell, which finds and fits into the tag like two pieces in a puzzle. TRAP waves around, bumping into nearby proteins. The scientists control TRAP with a flash of light, causing it to stick to coworkers it bumps into. The researchers then identify the new "TRAPped" proteins in subsequent analyses.
To demonstrate how well this method works, Mayer and colleagues tested it out on RNA polymerase, a well-studied machine in cells. The polymerase is made up of many proteins that cooperate to translate DNA. One of the polymerase proteins has a tail that is known to touch the DNA and some helper proteins just before the polymerase starts translating. No one knew if this tail -- also known as the C-terminus of the alpha subunit -- touches anything else in the core of the RNA polymerase complex.
The team engineered a tag in the C-terminus and cultured bacteria with the tagged RNA polymerase. After adding TRAP to the cells and giving it time to find the C-terminus tag, the team shined a light on the cultures.
The team then identified the proteins marked with TRAP using instruments in EMSL, DOE's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory on the PNNL campus. They found that the tagged protein, as expected, interacts with many other proteins, for example previously identified helper proteins, so-called transcription factors. But they also found it on another core protein called the beta subunit, suggesting the tail of the alpha subunit makes contact with the beta subunit as it plugs along. This interaction had never been seen before.
"No one knows what the polymerase looks like when it is running," said Uljana Mayer. "Here we see the C-terminus swings back to grab the beta subunit once the polymerase starts working."
The team report their results June 15 in the journal ChemBioChem. The tag in their unique method is made up of a "tetracysteine motif" -- two pairs of the amino acid cysteine separated by two other amino acids that doesn't interfere with the normal function of the protein of interest. TRAP includes a small "biarsenical" probe, which fluoresces so the team can find the proteins to which it has become attached. TRAP can also be easily unlinked from the tag with a simple biochemical treatment, allowing researchers to piece out the coworker from their original protein of interest.
The team also tested the method on other proteins, such as those found in young muscle cells. Mayer said they will use the method in the future to understand how environmental conditions affect how proteins work together in large networks.
Journal reference:
P. Yan, T. Wang, G.J. Newton, T.V. Knyushko, Y. Xiong, D. J. Bigelow, T.C. Squier, and M.U. Mayer. A Targeted Releasable Affinity Probe (TRAP) for In Vivo Photocrosslinking. ChemBioChem, 2009; 10: 1507-1518 DOI: 10.1002/cbic.200900029
Adapted from materials provided by DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Nanocrystals Reveal Activity Within Cells


ScienceDaily (June 18, 2009) — Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have created bright, stable and bio-friendly nanocrystals that act as individual investigators of activity within a cell. These ideal light emitting probes represent a significant step in scrutinizing the behaviors of proteins and other components in complex systems such as a living cell.

Labeling a given cellular component and tracking it through a typical biological environment is fraught with issues: the probe can randomly turn on and off, competes with light emitting from the cell, and often requires such intense laser excitation, it eventually destroys the probe, muddling anything you’d be interested in seeing.
“The nanoparticles we’ve designed can be used to study biomolecules one at a time,” said Bruce Cohen, a staff scientist in the Biological Nanostructures Facility at Berkeley Lab’s nanoscience research center, the Molecular Foundry. “These single-molecule probes will allow us to track proteins in a cell or around its surface, and to look for changes in activity when we add drugs or other bioactive compounds.”
Molecular Foundry post-doctoral researchers Shiwei Wu and Gang Han, led by Cohen, Imaging and Manipulation of Nanostructures staff scientist Jim Schuck and Inorganic Nanostructures Facility Director Delia Milliron, worked to develop nanocrystals containing rare earth elements that absorb low-energy infrared light and transform it into visible light through a series of energy transfers when they are struck by a continuous wave, near-infrared laser. Biological tissues are more transparent to near-infrared light, making these nanocrystals well suited for imaging living systems with minimal damage or light scatter.
“Rare earths have been known to show phosphorescent behavior, like how the old-style television screen glows green after you shut it off. These nanocrystals draw on this property, and are a million times more efficient than traditional dyes,” said Schuck. “No probe with ideal single-molecule imaging properties had been identified to date—our results show a single nanocrystal is stable and bright enough that you can go out to lunch, come back, and the intensity remains constant.”
To study how these probes might behave in a real biological system, the Molecular Foundry team incubated the nanocrystals with embryonic mouse fibroblasts, cells crucial to the development of connective tissue, allowing the nanocrystals to be taken up into the interior of the cell. Live-cell imaging using the same near-infrared laser showed similarly strong luminescence from the nanocrystals within the mouse cell, without any measurable background signal.
“While these types of particles have existed in one form or another for some time, our discovery of the unprecedented ’single-molecule’ properties these individual nanocrystals possess opens a wide range of applications that were previously inaccessible,” Schuck adds.
“Non-blinking and photostable upconverted luminescence from single lanthanide-doped nanocrystals,” by Shiwei Wu, Gang Han, Delia J. Milliron, Shaul Aloni, Virginia Altoe, Dmitri Talapin, Bruce E. Cohen and P. James Schuck, appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is available in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online.
Work at the Molecular Foundry was supported by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences within the DOE Office of Science.
Adapted from materials provided by DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Discovery Of Facial Malformation Gene


ScienceDaily (June 19, 2009) — The first specific genetic mutation which can cause a potentially serious facial disfigurement has been identified by researchers at Oxford University. The finding, published online in the American Journal of Human Genetics, offers the promise of improved genetic counselling for parents at risk.
Formation of the human face is a complex and exquisitely orchestrated developmental process that occurs between four and eight weeks of embryonic development. Disturbance to this development can lead to malformations of the head and face, including abnormal nasal configuration, cleft lip, and widely spaced eyes.
Most cases of disfigurement are caused by damage to the developing embryo early in pregnancy; genetic causes are thought to be responsible for only a minority of cases, and these usually also involve other parts of the body. No mutation of a single gene has previously been identified that leads specifically to facial malformations.
Researchers, led by Professor Andrew Wilkie from the Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford and Dr Irene Mathijssen from the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands and funded by the Wellcome Trust, identified individuals from seven families who shared a similar, distinctive facial appearance, including an abnormally large distance between the eyes and a wide, malformed nose. They termed this condition ‘frontorhiny’.
Genetic analysis showed that each of the individuals carried two copies of a mutation in the gene ALX3. Mouse models have previously highlighted the involvement of the equivalent gene in the production of a protein which regulates other genes involved in facial development – in other words, switching them on and off. However, while the absence of the protein produced by this gene does not disrupt facial development in mice, Professor Wilkie and colleagues found that in humans it leads to frontorhiny.
‘Frontorhiny can be a very distressing condition,’ says Professor Wilkie. ‘It causes facial disfigurement and other health problems, such as breathing difficulties and dermoids (benign cysts under the skin). The cosmetic surgery can be very challenging, requiring multiple operations.’
By identifying and naming the condition, the researchers believe that they will be able to diagnose more cases and provide improved genetic counselling. Because this is a recessive genetic disorder, a parent with the condition is very unlikely to have a similarly affected child. However, where unaffected parents have a child with the condition, they have a one in four chance of each future child being affected.
‘This finding is very important from the point of view of genetic counselling and offers hope to those families considered to be at risk,’ explains Professor Wilkie. ‘For example, by correctly diagnosing the condition in an adult, we can reassure them that their children are unlikely be affected.’
Professor Wilkie believes that the research also highlights the power of genetics to identify the origins of genetic disorders.
‘This study illustrates the tremendous power of genetics to identify the origins of rare disorders such as frontorhiny, even when working with very small numbers of individuals. In this research, just three affected individuals helped us to narrow the search for the particular genetic mutation responsible to around one three thousandth of the human genome. The previous mouse genetic work then helped finish the job for us.’
Adapted from materials provided by University of Oxford.

Scientists Show Bacteria Can 'Learn' And Plan Ahead


ScienceDaily (June 18, 2009) — Bacteria can anticipate a future event and prepare for it, according to new research at the Weizmann Institute of Science. In a paper that appeared June 17 in Nature, Prof. Yitzhak Pilpel, doctoral student Amir Mitchell and research associate Dr. Orna Dahan of the Institute's Molecular Genetics Department, together with Prof. Martin Kupiec and Gal Romano of Tel Aviv University, examined microorganisms living in environments that change in predictable ways.
Their findings show that these microorganisms' genetic networks are hard-wired to 'foresee' what comes next in the sequence of events and begin responding to the new state of affairs before its onset.
E. coli bacteria, for instance, which normally cruise harmlessly down the digestive tract, encounter a number of different environments on their way. In particular, they find that one type of sugar – lactose – is invariably followed by a second sugar – maltose – soon afterward. Pilpel and his team of the Molecular Genetics Department, checked the bacterium's genetic response to lactose, and found that, in addition to the genes that enable it to digest lactose, the gene network for utilizing maltose was partially activated. When they switched the order of the sugars, giving the bacteria maltose first, there was no corresponding activation of lactose genes, implying that bacteria have naturally 'learned' to get ready for a serving of maltose after a lactose appetizer.
Another microorganism that experiences consistent changes is wine yeast. As fermentation progresses, sugar and acidity levels change, alcohol levels rise, and the yeast's environment heats up. Although the system was somewhat more complicated that that of E. coli, the scientists found that when the wine yeast feel the heat, they begin activating genes for dealing with the stresses of the next stage. Further analysis showed that this anticipation and early response is an evolutionary adaptation that increases the organism's chances of survival.
Ivan Pavlov first demonstrated this type of adaptive anticipation, known as a conditioned response, in dogs in the 1890s. He trained the dogs to salivate in response to a stimulus by repeatedly ringing a bell before giving them food. In the microorganisms, says Pilpel, 'evolution over many generations replaces conditioned learning, but the end result is similar.' 'In both evolution and learning,' says Mitchell, 'the organism adapts its responses to environmental cues, improving its ability to survive.' Romano: 'This is not a generalized stress response, but one that is precisely geared to an anticipated event.'
To see whether the microorganisms were truly exhibiting a conditioned response, Pilpel and Mitchell devised a further test for the E. coli based on another of Pavlov's experiments. When Pavlov stopped giving the dogs food after ringing the bell, the conditioned response faded until they eventually ceased salivating at its sound. The scientists did something similar, using bacteria grown by Dr. Erez Dekel, in the lab of Prof. Uri Alon of the Molecular Cell Biology Department, in an environment containing the first sugar, lactose, but not following it up with maltose. After several months, the bacteria had evolved to stop activating their maltose genes at the taste of lactose, only turning them on when maltose was actually available.
'This showed us that there is a cost to advanced preparation, but that the benefits to the organism outweigh the costs in the right circumstances,' says Pilpel. What are those circumstances? Based on the experimental evidence, the research team created a sort of cost/benefit model to predict the types of situations in which an organism could increase its chances of survival by evolving to anticipate future events. They are already planning a number of new tests for their model, as well as different avenues of experimentation based on the insights they have gained.
Pilpel and his team believe that genetic conditioned response may be a widespread means of evolutionary adaptation that enhances survival in many organisms – one that may also take place in the cells of higher organisms, including humans. These findings could have practical implications, as well. Genetically engineered microorganisms for fermenting plant materials to produce biofuels, for example, might work more efficiently if they gained the genetic ability to prepare themselves for the next step in the process.
Prof. Yitzhak Pilpel's research is supported by the Ben May Charitable Trust and Madame Huguette Nazez, Paris, France.
Adapted from materials provided by Weizmann Institute of Science, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

venerdì 5 giugno 2009

Long-standing Mystery Of How Plants Make Eggs Solved


ScienceDaily (June 4, 2009) — A long-standing mystery surrounding a fundamental process in plant biology has been solved by a team of scientists at the University of California, Davis.
The group’s groundbreaking discovery that a plant hormone called auxin is responsible for egg production has several major implications.
First, this is the first definitive report of a plant hormone acting as a morphogen, that is, a substance that directs the pattern of development of cells based on its concentration.
Also, the study’s results provide tantalizing new insights into the evolutionary pathway that flowering plants took 135 million years ago when they split off from gymnosperms, the “naked-seeded” plant group that includes conifers, cycads and ginkgo trees.
Finally, the group used their discovery to make additional egg cells within plant reproductive structures, raising the prospects that these techniques may someday be used for enhancing the reproduction and fertility of crop plants.
“So the sequence becomes clear now,” said Venkatesan Sundaresan, the UC Davis professor of plant biology and plant sciences who led the study. “The plant triggers auxin synthesis at one end of the female reproductive unit called the embryo sac, creating an auxin gradient. The eight nuclei in the sac are then exposed to different levels of auxin, but only the nucleus in the correct position in the gradient becomes an egg cell. And that cell is subsequently fertilized to make the next generation.”
A paper describing the study was published June 4 in the journal Science’s online site, Science Express, in advance of its publication in the journal later this month.
Development of sperm and egg cells in plants
In humans and other animals, the germ cells for production of eggs and sperm are established at birth. But cells in flowering plants are assigned more or less randomly to become reproductive units when the plant reaches sexual maturity. Within the flower, sperm cells are produced by pollen at the tips of stamens, while egg cells develop in ovules, tiny structures embedded in the ovary at the base of the pistil.
At the start of the process of egg-cell development, a “mother cell” in the ovule divides several times, in a sequence involving both meiosis and mitotic divisions. These divisions result in the creation of an oblong, cell-like structure called the embryo sac, which contains eight nuclei, three of which are clustered near the open end of the ovule.
Within hours cell membranes start forming, eventually, creating seven cells: the all-important egg cell near the ovule opening where pollen will enter, and six other supporting cells, with essential functions for seed formation.
“The big question in our field for the past 50 years or more has been: How does this process happen in such a beautifully orchestrated pattern?” Sundaresan said. “It’s been clear that there’s a program here telling the plants exactly what to do, and that it is working not on cells, but on nuclei.”
Auxin concentrations determine fate of nuclei
Two years ago Sundaresan and a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory, Gabriela Pagnussat, used genetic tools to shift the position of a single nucleus at one end of an embryo sac in the plant Arabidopsis. When they examined the mature sac, they found that it had produced two egg cells instead of one.
Sundaresan recognized that a pattern shift like this was similar to the response that had been reported two decades earlier in Drosophila fruit flies in experiments that provided the first direct evidence for the existence of morphogens.
This prompted him to begin searching for a substance in Arabadopsis that might be acting as a morphogen. When the group discovered that auxin was accumulating at the open end of the ovule, they turned their attention to this ubiquitous hormone, which is known to play myriad signaling roles in plant growth and behavioral processes. (The hormone’s existence was first guessed by Charles Darwin when he was studying how plants grow towards light.)
After many tests, Sundaresan and his group found that during embryo sac formation, auxin concentrations did indeed follow a gradient, with the highest levels occurring in the ovule at the end of the embryo sac where the pollen enters and lowest levels occurring at the opposite end of the sac.
To test the theory that this gradient was determining the fate of nuclei in the sac, Sundaresan and his group created a series of genetically manipulated Arabadopsis plants. In some plants they ratcheted up production of auxin in the embryo sac, and in others they decreased the sac’s sensitivity to auxin, creating the same effect that a decline in auxin would make.
When they examined these experimental plants, their hypothesis was confirmed: Auxin concentrations determined the fate of the nuclei. Knowing whether auxin levels were high or low, it became possible to predict the appearance or disappearance of egg cells at different positions within the embryo sac.
Finally, the group employed a long series of bio-manipulative techniques to determine that the auxin gradient they had discovered within the embryo sac was due to on-site synthesis rather than transport from a source outside the sac.
“What we have found about the way auxin works here is amazing,” Sundaresan said. “The idea that you can have a small molecule like this being maintained in a gradient within this eight-nucleate structure through synthesis alone is mind-boggling.”
Implications for flowering plant evolution
Development of the embryo sac is arguably the key element in the evolution from gymnosperms to flowering plants, also known as angiosperms.
Yet the fossil record reveals very little about the stages that led from gymnosperm seed production to angiosperm seed production when the transition occurred around 135 million years ago. The rapid expansion of flowering plants and their eventual domination of the Earth’s vegetation was called “an abominable mystery” by Darwin.
By elucidating the mechanism of embryo sac development, Sundaresan and his team have opened the door to new work into the evolutionary pathway between these two major plant groups. The discovery supports what is known as the modular theory, which posits that the first angiosperms underwent a drastic reduction of their female reproductive unit compared to the gymnosperms, allowing flowering plants to reproduce more efficiently and eventually supplant their naked-seeded forebears.
Most remarkably, perhaps, the new work suggests that the eight nuclei of the angiosperm embryo sac have retained developmental plasticity in their evolution from gymnosperms. “It’s amazing that even though the split supposedly happened over a hundred million years ago,” Sundaresan said, “all these nuclei still have the capacity to become egg cells.”
Collaborators in the study are lead author Gabriela Pagnussat and Monica Alandete-Saez, who were postdoctoral researchers with Sundaresan when they did the work, and John L. Bowman, a professor of plant biology at UC Davis at the time of the study, now at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
The work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation.
Adapted from materials provided by University of California - Davis.

Geography And History Shape Genetic Differences In Humans

ScienceDaily (June 5, 2009) — New research indicates that natural selection may shape the human genome much more slowly than previously thought. Other factors -- the movements of humans within and among continents, the expansions and contractions of populations, and the vagaries of genetic chance – have heavily influenced the distribution of genetic variations in populations around the world.
The study, conducted by a team from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the University of Chicago, the University of California and Stanford University, is published June 5 in the open-access journal PLoS Genetics.
In recent years, geneticists have identified a handful of genes that have helped human populations adapt to new environments within just a few thousand years—a strikingly short timescale in evolutionary terms. However, the team found that for most genes, it can take at least 50,000-100,000 years for natural selection to spread favorable traits through a human population. According to their analysis, gene variants tend to be distributed throughout the world in patterns that reflect ancient population movements and other aspects of population history.
"We don't think that selection has been strong enough to completely fine-tune the adaptation of individual human populations to their local environments," says co-author Jonathan Pritchard. "In addition to selection, demographic history -- how populations have moved around -- has exerted a strong effect on the distribution of variants."
To determine whether the frequency of a particular variant resulted from natural selection, Pritchard and his colleagues compared the distribution of variants in parts of the genome that affect the structure and regulation of proteins to the distribution of variants in parts of the genome that do not affect proteins. Since these neutral parts of the genome are less likely to be affected by natural selection, they reasoned that studying variants in these regions should reflect the demographic history of populations.
The researchers found that many previously identified genetic signals of selection may have been created by historical and demographic factors rather than by selection. When the team compared closely related populations they found few large genetic differences. If the individual populations' environments were exerting strong selective pressure, such differences should have been apparent.
Selection may still be occurring in many regions of the genome, says Pritchard. But if so, it is exerting a moderate effect on many genes that together influence a biological characteristic. "We don't know enough yet about the genetics of most human traits to be able to pick out all of the relevant variation," says Pritchard. "As functional studies go forward, people will start figuring out the phenotypes that are associated with selective signals," says lead author Graham Coop. "That will be very important, because then we can figure out what selection pressures underlie these episodes of natural selection."
But even with further research, much will remain unknown about the processes that have resulted in human traits. In particular, Pritchard and Coop urge great caution in trying to link selection with complex characteristics like intelligence. "We're in the infancy of trying to understand what signals of selection are telling us," says Coop, "so it's a very long jump to attribute cultural features and group characteristics to selection."
Journal reference:
Coop G, Pickrell JK, Novembre J, Kudaravalli S, Li J, et al. The Role of Geography in Human Adaptation. PLoS Genetics, 2009; 5 (6): e1000500 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000500
Adapted from materials provided by Public Library of Science, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.