Bacteria gauge cold with molecular measuring stick

Oct 19, 2010

Some bacteria react to the cold by subtly changing the chemistry of their outer wall so that it remains pliable as temperatures drop. Scientists identified a key protein in this response mechanism a few years ago, but the question of how bacteria sense cold in the first place remained a mystery. Based on a study by scientists at Rice University and Argentina's National University of Rosario, the answer is: They use a measuring stick.

The study, published in the September issue of , involved a series of intricate experiments on the . The researchers found a specialized protein that protrudes through the bacteria's outer cell wall acts as a measuring stick that's tuned to give a signal when temperatures outside the cell drop.

Scientists have long known that cells use specialized proteins called "transmembrane" proteins to sense and react to the outside world. Transmembrane proteins protrude through the cell's outer wall, or membrane.

"All living cells have the ability to respond to external stimuli, but in most cases that we are aware of, signal recognition -- the event that triggers the response -- occurs when a transmembrane protein binds physically to another chemical outside the cell," said study co-author Ariel Fernandez, research professor at Rice.

Fernandez said the Bacillus subtilis study is one of the first to determine how a transmembrane protein can respond indirectly to a physical stimulus outside the cell. The research was highlighted in review articles in both Current Biology and Nature Reviews .

He and colleagues examined a transmembrane protein called DesK (pronounced des-KAY). In previous studies, scientists had found that DesK responded to cold temperatures by causing the cell to make a special compound that keeps the membrane pliable. Without the compound, the inside the cell wall become more rigid as temperatures fall.

Fernandez and colleagues found that the part of the DesK that protrudes outside the cell contains a sensitized tip. As long as the tip remains in contact with water molecules outside the cell, DesK remains switched off. As temperatures fall and the cell membrane becomes more rigid, the membrane also becomes thicker. As it thickens, it engulfs the sensitized end of the temperature probe, cutting off contact with water molecules outside the cell. This, in turn, activates DesK and sends the signal to release the cold-protecting chemicals. This mechanism, which Fernandez named the buried buoy trigger, was proposed by Fernandez and probed experimentally by the Argentinean team.

The molecular biology and experimental probes were conducted in the laboratory of Diego de Mendoza at the National University of Rosario in Rosario, Argentina. To confirm the findings, the group constructed versions of DesK proteins of varying lengths. Using these as longer or shorter measuring sticks, the researchers confirmed that the signaling mechanism was triggered based upon whether the tip of the transmembrane sensor remained in contact with outside the membrane.

Explore further: Researchers study vital 'on/off switches' that control when bacteria turn deadly

Related Stories

Biologists search for 'half-fusion'

May 16, 2005

Every living cell is surrounded by a membrane, a thin barrier that separates the genetic machinery of life from the non-living world outside. Though barriers, membranes are not impervious. Cells use a complex hierarchy of ...

'Wrapping' Gleevec fights drug-resistant cancer

May 01, 2007

A new study highlighted on the cover of this week's issue of Cancer Research finds that the anti-cancer drug Gleevec® is far more effective against a drug-resistant strain of cancer when the drug wraps the target with a ...

Recommended for you

A new quality control pathway in the cell

7 hours ago

Proteins are important building blocks in our cells and each cell contains millions of different protein molecules. They are involved in everything from structural to regulatory aspects in the cell. Proteins are constructed ...

Stem cells use 'first aid kits' to repair damage

10 hours ago

Stem cells hold great promise as a means of repairing cells in conditions such as multiple sclerosis, stroke or injuries of the spinal cord because they have the ability to develop into almost any cell type. ...

User comments : 0