HOUSTON -- (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 Current Biology, involved a series of intricate experiments on the bacteria Bacillus subtilis. 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 Microbiology.
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 fatty acids inside the c
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