For example, a neuron’s identity is triggered by a genetic switch during cell development. But how does this switch actually stay on?
It was already known from previous research that this specific switch could be turned on and off in bacteria. But what about our cells? Of course, you don’t want a neuron to suddenly stop working, for example. To learn more about this, the researchers looked at the neuron responsible for tasting salt in the C. elegans worm.
Well, genetic switching turns on one very important protein. They figured that if they removed this protein long enough, the switch might actually go off. The cell is no longer functioning and the worms are no longer able to taste salt. Even in real life, the cell sometimes suffers from a lack of protein. The amounts of different proteins in cells change regularly. How can this switch in the body’s cells continue to function?
They also found out. The switch protein performs many tasks in the cell: it ensures its continuous production and controls a large number of other proteins in the cell. The minute it’s too little switch protein, it’s limited to one task: keep making itself. The rest of the factory will be closed. The cell can’t do its job for a while, but once there’s enough of everything again, the plant can resume normal operation.
The researchers also want to know if they also work the same way in our cells, and if a similar mechanism can be seen there, this raises all kinds of interesting new questions. For example, what happens if this mechanism malfunctions: what happens to a cell that suddenly no longer has a function?
In this audio you can hear AMOLF researcher Jeroen van Zon. Read more about the research here: C. elegans does not accidentally close its nose for salt. The paper can be found here: Mechanism of lifelong preservation of neuronal identity despite molecular fluctuations.
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