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Scientists find out why living things are the size they are -- and none other

New research in the FASEB Journal suggests that 'growth genes' are not driven by age, but by the process of growth itself, opening doors for organ regeneration as well as new treatments for abnormal body growth and cancer

If you consider yourself to be too short or too tall, things are looking up, or down, depending on your vertical disposition. New research published online in The FASEB Journal ( explains how we grow, how our bodies maintain correct proportions, and offers insight into what goes wrong with growth disorders and unregulated cell growth in cancer.

"We hope that these insights into the mechanisms controlling body growth will help us understand better the reasons for the excessive growth of cancer cells and also provide new approaches to turn growth back on in normal cells in order to regenerate damaged organs," said Julian C. Lui, Ph.D., a researcher involved in the work from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Scientists studied which genes were active in young animals (growing rapidly) and compared them to the same genes in older animals (growing slowly). Then they identified which genes were "turned off" simultaneously in multiple organs with age. To understand the consequences of these genes being turned off, the researchers experimentally turned them off in cultured cells and observed the effects. They found that rapid growth in early life is a response to the activation of multiple genes that stimulate growth. These same genes are progressively turned off during the maturation process, causing growth to slow. This process occurs simultaneously in multiple organs, which explains why organs all stay in proportional size as the body grows. This process is not controlled by age. Instead, genes are turned off when organs achieve a certain level of growth.

"This important work answers the question of why any animal– including us – has a certain size," said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal, "As this study shows, growth is dictated by organ development, and no one wishes their organs to be abnormally large or small."

Receive monthly highlights from The FASEB Journal by e-mail. Sign up at The FASEB Journal ( is published by the Federation of the American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). The journal has been recognized by the Special Libraries Association as one of the top 100 most influential biomedical journals of the past century and is the most cited biology journal worldwide according to the Institute for Scientific Information.

FASEB comprises 23 societies with more than 90,000 members, making it the largest coalition of biomedical research associations in the United States. FASEB enhances the ability of scientists and engineers to improve—through their research—the health, well-being and productivity of all people. FASEB's mission is to advance health and welfare by promoting progress and education in biological and biomedical sciences through service to our member societies and collaborative advocacy.

Details: Julian C. Lui, Patricia Forcinito, Maria Chang, Weiping Chen, Kevin M. Barnes, and Jeffrey Baron. Coordinated postnatal down-regulation of multiple growth-promoting genes: evidence for a genetic program limiting organ growth. FASEB J. doi:10.1096/fj.09-152835 ;

Cody Mooneyhan | EurekAlert!
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