Snow may chill us through one or more receptors
New skin receptor is the tip of the iceberg.
A snowball in the face or a chilly breeze around the ankles opens a molecular trap door in our skin’s nerve cells, two studies now show1,2. A third suggests that this, the first cold sensor to be identified, is just the tip of the iceberg3.
How sensory neurons detect a drop in temperature is very hard to study because it affects so many cell processes.
A single sensor doesn’t explain everything. Félix Viana, a physiologist at Miguel Herná¡ndez University in Alicante, Spain, and colleagues have found that cold-sensitive nerves have a unique number of the ordinary potassium ion channels that are common to all nerves. "This specialized blend of ion channels makes them sensitive to cooling," he says.
The Spanish group looked for a specific receptor but didn’t find one, says Viana. But "just because you don’t find something it doesn’t mean it’s not there," he admits.
The three studies present new and different explanations for how we detect cold. Physiologist Arthur Craig at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, wonders whether a lone cold sensor would be diverse enough to explain the range of temperatures that our skin is sensitive to. Viana’s model accounts for this, he points out.
Like any well-engineered system, the body’s temperature-sensing network almost certainly has back-up mechanisms. Says Craig: "Biology is based on redundancy" - the teams are probably just working on different parts of the problem. "We can be sure that the biology is more complex than either study," he adds.
TOM CLARKE | © Nature News Service
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