But there may be other, even farther-reaching implications. Both the virus and the newly found lipid deal their deadly blow by causing the upper-ocean plants to commit cellular suicide. As a major focus of their research at Rutgers, Bidle's lab has found that "programmed cell death" is an important process in the fate of marine phytoplankton and in the demise of blooms in the oceans. Bidle's group had previously found that successful infection of E. huxleyi induced, and actually required, the programmed cell death pathway.
But programmed cell death is not unique to phytoplankton. It is a common and healthy process in all kinds of cells, including human cells.
According to Vardi, "These lipids can induce programmed cell death in many organisms, including animals and plants. They also enrich in plasma membrane, and they are the port of the cell, where pathogens get in and out of the cell. This is important in viral diseases."
There is also a potential connection with cancer. If a healthy cell is stressed or damaged, usually it will kill itself with programmed cell death. But cancer cells have a defect: "They don't kill themselves," says Bidle.
"It's a critical aspect of cancer research, because cancer cells have figured out a way to turn off the programmed cell death pathway," he says. "In cancer studies, they try to figure out ways to reactivate those pathways."
The lipid may help shed light on why cancer cells are unable to commit suicide. Someday, the researchers say, it might suggest ways to correct that defect. Right now, the lipid is only known to be effective in algae, but in the future, the team is hoping to test the effectiveness of their molecule in experiments with cancer cells.
"There's a long way to go between here and curing cancer," Van Mooy says, "but the potential exists that this molecule could have therapeutic applications in the treatment of
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Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution