Recent research has shown that humans share many age-related disorders with small animals such as mice, flies and worms, and even with baker’s yeast and bacteria. One common denominator is that ageing cells gradually accumulate waste in the form of damaged proteins, which clump together to form large aggregates. These aggregates are toxic and cause a number of illnesses which, in humans, affect nerve cells (in the brain) and the muscles. Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease are just a few of the age-related illnesses that are linked to toxic protein aggregates.
Daughter cells dump toxic waste during cell division
Thomas Nyström is a professor of microbiology at the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Cell- and Molecular Biology. A number of years ago his research team discovered that yeast cells have an amazing ability to recognise protein aggregates and sort them into just one cell during cell division. A single cell, the mother cell, gathers up all the damaging waste, ages and ultimately dies after repeated cell divisions. The other cell, the daughter cell, is born without any waste and is, in principle, immortal. Furthermore, the daughter cell can send aggregates back to the mother cell during the cell-division process – the daughter quite simply uses the mother as a rubbish bin!
Watch a daughter cell dumping damaged cells into the mother cell at:
The distinction between an aging and an immortal cell line in yeast can be compared to the distinction between humans’ aging body cells (somatic cells) and immortal germ cells. The first gene shown to control this distinction in yeast, SIR2, is a gene that regulates the speed of aging in yeast, worms and flies.
The grant from the European Research Council will be used to study the mechanics of the sorting and transportation of toxic aggregates at the molecular level. Nyström is attempting to identify and characterise all of the genes involved in sorting the aggregates, and to investigate how they communicate with each other.
ERC – research grants for the most creative
The European Research Council (ERC) was set up to support frontier research in the EU.
Its main aim is to support and encourage the very best, truly creative scientists to be a little bit more adventurous and take risks in their research. Scientists are encouraged, quite simply, to go beyond the established frontiers of knowledge.
The ERC offers two types of research grant under the European Union’s Seventh Research Framework Programme – “ERC starting grants” for leading researchers at the beginning of their career, and “ERC advanced grants” for researchers who have already established their own research groups. It is this second type of grant that has been awarded to Thomas Nyström.