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Volcanoes to shed light on DNA?

A novel comparison between the effect of the sun on skin and life in volcanic pools is being made by a University of St Andrews scientist.

Dr Malcolm White from the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences has been awarded half a million pounds to undertake a study into the way DNA repairs itself following damage by UV light. It is hoped that the work will give a clearer insight into cell death and skin cancer.

The research will draw on similarities between humans, who have evolved defences against environmental carcinogens including sunlight, and communities of micro-organisms capable of living in conditions resembling hot battery acid in volcanic areas. Known as “archaea”, the micro-organisms have been shown to have the same basic repair machinery as humans, but in a simpler form. The bugs were originally sampled from volcanic springs throughout the world but can be now be scientifically grown in the laboratory.

Dr White said, “Damage to our DNA, caused for example by UV light when we get sunburned, is a very common event. We have very efficient ways of repairing this damage but, when this fails, the result can be a mutation, leading ultimately to cell death or cancer. By studying the machinery of DNA repair, scientists have made good progress in understanding the molecular basis for DNA damage and repair.

“However, one problem is that the protein machines that repair DNA in humans are very complex so it’s useful to study these processes in simpler and more convenient model organisms. By studying the way these organisms repair their DNA, we hope to discover important information about the same mechanisms in humans.”

The research, which is funded by the Royal Society and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), will focus on a particular model organism known as Sulfolobus solfataricus. Growing in acidic, sulphur-rich pools at 80oC, the organism will provide a model for Dr White to study DNA repair processes and identify repair proteins.

The evidence of the relationship was unveiled during various genome sequencing projects – both of humans and of these micro-organisms – which have revealed some very unexpected findings, including the similarity between the genes responsible for DNA repair.

Dr White added, “These archaea could actually be our very distant ancestors. Indeed, it’s thought that we share these similarities with them because these genes were present in LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor, from which all life on earth evolved”.

More information on Dr White’s research can be found at website – http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~mfw2/index.html.

ENDS

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: malcolm/standrews/chg/23august2000

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