Friday, May 22, 2009

Fundamental mechanism for cell organization discovered

An embryo treated with RNA interference to delay the onset of cell polarization. At the beginning of the process, P granules (green) have already nearly completely dissolved throughout the embryo. However, when the embryo ultimately polarizes, the polarity protein PAR-2 (red) appears on the posterior cortex, and P granules reform by condensation in the vicinity of this posterior region. Credit: Clifford Brangwynne (Credit: Image courtesy of Marine Biological Laboratory) 

Scientists have discovered that cells use a very simple phase transition -- similar to water vapor condensing into dew -- to assemble and localize subcellular structures that are involved in formation of the embryo.

The discovery, which was made during the 2008 Physiology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), is reported in the May 21 early online edition of Science by Clifford P. Brangwynne and Anthony A. Hyman of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, and their colleagues, including Frank Jülicher of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, also in Dresden.

Working with the worm C. elegans, the scientists found that subcellular structures called P granules, which are thought to specify the "germ cells" that ultimately give rise to sperm or eggs, are liquid droplets that transition between a dissolved or condensed state. In newly fertilized one-cell embryos, the P granules are dissolving throughout the cell, like water droplets at high temperature. But prior to the first cell division, the P granules rapidly condense at one end of the cell, as if the temperature were suddenly lowered there. The progenitor germ cell subsequently forms where the P granules have condensed.

"This kind of phase transition could potentially be working for many other subcellular structures similar to P granules," Brangwynne says. P granules are ribonucleoprotein assemblies (RNPs), and a given cell may contain dozens of different types of RNPs.

"It is interesting to think about this in the context of evolution and the origin of life," he says. "What we have found is that, in some cases, simple physical-chemical mechanisms, such as a classic phase transition, give rise to subcellular structure…This is likely the kind of thing that happened in the so-called primordial soup; but it's not surprising that even highly evolved cells continue to take advantage of such mechanisms." …

Fundamental Mechanism For Cell Organization Discovered

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