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Scientists link protein to the insulation of the nervous system's wiring
Date:1/27/2011

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have pinpointed a crucial function for a key player in the development of the nervous system. They found that this player a protein called Erk is necessary for nerve fibers to be wrapped with an insulating substance called myelin, which allows messages to be sent from the brain to the peripheral limbs and back again.

The finding has particular importance because several neurodevelopmental disorders have recently been linked to genetic mutations in the complex developmental cascade containing Erk and its sister proteins.

The UNC study, published Jan. 13, 2011, in the journal Neuron, suggests that the effects of Erk are quite different from what previous studies done in vitro, in Petri dishes, had indicated.

"These in vitro studies have been absolutely important for understanding how things work on a molecular level," said lead study author Jason M. Newbern, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate at the UNC School of Medicine. "But when you try to say that a tiny artificial system sitting in the culture hood is going to mimic the complexity of the interactions that occur when a cell develops and wraps around a nerve fiber, as it is growing out into your limb, as your limb is growing at the same time, and as your neurons are maturing and secreting different chemicals -- there is just no way you can replicate that in a dish."

Close to 10,000 papers have been published on the in's and out's of this famous cascade, known to scientists as the MAP kinase pathway. Because this pathway is so complicated, finding a way to completely "knock-out" its critical genes in a living animal has been difficult, said senior study author William D. Snider, MD, professor of neurology and cell and molecular physiology, and director of the UNC Neuroscience Center.

Using a number of genetic engineering tricks, the researchers were able to specifically k
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Contact: Les Lang
llang@med.unc.edu
919-966-9366
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
Source:Eurekalert

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