Scientists at the University of St Andrews studying a microbe that grows in hot sulphuric acid have made a startling discovery relevant to human diseases and cancer.
The team, led by Professor Malcolm White at the University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, made the discovery while investigating proteins called helicases that separate strands of the genetic material DNA. Helicases are vital for the replication and repair of DNA, and defects in these proteins can lead to increased rates of cancer in humans.
The team has discovered that a family of helicases important for the avoidance of breast and skin cancer incorporate a cluster of iron and sulphur atoms. This “iron- sulphur cluster” is essential for the activity of the helicases, and mutations in humans that prevent the cluster forming are known to lead to severe cases of early- onset cancer.
The St Andrews group focussed on a microbe called Archaea that makes its living in extreme conditions in volcanic pools for their research. These organisms have many similarities to humans in the way they replicate and repair their DNA. Because of their extreme lifestyle, their proteins are very robust and often easier to study that the equivalent human proteins.
Professor White said, “Iron is very important in the body, but no- one had suspected this link with DNA repair. The discovery was only possible because we investigated a simple model organism – it would have been very difficult to study the human proteins. This emphasises the need for basic research as part of our efforts to understand and combat cancer. I’d like to thank the Association for International Cancer Research for funding the study.”
He added, “Credit must also go to the student who made the discovery, Ms Jana Rudolf. She has now been funded by the charity Cancer Research UK to continue her studies.”
A scientific paper reporting the team’s findings is published in the journal Molecular Cell today (15 September 2006).
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