Shocking news spread in August this year. Al Quaida, a terror organization, was reported to be producing bombs containing the poison ricin to attack shopping centers, airports, or train stations. Since the First World War, ricin has had a gruesome reputation as a bioweapon. It is one of the deadliest plant based poisons in the world. Even a tiny amount can kill a person within two to three days after getting into the bloodstream. And it comes from the humble castor oil bean, available in many health food shops or online.
How the poison works
Castor oil is a powerful laxative, used medicinally for centuries, but the raw beans also contain small amounts of the poison ricin. So far no antidote is available. But now Ulrich Elling, a scientist on the research team led by Prof Josef Penninger at the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, has identified a protein molecule called Gpr107. This protein in the targeted cells is essential for the deadly effect of ricin. In other words, cells which lack Gpr107 are immune to the poison.
Ulrich Elling is optimistic, saying "Our research suggests that a specific antidote could now be developed by making a small molecule to block the Gpr107 protein."
New technology allows screening of the entire mammal genome
The researchers at IMBA were able to find in just a few weeks what others have been trying to find for decades. Their rapid success was made possible by a pioneering new method of genetic research developed largely by Ulrich Elling and Josef Penninger. With this new method, an entire mammal genome can be screened for mutations within a reasonable time frame.
Until now, screening methods for mice, rats and other mammals have focused on finding one single mutation. This was done using a technique called RNA interference or by breeding a suitable ‘knock-out mouse’ to study the effect of removing a single gene. But RNA interference doesn't always work, and breeding a knock-out mouse takes years and considerable effort.
That's why Josef Penninger sees this powerful technology as a revolution in biomedicine. "We've now succeeded in combining the genetics of yeast, which has a single chromosome set that allows instant gene mutation, with stem cell biology”, he says. “For decades researchers have been looking for a system in mammals which would allow scientists to reconstruct millions of gene mutations simultaneously. We have solved the puzzle and even broke a paradigm in biology – we managed to make stable mouse stem cells with a single set of chromosomes and developed novel tools to use such stem cells to rapidly check virtually all genes at the same time for a specific function.”
This new technology helped Ulrich Elling in unraveling the toxic effect of ricin. He tested the poison in thousands of different mutations of mouse stem cells, and discovered that 49 different genetic mutations were present in one single protein, Gpr107. Obviously, a mutation in this protein saved the cells.
Combination with stem cell research reveals broad range of applications
The incredible potential in this discovery becomes even clearer in the light of stem cells' ability to transform into any cell in the human body. Josef Penninger is excited. "The possible uses of this discovery are endless. They range from fundamental issues, like which genes are necessary for the proper function of a heart muscle cell, to concrete applications as we have done in the case of ricin toxicity."
Penninger's team is already working on its next projects, including studies on how tumor cells acquire resistance to chemotherapy, a key issue in the development of cancer, and how nerve cells can regenerate, to offer hope in cases of paraplegia.
Notes to news editors:
The scientific study "Forward and Reverse Genetics through Derivation of Haploid Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells" appears in Cell Stem Cell on Friday 2 December 2011.
The study was conducted by an international consortium from Austria, Canada, Germany and the USA under the leadership of IMBA. Special thanks go to William Stanford from the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Harald von Melchner and Frank Schnütgen from the University of Cologne, Joseph Ecker from San Diego, and Johannes Zuber and Alex Stark from the IMP in Vienna.
The Institute for Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA) is a research institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften).
Screening: Systematic examination for defined criteria.
RNA interference: A mechanism in cells through which genes can be switched off.
Knock-out mouse: A mouse in which one or more genes have been deactivated. This genetic alteration is often apparent in the mouse's behavior or appearance. These mice are helpful as models for studying human diseases.
Contact and interview requests:Evelyn Devuyst, Communications IMBA - Institute of Molecular Biotechnology
Evelyn Devuyst | idw
The Secret of the Rock Drawings
24.05.2019 | Max-Planck-Institut für Chemie
Chemical juggling with three particles
24.05.2019 | Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
A new assessment of NASA's record of global temperatures revealed that the agency's estimate of Earth's long-term temperature rise in recent decades is accurate to within less than a tenth of a degree Fahrenheit, providing confidence that past and future research is correctly capturing rising surface temperatures.
The most complete assessment ever of statistical uncertainty within the GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP) data product shows that the annual values...
Physicists at the University of Basel are able to show for the first time how a single electron looks in an artificial atom. A newly developed method enables them to show the probability of an electron being present in a space. This allows improved control of electron spins, which could serve as the smallest information unit in a future quantum computer. The experiments were published in Physical Review Letters and the related theory in Physical Review B.
The spin of an electron is a promising candidate for use as the smallest information unit (qubit) of a quantum computer. Controlling and switching this spin or...
Engineers at the University of Tokyo continually pioneer new ways to improve battery technology. Professor Atsuo Yamada and his team recently developed a...
With a quantum coprocessor in the cloud, physicists from Innsbruck, Austria, open the door to the simulation of previously unsolvable problems in chemistry, materials research or high-energy physics. The research groups led by Rainer Blatt and Peter Zoller report in the journal Nature how they simulated particle physics phenomena on 20 quantum bits and how the quantum simulator self-verified the result for the first time.
Many scientists are currently working on investigating how quantum advantage can be exploited on hardware already available today. Three years ago, physicists...
'Quantum technologies' utilise the unique phenomena of quantum superposition and entanglement to encode and process information, with potentially profound benefits to a wide range of information technologies from communications to sensing and computing.
However a major challenge in developing these technologies is that the quantum phenomena are very fragile, and only a handful of physical systems have been...
29.04.2019 | Event News
17.04.2019 | Event News
15.04.2019 | Event News
24.05.2019 | Physics and Astronomy
24.05.2019 | Medical Engineering
24.05.2019 | Life Sciences