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on the garden pea - April 2014
The life sciences owe a lot to green peas. And perhaps even to the bishop of St Thomas Abbey in Brno – now the Czech Republic. It was there, in the 1850s, that Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884) decided to undertake studies on heredity using mice. The bishop, however, disagreed with research involving animal sex, so his friar turned to the more innocent garden pea. Mendel spent the best part of a decade cross-breeding peas, while considering seven different phenotypic traits that seemed – to him – to be inherited independently: stem length, pod shape, pod colour, seed shape, flower colour, flower location and plant height. Little did he know that the results he so painstakingly jotted down, and which were published in 1866, would bring about a small revolution in the world of biology – although only in the first quarter of the 20th century. And now, 150 years on, science has not only acquired a far finer knowledge in the field of molecular biology but it also has the technology to take a closer look at the genes – and their mutations – that Mendel used to lay down the basis of heredity and its mechanisms. Despite this, however, the products of only four genes have been characterised to date: two enzymes (SBE1 and gibberellin 3beta-hydroxylase), an Myb transcription factor and a biochemical regulator (protein stay-green). (PDF version - 367K bytes)
UniProt cross references
Basic helix-loop-helix protein A, Pisum sativum (Garden Pea) : E3SXU4
Gibberellin 3-beta-dioxygenase 1, Pisum sativum (Garden Pea) : O24648
Starch branching enzyme I, Pisum sativum (Garden Pea) : Q41058
Protein STAY-GREEN, Bacteroides plebeius : A7VLV1
a gut's tale - March 2014
Many of our cells are not…us… Besides the cells we produce, we carry around an awful lot of bacteria. In reality, 90 percent of the cells that make us up are bacterial, that is to say about one billion billion. That’s a lot. A large proportion of these bacteria are part of our gut, add an average of 2 kg to our adult weight and form what has been termed our gut microbiome. Why have they set up camp inside us? Because we need them… And vice versa. The human gut hosts bacteria that are able to break down all sorts of molecules we cannot. In exchange, we offer them an environment to thrive in. This mutual parasitism has evolved over time, and is a consequence of the various surroundings humans have lived in, especially the kinds of food we have eaten, and eat. Recently, scientists discovered that a group of Japanese were able to digest polysaccharides westerners are unable to. It turned out that this was most probably the result of the long Japanese tradition of eating ‘nori’, an edible seaweed species of the red algae, and is due to specific seaweed carbohydrate active enzymes which have become an integral part of their digestive system. (PDF version - 50K bytes)
UniProt cross references
Beta-porphyranase B, Bacteroides plebeius : B5CY92
Beta-porphyranase A, Bacteroides plebeius : B5CY96
Beta-agarase, Bacteroides plebeius : B5CY73
a pain soothed - January 2014
Pain is part of an animal’s life. It is there to tell us that something is wrong, and needs to be attended to. There is moral pain. And physical pain, the more definable of the two, which serves two purposes. The first, to warn us of tissue damage and, more often than not, its localisation. The second, to understand where danger lies, so as to avoid it in the future. Unless, of course, it has been lethal. Ever since Life emerged, Nature has been using pain as a means of communication. Though perhaps violent, it is usually very conclusive, which is why many animals have developed toxins they inject into potential predators to ward them off. Among these toxins are the well-known venom cocktails snakes, scorpions and spiders are able to conjure up. In answer to this, a few animals have developed mechanisms to ease the pain – or even suppress it altogether. This is the case of one species of mouse – the Southern grasshopper mouse from the Texan desert – who feels next to no pain when stung by the bark scorpion. As a consequence, the mouse is able to ignore the sting and eat the scorpion. Recent studies have demonstrated that this extraordinary ability is due to changes in the structure of a given type of pore: sodium channel protein type 10 subunit alpha, or Nav1.8. (PDF version - 326K bytes)
UniProt cross references
Sodium channel protein type 10 subunit alpha, Onychomys torridus (Southern grasshopper mouse) : P0DMA5
something a little different... - December 2013
I have been writing up articles for Protein Spotlight for the past 13 years, doing my best to inject both a human touch and a little bit of art into each one. Earlier this month, I received for the very first time, something with just this mixture from a scientist who had been inspired by one of my recent articles – On Sex, Drugs and Satisfaction – all about neuropeptide F, the lack of sex and Drosophila melanogaster who is prone to turn to the benefits of alcohol if the act of mating has been denied him... (PDF version - [an error occurred while processing this directive] bytes)
an unexpected turn of events - December 2013
Life depends on exchange. To this end, and on the cellular level, molecules are continuously secreted for the purposes of signalling, strengthening, transporting, protecting… Sometimes, the primary role of a molecule can bring about an unforeseen consequence which – if positive – is gladly preserved for the benefit of the species. This seems to be the case for a particular form of a polysaccharide known as hyaluronan: high molecular mass hyaluronan, or HMM-HA. The polymer is secreted in large quantities in a rather peculiar animal – the naked mole rat, or Heterocephalus glaber – and is thought to be responsible, at least in part, for the animal’s exceptionally long life span, because of the total absence of any form of cancer. Consequently, understanding how HMM-HA achieves this – and particularly the enzyme which synthesizes it, hyaluronan synthase 2 – could pave the way to therapies able to fight off the formation of malignant tumours. (PDF version - 348K bytes)
UniProt cross references
Hyaluronan synthase 2, Heterocephalus glaber (Naked mole rat) : G5AY81
Hyaluronan synthase 2, Mus musculus, (Mouse) : P70312


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