PASADENA, Calif.If the changing seasons are making it chilly inside your house, you might just turn the heater on. That's a reasonable response to a cold environment: switching to a toastier and more comfortable state until it warms up outside. And so it's no surprise that biologists have long thought cells would respond to their environment in a similar way.
But now researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) are finding that cells can respond using a new kind of pulsating mechanism, instead of just shifting from one steady state to another and staying there. The principles behind this process are surprisingly simple, the researchers say, and could drive other cellular processes, revealing more about how the cellsand ultimately lifework.
In their experiment, the researchers studied how a bacterial species called B. subtilis responds to a stressful environmentfor example, one without food. In such conditions, the single-celled organism activates a large set of genes that help it deal with hardship, by aiding cell repair for instance. Previously, biologists had thought the bacteria would handle stress by turning on the relevant genes and simply leaving them on until the stress goes away.
Instead, the researchers found that B. subtilis continuously flips these genes on and off. When faced with more stress, it increases the frequency of these pulses. The pulsating action is like switching your heater on full blast for a brief period every few minutes, and turning it on and off more frequently if you want the house to be warmer.
"It's a very different view of how a cell can respond to a particular stress," says James Locke, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech. Locke and graduate student Jonathan Young are the lead authors on a paper describing this work, which was published online in the October 21 issue of Science.
To make their finding, the researchers introduced a chemic
|Contact: Deborah Williams-Hedges|
California Institute of Technology