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North & South American researchers find architectural abnormalities in T. cruzi ribosome

the genetic translational machinery of the Chagas parasite. Unlike in other organisms, an identical string of 39 nucleotides is spliced onto the lead end of every mRNA molecule, no matter which protein is to be made. And, as Levin and his colleagues discovered years ago, the heart damage associated with Chagas disease is triggered by antibodies formed by an infected individual's immune system in response to a unique ribosomal protein from the parasite.

Chagas disease exists only on the American continent, according to the World Health Organization. It is caused by a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted to humans by a blood-sucking bug usually found in poor areas with substandard housing. An estimated 16 to 18 million people in Latin America are infected, and another 100 million are at risk. Some cases have spread through blood transfusion. Screening blood for the disease is mandatory in many Latin American countries, where more blood is infected by the parasite than by HIV and hepatitis B and C, but not in the United States, where the disease is rare.

For a few people, symptoms may begin within a few days or weeks. Most people may not know they have the disease for a decade or more, during which time 20 to 30 percent will develop potentially deadly cardiac problems. According to Levin, there is an urgent need for a more reliable treatment for this chronic phase of the infection.

In addition to the public health implications, Frank sees the parasite as a primitive link to modern eukaryotes and its ribosome as a source of potential insights into the evolution of more complex organisms.

"Ribosomes perform the translation of genetic information into protein in all organisms," Frank said. "The principle is always the same in plants, bacteria, and humans. It's a fundamental property of life on Earth."

Another HHMI investigator, Thomas A. Steitz of Yale University, produced the first atomic-resolution images of the
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Source:Howard Hughes Medical Institute


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