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This page was published on 12/12/2008
Published: 12/12/2008


Published: 12 December 2008  
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Science in society  |  Health & life sciences


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Cell division feels the heat

A new finding has shed light on the mechanism of cell division in a microorganism that thrives in hot acid. As a result, researchers the world over can attain a better understanding of the main evolutionary lineages of life on Earth and vital processes in human cells. The discovery was recently published in the journal of the American National Academy of Sciences, PNAS.

Researchers have discovered a new way in which cells divide © Shutterstock
Researchers have discovered a new way in which cells divide
© Shutterstock

Molecular evolution emerged in the 1960s, the brainchild of a group of researchers determined to further understand the structure and function of nucleic acids and protein. Modern advances in genomics have since led to a dramatic increase of interest in this topic. More recently, researchers from the Department of Molecular Evolution at the Evolutionary Biology Center (EBC) at Uppsala University in Sweden have successfully identified a new cell division machinery.

Every day millions upon millions of cells in the human body die, but they are constantly being replaced as cells divide and multiply. This process of cell division is crucial to the survival of any species but it happens on such a regular basis that it is easy to take it for granted. For scientists, however, this process of cell division is still as fascinating as ever. They have noticed, for example, that any mistakes that occur during this process may cause disease. This is why research and the discovery made at Uppsala University are so important.

This discovery was made in the Archaea microorganism, Sulfolobus acidocaldarius. Typical of many other Archaea microorganisms, Sulfolobus acidocaldarius is an 'extremophile' that was initially discovered in a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, US. The term extremophile refers to the fact that these microorganisms are usually found and thrive under conditions of either extreme heat, acidity, salinity or pressure. Case in point, Sulfolobus acidocaldarius thrives in acid at a temperature of 80 degrees Celsius.

Due to this unique ability, Sulfolobus acidocaldarius are of extreme interest to researchers, allowing scientists to unlock a number of mysteries. The microorganisms are also used as 'cell factories', designed for large-scale cell culture and production of biomaterial. In many cases, they have replaced chemical and synthetic production.

For Uppsala University’s Professor Rolf Bernander , 'They represent exciting model systems in theories for how life once may have originated in hot environments on early Earth, as well as in the search for life in extreme environments on other planets.'

The team of researchers from Uppsala, which included Ann-Christin Lindås, Erik Karlsson, Maria Lindgren and Thijs Ettema, were able to identify three genes that are 'activated' just before cell division occurs. These genes produced a protein triggering the formation of a band across the middle of the cell between newly segregated chromosomes. This band gradually continued to constrict until two new 'daughter' cells were formed.

According to Professor Bernander, what they witnessed is a world first. 'This is the first time in decades that a novel cell division mechanism has been discovered, and the gene products display no similarity to previously known division protein,' he remarked.

These findings have far-reaching implications, as they not only increase our understanding of the cell biology of Archaea and extremophiles, but also our understanding of key cellular processes in human and other higher organisms.

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Uppsala University research
Journal of the American National Academy of Sciences, PNAS

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