Cells use sugars to communicate at the molecular level (Update)

cell
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The human body is made up of 30 to 40 trillion cells, a large and complex network of blood cells, neurons, and specialized cells that make up organs and tissues. Until now, figuring out which mechanisms control communication between them has proven a significant challenge for the field of cell biology.

Research led by Virgil Percec in Penn's Department of Chemistry, in collaboration with the University's departments of cell and developmental biology and biology, and with Temple and Aachen Universities, provides a new tool to study synthetic in incredible detail. Percec and his group demonstrated the value of their method by looking at how a cell's structure dictates its ability to communicate and interact with other cells and proteins. They found that sugar molecules play a key role in cellular communication, serving as the "channels" that cells and proteins use to talk to one another. They published their findings this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Ultimately, this research is about understanding how cell membranes function," says Percec. "People try to understand how human cells function, but it is very difficult to do. Everything in the cell is liquid-like, and that makes it difficult to analyze it by routine methods."

Cell biologists have historically used diffraction to study cells. This involves breaking them apart and taking atomic-level pictures of individual parts, such as proteins. The problem with this approach, however, is that it doesn't allow for study of the cell as a whole. Newer methods like fluorescence microscopy allow researchers to study entire cells, but these tools are complicated and don't provide the high-resolution view that diffraction can.

Using engineered synthetic cells as a , lead author Cesar Rodriguez-Emmenegger, a former member of Percec's group, now at Aachen, discovered a way to directly study cell membranes using a method called atomic force microscopy. This approach generates extremely high-resolution scans that reveal shapes and structures at a scale of less than a nanometer, nearly 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Percec's group then built a model that computes how the structural images relate to the cell's function.

The study is the first example of a diffraction-like method that can be done on whole synthetic cells. Using this new method, Percec's group discovered that a lower concentration of sugars on a 's surface led to increased reactivity with proteins on the membranes of other cells.

One of Percec's goals is to figure out how to control cell-to-cell communication and cell function, which is linked with his group's ongoing work in creating hybrid cells made up of parts of human and bacterial cells. While his group has been studying cell membrane mimics and engineered systems since 2010, the discovery of this new diffraction-like was, as Percec describes, a "lucky accident."

"We approach problems that other people say there is no solution for. You cannot make a big breakthrough overnight,"Percec says. "All these people on our team are gifted and have the machinery needed to solve the various problems along the way that bring the story together."


Explore further

Stem cells collected from fat may have use in anti-aging treatments

More information: Cesar Rodriguez-Emmenegger et al, Encoding biological recognition in a bicomponent cell-membrane mimic, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821924116
Citation: Cells use sugars to communicate at the molecular level (Update) (2019, March 1) retrieved 22 May 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-03-cells-sugars-molecular.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
808 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Mar 01, 2019
"The human body is made up of 30 to 40 million cells..."

That should be TRILLION, not million.

Mar 01, 2019
"The human body is made up of 30 to 40 million cells..."

That should be TRILLION, not million.

This press release was written by a chemistry major. You can contact her at ekbrock@upenn.edu
https://penntoday...ar-level

Mar 01, 2019
"The human body is made up of 30 to 40 million cells..."

That should be TRILLION, not million.

This press release was written by a chemistry major. You can contact her at ekbrock@upenn.edu
https://penntoday...ar-level


Well, even chemistry majors make mistakes, as the number is estimated to be above 30 trillion cells on the lower bound; if you look it up yourself you'll be in agreement.

Mar 03, 2019
"Well, even chemistry majors make mistakes"

Yes and even chemistry majors should know to proof read their work, before posting.
Such a short article just makes it more evident how lazy the writer is.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more