A tighter mesh

by Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen

A fabric whose weave is slack is less resistant to strain than one whose knit is close. These physical principles of toughness are followed by Nature all the way down the molecular scale. At the cellular level, protrusions known as microvilli grow at the apical end of the epithelial cells that line the intestinal tract. Each protrusion is like a finger dipping into the gut lumen. There can be up to one thousand protrusions on the end of each cell, which together form a fuzzy lining that looks like the bristles of a very long brush, hence its name: the brush border. These protruding digits are not free to wiggle as they wish however. Each protrusion is linked firmly to neighbouring protrusions thus making the whole system tougher in a realm - digestion - where tissues can undergo severe mechanical insults. But you need something to tighten the mesh. This is performed by proteins that belong to a family known as the cadherins, namely cadherin-related family members 2 and 5.

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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Snapshot : P protein

There is a famous sequence in Quai des Brumes – a very popular French film shot in the 1930s – in which Jean Gabin, subdued by the sky blue of his interlocutor’s gaze, leans over and breathes into Michèle Morgan’s ear, “T’as d’beaux yeux tu sais” – meaning literally: “You’ve got beautiful eyes you know” ... though it means far more. The blue of an eye is both fascinating and mysterious, and we are getting closer to an explanation for it. It is common knowledge that the colour of our eyes is due to the accumulation of a pigment in the iris – melanin – whose synthesis depends on the activity of a protein known as P protein. Despite years of research, scientists had not been able to pin down a modification in P protein, which could explain the azure of a look, until recently when the long sought after mutation was discovered – only not at all where they were expecting it!

A little bit of praise!

“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.

I would highly recommend your articles as a necessary reading in undergrad classes to get students inspired about the various avenues of research.”

— Rohan Chaubal, Senior Researcher in Genomics, July 2011

Thank you to C. Goldsmith whose work we reproduce on our site!