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Meet the relatives: microbes mirror mankind

A University of St Andrews scientist has discovered that tiny organisms (“archaea”) growing in extreme environments including volcanic pools and polar ice have unexpected similarities to humans, shedding new light on the workings of the human body.

The outcome of the research, carried out by a team led by Dr Malcolm White of the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, St Andrews in conjunction with Dr Stephen D Bell at the Medical Research Council Cancer Cell Unit, Cambridge, is reported in the international journal SCIENCE (5 April 2002).

The study follows close examination of the organism Sulfolobus solfataricus which is found in volcanic pools around the world and can be grown in the laboratory in hot acid. The work has resulted in the surprise discovery of a protein, which the team have named “Alba”, which is similar to a human protein of unknown function. Alba seems to have a role in packaging the genetic material, DNA. More importantly, they have defined an interaction with the “Sir2” protein, also found in humans.

Dr White explained, “Sir2 is an exciting protein. What it actually does in humans is still to be determined but increasing the levels of this protein in yeast and worms results in an extension of lifespan. It seems to control the ability of the cell to read the genetic code and produce proteins. By defining this interaction in archaea, it gives us a new lead into what is happening in humans. Because the archaea are so simple they are much easier to study, so that’s really our reason for working with them. They only have 3000 genes whereas we have well over 30000 genes. The other main point is that this work changes the way we think about these so-called “primitive” forms of life – they may be more sophisticated than we had thought and, therefore, more similar to man. The discovery of Alba suggests that the control of gene expression at this level is a much more ancient process than we thought and the fact that it may be conserved in humans suggests the process may be relevant to fundamental processes in human cells.”

Dr White continued, “This work has only been possible because we can pool our expertise in research centres like the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, where scientists from different disciplines are brought together in world-class laboratories with state-of-the-art equipment. Though based in Cambridge, my colleague Steve Bell is a Scot like myself, so when we were faced with a choice of name for the new protein, ‘Alba’ seemed appropriate.”

Archaea are also being studied by NASA as they represent the type of life most likely to be found elsewhere in the solar system. Ultimately, it is hoped they will improve our understanding of the origin of life and, eventually, reveal whether life is confined to Planet Earth or is distributed more widely.

The research findings coincide with the announcement that Dr White, in conjunction with Professor Garry Taylor in the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, has been awarded £170,000 by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to determine the structure of the Alba protein, find out how it packages DNA and investigate the way it is controlled.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS – Range of emailable pics of boiling volcanic pools, typical conditions for growth of archea, available from Claire Grainger – contact details below. Dr White also available for interview – 01334 463432 – or via Claire Grainger.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email cg24@st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: archaea/standrews/chg/4april2002

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