Excerpts from Recent Articles from 2003

2003 Back Issues

The Christmas Factor - December 2003
This is not an article on what multiplies your cholesterol level over the Christmas period. Or on what brings on – for some – terrible bouts of depression as the festivities draw in on them. But it does have to do with December 25th…in a way. The ‘Christmas factor’ is a protein whose deficiency was first discovered in the 1950s in a little boy by the name of Stephen Christmas. Also known as factor IX, or FIX, it is involved in blood clotting and its deficiency causes the rare form of congenital male hemophilia: hemophilia B. And coincidences being what they are, the article announcing the discovery of the Christmas factor was actually published in the 1952 Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal! (PDF version - 50K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Human coagulation factor (Christmas factor), Homo sapiens (Human): P00740
In vino vita? - November 2003
A prolonged and healthy life is a tempting prospect. Especially in a day and age where there seems so little time to fulfil our ever-growing aspirations. Researchers have been giving a lot of their time to the problem of longevity since the 1930s, when it was first discovered that calorie restriction actually lengthened life expectation in mammals. It took many more years before scientists caught a glimpse of the molecular pathway underlying such a process. And, for the time being, it really is just a glimpse – but an encouraging one. A family of proteins, known as sirtuins (sir-too-ins) or SIRS – an abbreviation of Silent Information Regulators – and which are found all the way from bacteria to humans, seem to have a role in the ageing of cells, and hence the ageing of organisms. (PDF version - 53K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
NAD-dependent histone deacetylase SIR2, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (Baker's yeast): P06700
What's that smell? - October 2003
For some, garlic just spells bad breath. Yet it is a vegetable whose past is far richer than its smell. Botanists believe that it was one of the first plants to have been domesticated; ancient remains have been found in habitats which date back 10’000 years. The plant probably originated in Asia and made its way slowly to the West, leaving in its wake the most diverse folklore and beliefs. The Hindus, the Scandinavians, the Greeks and the Germans believed that garlic had protective powers against evil influences. In Norse mythology, garlic was worn to ward off trolls. In central European mythology, it fought off witches and vampires, so much so that a man who refused to eat garlic was considered to be a potential vampire! Garlic cloves were thought to impart strength and bravery and as a consequence were fed to the Egyptian pyramid builders and Roman soldiers. And all because of a pungent odour… (PDF version - 48K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Alliin lyase 1, Allium sativum (Garlic): Q01594
Alliin lyase 2, Allium sativum (Garlic): Q41233
The Plant Kingdom's sloth - September 2003
Most of us take the oxygen we breathe for granted. Yet were it not for the plant kingdom, and a large and slothful enzyme, none of us would be here. Rubisco is the key enzyme which – in the process of photosynthesis – swallows up atmospheric carbon dioxide and deals with it in such a way that oxygen is released into the air. The release of oxygen is really just a side effect. Rubisco has no particular feelings for humans; it just uses the carbon from the carbon dioxide, which it recycles as sugars for its own selfish purposes. In the same way that we breathe in oxygen for life’s sake and recycle the waste as CO2. (PDF version - 301K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
RuBisCO large subunit, Spinacia olerarcea (Spinach): P00875
RuBisCO small subunit, Spinacia olerarcea (Spinach): P00870
Slime with a design - August 2003
We have all stuck our fingers down a drain and felt that viscous slime that lines its walls. Revolting though it may seem to our tactile senses, such biofilms – as they are known – are a world in themselves. The slime is secreted by various microscopic organisms and – despite a poor understanding of its function – it is used in a number of industries, including the food industry, for its viscous properties. And today, scientists are discovering the potential of this gelatinous matter in the field of therapeutics. What is this slime made of? Mainly, the polysaccharide alginate. And GDP-mannose dehydrogenase is the enzyme which has a major role in its biosynthesis. (PDF version - 82K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
GDP-mannose 6-dehydrogenase, Pseudomonas aeruginosa : P11759
Liquid states - July 2003
Though we appear to be quite solid, we are in fact quite liquid. Like all living organisms, the best part of us – roughly 70% - is water. And it needs to flow into us, out of us and inside us. We sweat water, we cry water, we digest with water, we think thanks to water and we pee water. Hundreds of litres of water go through a human kidney daily. How? Water molecules can cross cell membranes unassisted. However, such a form of transit cannot account for the huge amounts which are processed in a kidney. There must be another system. In the 1990s such a system was discovered: aquaporin. Aquaporins are proteins which are embedded within cellular or intracellular membranes and are high-tech channels specific to water molecules. And they are spread not only throughout the animal and the plant kingdom but also in bacteria. (PDF version - 128K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Aquaporin 1, Homo sapiens (Human): P29972
Aquaporin PIP1.1, Arabidopsis thaliana (mouse ear-cress): P61837
Thermoautotrophicum aquaporin aqpM, Methano bacterium : Q9C4Z5
Aquaporin AQPcic, Cicadella viridis (Green leafhopper): Q23808
The earth's perfume - June 2003
Have you ever brought a glass of wine – or drinking water – to your lips and discovered a musty taste? Geosmin is what produces it. Geosmin is a germacranoid sesquiterpene or a trans-1,10-dimethyl-trans-9-decalol for the more chemically minded. Human taste buds are extremely sensitive to geosmin; the average person can detect 0.7 parts per billion! The chemical is produced by a number of microorganisms amongst which the mycelial soil bacteria Streptomyces, which have become invaluable in the medical field since they are an important source for naturally occurring antibacterial and antifungal agents as well as anticancer drugs and immunosuppressants. (PDF version - 146K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Germacradienol synthase, Streptomyces coelicolor : Q9X839
The kink behind the wriggle - May 2003
Were it not for dynein, none of us would be here. There is an intriguing thought. Indeed, dynein is at the heart of a sperm’s wriggle. Without it, there would be no race to the egg. And, what is more, an egg depends on the movement of cilia in its long journey from the Fallopian tubes to the womb. And it is dynein which makes cilia quiver. Dynein is in fact central to numerous movements in and outside a cell, such as mitosis, vesicular mobility, debris removal in the lungs and chemical transport in our nervous system. It is a molecular motor; fed on biological fuel – ATP - it creates movement. Much research has been done on this extraordinary protein because of its key role in sperm mobility and hence fertility. (PDF version - 54K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Dynein 1-alpha heavy chain, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii : Q9SMH3
Moody Wallpaper - April 2003
How would you like to have wallpaper that changes colour according to the seasons? Imagine a warm ochre hue for the cold winter months and a fresh yellow tint for the hot summer months. Fantasising? No. Researchers in Madagascar have recently discovered a very peculiar protein from the epidermis of a rare species of chameleon, Chamaeleo differensis, which is in fact a pigment and takes on different hues depending on various environmental criteria. The protein was baptised – in an outburst of scientific originality – chameleonin. (PDF version - 46K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Chameleonin, Chameleo differensis : P99834
The things we forget - March 2003
Why remember when it is so important to forget? That sounds promising in a day and age when techniques to enhance your memory are as popular as a cup of tea. It is important not to forget your mother’s birthday, where you live or how to dress, but it is very desirable to forget all the items you float past in a supermarket, the names you scan through in a phone directory and the sign posts you sweep past on your way home. We like to think that we are the masters of what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. And no doubt, to a certain degree we are. But some initial filtering is done on the molecular level and for our own benefit. The understanding of the biochemistry involved in the process of learning, memory…and forgetfulness is still very much in its infancy, but we do know of one protein, protein phosphatase 1, which certainly seems to be at the heart of this primordial sift. (PDF version - 171K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Protein phosphatase PP1-alpha, Homo sapiens (Human), Mus musculus (Mouse), Rattus norvegicus (Rat),Oryctolagus cuniculus (Rabbit):P08129
Protein phosphatase PP1-beta, Homo sapiens (Human): P37140
Protein phosphatase PP1-gamma, Homo sapiens (Human): P36873
Protein phosphatase PP1-gamma, Mus musculus (Mouse), Rattus norvegicus (Rat):P37139
Baneful Beans - February 2003
Castor oil was part of our grand parents’ first-aid cabinets. Already widely used in ancient medicine, it became particularly popular in the 20th century and, like Vin Mariani1, it was the remedy to an endless list of human ails. Castor oil is derived from castor beans, which are the seeds of Ricinus communis – a plant native to tropical Southeast Africa grown worldwide today. Pleasing in appearance and seemingly harmless, a castor bean – like Dr Jekyll – has a nasty side to it. Besides the oily salve, the beans also produce a toxin known as ricin, which is left behind in the mash in the process of oil extraction. Ricin is lethal to men and has – like botulinum toxin2 and anthrax – been extensively studied in the event of its use as a bioweapon. Stalin’s chief of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria, was summoned to develop poisons and assassination techniques, which were still in use well after his death. One notorious invention was the ricin-loaded platinum pellet which was fired into the thigh of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov by way of an umbrella in London, in 1978. (PDF version - 143K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Ricin, Ricinus communis (Castor bean): P02879
No more Christmas pudding? - January 2003
Christmas and the New Year are almost forgotten. But has our body forgotten about the stuffing and the pudding, or the brandy butter and the chocolate truffles? Probably not. The cholesterol has been piling up slowly…and so have the chances of cardiovascular problems. We know that the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in our blood can be an indicator of the potential for heart attacks. However, it looks as though a second molecule – C-reactive protein or CRP – is a far better indicator of cardiovascular disease. A study which has involved accompanying 28’000 women over a period of eight years, and previously 22’000 men over a shorter period, seems to point to a risk of heart attack when the levels of CRP are high – though the levels of cholesterol can be normal or even low. (PDF version - 616K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
C-reactive protein, Homo sapiens (Human): P02741
C-reactive protein, Cavia porcellus (Guinea pig): P49254
C-reactive protein, Mesocricetus auratus (Golden hamster): P49262
C-reactive protein, Mus musculus (Mouse): P14847
C-reactive protein, Oryctolagus cuniculus (Rabbit): P02742
C-reactive protein, Rattus norvegicus (Rat): P48199
C-reactive protein, Xenopus laevis (African clawed frog): Q07203


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