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UCLA biochemists reveal the first structural details of a family of mysterious objects called microcompartments that seem to be present in a variety of bacteria. The discovery was published Aug. 5 in the journal Science.

"This is the first look at how microcompartments are built, and what the pieces look like," said Todd O. Yeates, UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and a member of the UCLA-DOE Institute of Genomics and Proteomics. "These microcompartments appear to be highly evolved machines, and we are just now learning how they are put together and how they might work. We can see the particular amino acids and atoms."

A key distinction separating the cells of primitive organisms like bacteria, known as prokaryotes, from the cells of complex organisms like humans is that complex cells -- eukaryotic cells -- have a much higher level of subcellular organization; eukaryotic cells contain membrane-bound organelles, such as mitochondria, the tiny power generators in cells. Cells of prokaryotes have been viewed as very primitive, although some contain unusual enclosures known as microcompartments, which appear to serve as primitive organelles inside bacterial cells, carrying out special reactions in their interior.

"Students who take a biology class learn in the first three days that cells of prokaryotes are uniform and without organization, while cells of eukaryotes have a complex organization," Yeates said. "That contrast is becoming less stark; we are learning there is more of a continuum than a sharp divide. These microcompartments, which resemble viruses because they are built from thousands of protein subunits assembled into a shell-like architecture, are an important component of bacteria. I expect there will be a much greater focus on them now."

Yeates' Science paper reveals the first structures of the proteins that make up these shells, and the first high-resolution insights into how they function.

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