Research on intriguing organelles has been launched
Disordered functioning of cilia, inconspicuous organelles present on the surface of cells of nearly all organisms, is the source of many diseases in humans. The Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology in Warsaw has launched a grant which will help scientists better understand the structure and functioning of cilia both in protozoa and in mammalian cells.
Apart from fungi and higher plants, almost all cells – from the protozoa to human cells – are equipped with short projections called cilia. Cilia receive stimuli from the environment, move the entire cell or transport fluids and particles in its immediate vicinity. Even though these organelles are common, surprisingly little is known about their structure and functioning. At the same time their disordered functioning in humans underlies many diseases, so-called ciliopathies. Scientists from the Nencki Experimental Biology Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw hope to uncover some secrets of the cilia with support of a prestigious EMBO Installation Grant.
“Cilia are very interesting organelles. They usually range in length from a few to a dozen or more micrometres; the latter are called flagella. Their skeleton is made of microtubules, which are tiny tubes built out of a protein called tubulin”, explains Dr. Dorota Włoga, who is currently forming a research team to study these organelles in the Laboratory of Physiology of Cell Movements at the Nencki Institute.
Depending on certain differences in their ultrastructure, the cilia are immobile or able to move. Individual immobile cilia (primary cilia) play important sensory functions: they receive stimuli from the environment and transfer them into the cell. For humans as well as other organisms this is of fundamental importance. Lack of or defective functioning of these cilia may lead to cyst formation within the kidneys, polydactyly (additional fingers or toes) or obesity. Highly transformed cilia are found, among other, in the rods in the retina of the eye and their damage is responsible for sight disorders.
Mobile cilia enable the spermatozoons and certain types of unicellular organisms to move, but some may also have sensory functions. Synchronised beating of the cilia of epithelial cells moves mucus (e.g. within the airways) or is responsible for transporting particles (e.g. ovum in the fallopian tube). “Recently Japanese researchers have shown that mice with disordered functioning of cilia within the epithelium lining the airways experience problems with getting rid of mucus and make sounds resembling sneezing and coughing”, says Dr. Włoga.
The existence of cilia has been known for a long time. But if you inquire about the details of their structure and functioning, it turns out that we still understand very little of them. “According to current estimates, even 500-600 proteins may be involved in the assembly and function of a single cilium”, emphasizes Dr. Włoga. Nencki researchers aim to find new, potentially cilia related proteins and investigate whether they are located in the cilia; and if yes, how do they impact the structure and functioning of the cilia. Research is being conducted on a protozoan called Tetrahymena thermophila, a model organism allowing scientists to conduct analyses at the ultrastructural, biochemical and molecular level.
In the second phase of their research, Nencki scientists will investigate whether the proteins identified in protozoa as cilia related have similar functions in mammalian cells. “Evolutionary distance between protozoa and humans is immense. Therefore we will investigate if the function of the cilia related proteins has been preserved during the evolution. If yes, then the identified proteins will help us better understand molecular basis of ciliopathy and in the future, they may be used as targets in medical therapies”, says Dr. Włoga.
Research on the cilia are conducted under a five year EMBO Installation Grant received by scientist from the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), an independent fund established to support the development of molecular biology in Europe. This grant allows scientists returning from abroad to establish and develop their own research groups and start cooperation with other scientists under EMBO.
The Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology of the Polish Academy of Sciences has been established in 1918 and is the largest non-university centre for biological research in Poland. Priority fields for the Institute include neurobiology, neurophysiology, cellular biology and biochemistry and molecular biology – at the level of complexity from tissue organisms through cellular organelles to proteins and genes. There are 31 labs at the Institute, among them modern Laboratory of Confocal Microscopy, Laboratory of Cytometry, Laboratory of Electron Microscopy, Behavioural and Electrophysiological Tests. The Institute is equipped with state-of-the-art research equipment and modernized animal house, where lab animals are bred, also transgenic animals, in accordance with the highest standards. Quality of experiments, publications and close ties with the international science community, place the Institute among the leading biological research centres in Europe.
Dr. Dorota Włoga
Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology in Warsaw.
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In the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw research is conducted on cilia, little known organelles, which are present in nearly all human cells. On the picture: Dr. Dorota Włoga from the Laboratory of Physiology of Cell Movements, winner of prestigious EMBO Installation Grant. (Source: Nencki institute, Grzegorz Krzyżewski)
Research on protozoan called Tetrahymena thermophila helps battling human diseases resulting from disordered functioning of the cilia. Image made with the use of confocal microscope in the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. (Source: Nencki Institute)