On versatility

by Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen

Diversity is one of Nature's fortes. See how she has spread life and let it flow into Earth's every nook and cranny: oceans and seas, rivers and lakes, woodland, forests and jungles, mountains, valleys, deserts, marshland and glaciers, and even stifled cities where weeds push their way through bricks - and flies, rats and pigeons feed on our waste. Though humans seem set on diminishing diversity, there is still a great variety of living organisms on most of the planet's surfaces. It continues on a smaller scale too. Consider a cell and the myriads of different molecules inside it all working together in relative harmony, to keep the cell alive and healthy. It may seem a paradox but the principle of economy is one of diversity's driving forces, and the world of proteins illustrates this beautifully. Imagine a basic sequence, a template if you like, then add a methyl group here or remove a phosphate group there, and you have a protein that behaves in two different ways. This is the realm of post-translational modifications, or PTMs. In cells, special enzymes - of which there are many - have the task of adding or removing molecules onto or from proteins to this end. One of these is SET domain protein 3, or SETD3 which shifts the behaviour of a certain kind of actin.

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