'Snakes' seen in human cells

Oct 03, 2011 By Jonathan Wood

(PhysOrg.com) -- Curious snake-like forms have been spotted in cells from many different species across the evolutionary tree. Now Oxford scientists have shown they exist in human cells as well.

This apparent ubiquity across species from bacteria to suggests the structures perform a crucial function in the cell. But how and why they form, and what role they play in the cell remain anyone’s guess.

Three groups reported observations of the snakes in cells from a whole range of different species at around the same time in 2010, including Dr. Ji-Long Liu’s group at the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics in Oxford.

Ji-Long and colleagues named the structures ‘cytoophidia’ because of how they looked under the microscope: cytoophidium is ‘cell snake’ in Greek.

"Cytoophidia have heads and tails and can move around. They really do look like snakes," explains Ji-Long Liu.

"I reported the finding in early in the summer of 2010,’ he says. "Two months later, two papers – one from Zemer Gitai’s group in Princeton and the other from James Wilhelm’s group at the University of California, San Diego – reported similar snake-like structures in , brewer’s yeast, flies and rats."

Ji-Long’s group has now reported the first observation of these cellular structures in in the Journal of Genetics and Genomics.

"Amazingly, these snakes occur across the tree of life, from bugs to humans," he says. "Cytoophidia are found inside cells, and sometimes they stay near the surface of cells. It looks like the number of snakes in a cell is tightly controlled."

But what are they? Having initially observed the snakes in cells from fruit flies, Ji-Long got curious and decided to follow up the chance observation. He took advantage of a collection of fruit flies at the Carnegie Institution Department of Embryology [CIDE], where he worked before moving to Oxford.

In this collection, individual proteins in the fruit flies had been labelled with a fluorescent green marker, allowing Ji-Long to identify the cell snakes as containing the enzyme CTP synthase.

CTP synthase is a crucial but not necessarily glamorous enzyme, one of many such enzymes involved in necessary biological processes that keep our cells ticking over. In this case, the enzyme plays a role in making the molecule CTP, a building block that helps make up DNA and RNA. The CTP molecule also crops up in fat metabolism.

If the generation of CTP goes wrong, it could cause a lot of damage to the cell," Ji-Long says.

It is possible to speculate about why an enzyme would form these long filament structures in cells. For a start, cells are a long way from just being bags of biological molecules and enzymes that float around freely, magically carrying out their many functions, reactions and chains of metabolic processes.

The cell needs an organized structure to bring this industry of biochemical reactions under control, with many processes cordoned off in separate chambers, capsules and compartments. It allows related reactions to be better controlled and regulated, with the right concentrations of the different molecules brought together in the right environment. After all, you don’t just bung all the ingredients into a chemical engineering plant, a brewery or a baking tin imagining that the recipe will be fine.

"The beauty of a well-organized cell has not been appreciated by everyone. Without the structure, a bag of the same amounts of all the molecules would not do the same thing as a living cell," explains Ji-Long. "Compartmentation could be a general feature for many enzymes in a cell," he believes.

He notes that six enzymes that produce a set of biomolecular building blocks called purines are known to cluster in a specific compartment, and studies have shown that many proteins are found localized in just one part of a cell. "It seems to us that the filaments are necessary for the CTP synthase enzyme activity," he says. "We are trying to understand the relationship between filament-forming and the overall function of the enzyme in a cell – but we have no clear answer yet."

His research group has found some drugs that affect the assembly of the CTP synthase enzyme into snakes, making the filaments appear in human and fruit fly cells. This approach could give a new handle to study the snakes’ function in the cell.

Another interesting question is why the enzyme forms a snake-like filament or rings rather than spheres or just irregular capsules. These shapes have different surface-to-volume ratios, which might give some clues as to the difference this makes to the activity of the enzyme.

"It would be fascinating to know more about what the role of the cytoophidium plays in regulating the production of CTP," says Ji-Long. He notes that the CTP synthase enzyme is found in larger amounts in many types of cancer cells, and that his group has shown that some potential anti-cancer drugs can promote the formation of cytoophidia. But that’s still a long way from showing that this is important clinically or that there might be medical applications in understanding more about these cell snakes.

At the moment the existence of these snakes is an interesting observation that opens up intriguing new research questions, but what role the play in our is unknown. Ji-Long also suggests that it’s ‘very likely’ there are other enzymes packaged up in structures in the cell that we don’t know about yet. "Time will tell," he says.

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User comments : 14

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Husky
not rated yet Oct 03, 2011
assembly lines
_nigmatic10
1 / 5 (2) Oct 03, 2011
Aliens are here, in your cells, eating your brain. (kidding)
Isaacsname
5 / 5 (2) Oct 03, 2011
How long till the morgellons crowd has a freakout ?
Nanobanano
1.4 / 5 (14) Oct 03, 2011
Without the structure, a bag of the same amounts of all the molecules would not do the same thing as a living cell," explains Ji-Long. "Compartmentation could be a general feature for many enzymes in a cell...


Wait, I thought abiogenesis supposedly happened in bubbles in porous rock as random collections of chemicals "somehow" self organized.

Now we have a biologist tell us point blank that would never work...
Isaacsname
5 / 5 (2) Oct 03, 2011
These are the long awaited Midi-chlorians heralding a new era for all life.

*reaches for light-saber*
ettinone
5 / 5 (1) Oct 03, 2011
Before they identified them as snakes they had to adjust the microscope to the right scale...

P.S. This is a pun, i.e. a play on words. Before giving me a 1 on the ratings scale (oops there it is again!) please understand that this is humor not a poorly written comment.
Jonseer
1 / 5 (2) Oct 03, 2011
The question remaining is have they checked actual snakes to see if they have the snake structure in their cells as well. ;)
Twin
1 / 5 (2) Oct 03, 2011
OMG!! don't tell my wife about this! (poorly written humor).
PinkElephant
5 / 5 (4) Oct 03, 2011
Now we have a biologist tell us point blank that would never work...
Where is it exactly that he told us that? I did notice him say this:
It allows related reactions to be better controlled and regulated, with the right concentrations of the different molecules brought together in the right environment.
In other words, compartmentalization would be a feature of advanced organisms. Optimality is not required for abiogenesis: any mutually-catalyzing collection of macromolecules, no matter how inefficient initially, would do. The development of membranes and compartmentalization can happen later, as the system goes on to evolve.
Pirouette
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 04, 2011
Well, who knows? Each cell could be a "clean room" in which these so-called "snakes" are little workers who are busily turning switches on and off, reading gauges and dials and adjusting flows, output and intakes to keep the cell factory humming along. They might be paid by the hour and are required to join a union. It brings to mind, strangely, that old silent film of Charlie Chaplin getting caught in the cogs and being carried round and around. :))
Shootist
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 04, 2011
Without the structure, a bag of the same amounts of all the molecules would not do the same thing as a living cell," explains Ji-Long. "Compartmentation could be a general feature for many enzymes in a cell...


Wait, I thought abiogenesis supposedly happened in bubbles in porous rock as random collections of chemicals "somehow" self organized.

Now we have a biologist tell us point blank that would never work...


It happened. Whether it happened as you describe is unknown. But life appeared and nobody waved a magic wand, the Mighty Zoosh did not breath life into the mud.
Nanobanano
1.3 / 5 (8) Oct 04, 2011
It happened. Whether it happened as you describe is unknown. But life appeared and nobody waved a magic wand, the Mighty Zoosh did not breath life into the mud.


Your EXPERT biologist just admitted that would never work...

http://www.google...?q=snake mound&hl=en&sa=X&rlz=1R2ADSA_enUS399&biw=1067&bih=479&tbm=isch&prmd=imvns&tbnid=XdWugEmResvBDM:&imgrefurl=http://www.ohiohistory.org/serpentmound&docid=vHRTJbKt9HeoiM&w=204&h=235&ei=rgCLTt79Dq_isQKm4InDBA&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=303&vpy=172&dur=1622&hovh=188&hovw=163&tx=92&ty=172&page=1&tbnh=118&tbnw=102&start=0&ndsp=10&ved=1t:429,r:1,s:0

Did the American Natives know about this? Hmmmm...
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (3) Oct 09, 2011
Within Gerald Pollack's gel cell framework, the cell membrane serves limited purpose because the cell exhibits the characteristics of a gel. Pumps and channels in biology are akin to astrophysicists' dark matter and dark energy: they are the glue which holds the theory together. Pumps and channels were created to explain observations like ion gradients within aqueous solution. But, cells behave as gels. And gels can do ion gradients without pumps.

Astrophysicists do a similar thing all the time with their observations of space: They admit that what we see is 99 % matter in the plasma state, but they nevertheless infer the behavior of gases.

What you get when this happens is all sorts of little mysteries. My guess is that the mystery of the snake disappears within Gerald Pollack's gel cell framework.
hush1
1 / 5 (3) Oct 11, 2011
http://www.genego...;show=20

260 pages. 25 pathways per page. Have this memorized by tomorrow so we can make useful contributions to this commentary thread.

The day after tomorrow all textbooks and material will be turn in:
http://www.physor...ogy.html
Superseded.

And the expression:
'speed of light'
is no longer fashionable.
We now say:
'speed of night'
...combo of [n]eutrinos and l[ight]
Publish, perish or adapt.
Evolutionize yourselves.
Enotebooks only - no more books -
save a tree, change climate, shoot a denialist.

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