Researchers at the Forsyth Institute have discovered a new mechanism responsible for early left/right patterning, the process by which organs locate themselves on the left or right side of the body. The discovery of this novel mechanism, garnered through the study of three different vertebrates (frogs, chickens and zebrafish), marks the first time that a single common mechanism has been identified in left-right patterning in three distinct species. Such a discovery may have far-reaching implications for the understanding of craniofacial development, right-left hand preference, right/left brain dominance and a variety of birth defects in humans.
A team of Forsyth Institute scientists, led by Michael Levin, PhD, Director of the Forsyth Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology, examined the molecular and genetic factors that control left/right asymmetry and identified a novel component: an ion transporter that creates strong natural voltage gradients and pH changes. The pump that normally acidifies subcellular compartments was shown to control embryonic laterality at very early stages. Their findings further challenged the previously held hypothesis that cilia (short hair-like structures on a cell) were the primary agents allowing an embryo to correctly position its internal organs along the left-right axis. Instead, their research showed a single asymmetry mechanism linking ciliary, serotonergic (serotonin is the chemical substance involved in transmitting signals between neurons), and ion flow mechanisms. The data was strengthened by the operation of this mechanism through all three vertebrates. This is important because prior data was very fragmented and different asymmetry-controlling systems appeared to be operating in frog/chick embryos vs. human/mouse/zebrafish embryos.
“In our previous research we showed that this developmental event happens earlier than expected in frogs by identifying an ion transporter that generates natural bioelectrical signals that ultimately control gene expression and the position of the heart and visceral organs,” Levin said. “We have now identified and explored an additional component of this novel mechanism – a protein pump that generates voltage and pH gradients. For the first time, we have a glimpse of how three different vertebrates utilize such ion flows in concert with ciliary movement and the function of pre-nervous neurotransmitters.”
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