Researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg have discovered a molecular “switch” that guides the development of the eye in a fish called medaka. The interaction of two proteins determines whether cells divide or specialize at a key moment as the eye forms. Researchers are keenly interested in such switches because the decision to replicate or differentiate is crucial to many processes, from the proper growth of embryos to the development of cancer. The story appears in this week’s edition of Nature (February 19, 2004).
“The discovery of this novel protein-protein connection is a major step forward in understanding a basic biological process such as the tight control and delicate balance between cell proliferation and cell differentiation,” notes PhD student Filippo Del Bene.
At any one time, the body’s cells choose between one of two paths: either divide to produce exact copies of themselves (called “proliferation”) or to take on very specialized shapes and functions such as liver, brain or retinal cells (called “differentiation”). Building a fish – or a human – involves perfect timing in switching back and forth between the two processes. If cells specialize too early, organs won’t grow. If tissue continues to divide after it has specialized, tumors may form.
Trista Dawson | alfa
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