14 December 2009

Life: Isn't That Like Magic?

To human minds, the molecular mechanisms of life are very much like magic.  Things happen so quickly on the molecular level -- and so far out of human sight -- that by the time we understand what is happening we are often thrown completely off our stride.

We know that an animal's genome changes over time, but we have little idea how animals change and evolve.  Indiana University and University of New Hampshire biologists have made some important discoveries regarding evolution driven by intron formation inside genetic sequences.   Introns are non-coding DNA sequences "inside" genes, that make up much of DNA in cells.   As different introns are inserted into genes of a species, members of the species may begin behaving differently -- genetically speaking.  This discovery could prove extremely important.

Speaking of introns, the cell needs to "edit out" all the mRNA that does not code for a gene's protein, in order to translate only the gene's "message" into protein (not the intron's).   Tel Aviv University researchers have made some pivotal discoveries in how RNA is edited, based upon the way it is transcribed from the DNA.  Their work may have important implications for cancer research as well as basic research in gene expression.

Johns Hopkins University scientists have learned more about particular epigenetic processes that seem to play a special part in an organism's ability to adapt to its environment, in evolution.   The research looks at patterms of methylation of genes, which can have the effect of "randomizing" the organism's response to the environment for different members of the same species -- for example, modifying size, shape, strength, skin tone, disease resistance, etc.   Another way of modifying (in fact, randomizing) gene expression -- methylation, epigenetics.

Korean researchers have learned more about a "growth regulationg" micro-RNA in fruit flies, miR-8, which plays a significant role in determining the animal's size.  Humans have a similar micro-RNA referred to as miR-200, which seems to affect a person's size and weight via affects on insulin.   Yet another gene expression modifier -- micro RNA.

Baylor College of Medicine researchers are looking into "master gene" Math1 , which seems to help coordinate the different nerve centers for hearing, balance, proprioception (position and orientation of body parts), and interoception (the detection of internal body states such as a full bladder).  It has a lot to do with why you can get up in the middle of the night -- half asleep -- and navigate to the bathroom and back, without causing injury to yourself and damage to your household.   Can you believe it?  A gene that controls and coordinates conscious / unconscious behaviour?

McGill University scientists are looking at a protein that influences DNA shape  and gene expression -- helicase protein translation initiator DHX29.  This protein is important in regulating protein synthesis, and cell proliferation.  It is associated with cancer cell growth -- the less DHX29, the less cancer cell growth.  Yet another form of gene expression:  helicase protein translation initiators.

UCSD researchers in La Jolla are studying how atypical anti-psychotic drugs such as olanzepine and clozapine are able to improve a schizophrenic's cognitive function enough to sometimes go back to work and be productive.  Using ingenious bio-sensor "sniffers" they call CNiFERs, they were able to determine that atypical anti-psychotics have a strong blocking effect on the M1 (muscarinic 1) acetylcholine receptor in rats.  They hope to modify their CNiFERs to "spy on" other receptors in pursuing this important research in cell signaling.

You may begin to understand that there is no separation between the molecular / genetic level and the organismic / behavioural level of animals.  That is why it is so important for us to understand the molecular nature of the animal -- because it underlies everything else.

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