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Cell division: The engine of life – and of CANCER. Now some of its secrets are revealed

Boffins chuffed at chromosome activity breakthrough

By Lewis Page, 14 Jul 2015

We each begin our existence as a single cell, which divides into new cells which divide into new cells. Old tissues are replaced, wounds heal, our ears – not especially useful – keep on growing even once they're quite big enough, thank you*.

Cell division is pretty much the miracle of life – and yet we still don't understand it especially well. It would be good if we could, as like most terrifically powerful processes, cell division has a darker side. Sometimes it goes wrong; cancer cells divide uncontrollably, with often fatal consequences.

So it's good news that today the process of cell division is a bit less mysterious, with the publication of new boffinry from scientists in Britain and Canada. Specifically it is the critical cytokinesis part of division – the bit where the two new daughter cells actually separate – that has given up some of its secrets.

"It is well known," we are told, "that microscopic cable-like structures, called microtubules, are involved in pulling chromosomes to opposite poles of the cell during the division process."

Any fule kno that, of course. So what's new?

“At this time, microtubules physically separate the chromosomes via their central kinetochores while other microtubules signal to the cortex of the cell where its equator is, i.e., where division will take place,” says Gilles Hickson of the Université de Montréal, in an explanation which caused us to stroke our beards and try to look as though we knew what a kinetochore is**, here on the Reg biology desk.

Like us, you readers may have been labouring under the delusion that the chromosomes just sit there and let the microtubules get them by the kinetochores. But Hickson and his colleagues have found that this is not the case at all:

Initially working with the cells of fruit flies using powerful genetic tools and sophisticated microscopy, the research team discovered that chromosomes emit signals that influence the cortex of the cell to reinforce microtubule action. One of the key signals involved that the researchers identified acts via an enzyme complex – a phosphatase known as Sds22-PP1 – which is found at the kinetochores.

They also demonstrated that this signaling pathway acts in human cells.

“We have been watching cells divide for more than 100 years, but we continue to seek to understand the molecular mechanisms involved. This is important because cell division is so central to life, and to certain diseases,” enthuses Hickson.

This research won't lead directly to a cure for cancer, but it is definitely a step down that road.

"Ultimately, this could help the rational design of more specific therapies to inhibit the division of cancer cells, ideally without affecting the healthy cells that are dividing at the same time,” notes Hickson.

That certainly would be ideal, as otherwise the patient might be a bit dead.

Anyway it seems that the boffinry community in general are pretty excited about Hickson and his colleagues' efforts, as their research is published (subscription) this week in hefty boffinry mag Nature. ®


*According to some studies anyway. It's also argued that they merely stretch under the effects of gravity.

**It's a handy protein handle or ring-pull type of affair used to pull the chromosome apart. Or something like that, if we're following this correctly.

(Standard Reg science quality warning: The chance that we are following this correctly is roughly the same as that of a man with no arms successfully throwing a handful of jelly through a falling doughnut at thirty yards. Without touching the sides.)

Those interested in the search for a cure for cancer may find this article by Reg visiting boffin Dr Pan Pantziarka worth a read. Pan also has a slightly disgusting one on curing cancer by means of poo transplants. Perhaps more congenially there's this one on using Big Data instead, or this one unpicking obesity statistics. And by all means eat some organic food, but it won't save you in this context. Though what about other kinds of diet?

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