The makings of a face

by Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen

When we come into this world, we usually emerge whole. Not everyone is as fortunate though. There are a variety of rare afflictions that push the embryo to develop in a haphazard way, causing damage most of us would turn our heads away from. Such damage can be the result of the slightest of changes in a gene that affects downstream biological processes in an infant's development, for instance. Frontonasal dysplasia is just one of these afflictions. A protein known as ALX1 is at the heart of this disease characterised by a face that is not only incomplete but, in the most extreme cases, split up the middle. Now imagine if humans had beaks... Then surely ALX1 would have an effect on a beak's development. This seems to be so. Recently, scientists discovered the ALX1 protein in finches known as Darwin's finches. These particular finches live on the Galápagos Islands and were originally described by Charles Darwin during his voyage on The Beagle. And it could well be that what characterises each species best - i.e. the shape of their beak - is the hallmark of ALX1.

Protein Spotlight (ISSN 1424-4721) is a monthly review written by the Swiss-Prot team of the SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics. Spotlight articles describe a specific protein or family of proteins on an informal tone. Follow us: Subscribe · Twitter · Facebook

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“I recently stumbled upon your columns. Let me congratulate you on achieving the near impossible, for your articles have enabled me to successfully marry IT with the Life Sciences and better explain the concepts of bioinformatics to those who are not in the know of the field.

Your articles are very well written, lucid, and contain just enough information to excite the reader to want to learn more about the topic being discussed. They fall in a very rare category where they are accessible to everyone, from the undergraduate students to research students who want to have a basic idea of the topics being discussed. Some of your articles, like "Our hollow architecture" and "Throb" are outstanding pieces.

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