Bizarre new protein blocks a real-life terminator

Researchers have discovered a bacterial protein that could turn out to be an evolutionary ancestor of disease-fighting antibodies in humans.

In a study published in the Sept. 14 issue of the journal Science, Stanford Professor Emeritus Charles Yanofsky and postdoctoral fellow Angela Valbuzzi describe how they were the first to isolate a protein they call anti-TRAP (AT) from the bacterium Bacillus subtilis.

``This protein has unique binding properties,`` says Yanofsky, the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology, Emeritus. ``We struggled for some time to come up with an appropriate name for it, and AT was the simplest.``

Although its name is simple, the newly discovered protein participates in a very complex metabolic network presently known only to exist in several species of Bacillus bacteria. Yanofsky and Valbuzzi determined that AT helps bacilli regulate the production of tryptophan - one of 20 amino acids that are the building blocks of most proteins in all living organisms, including people.

A protein is essentially a large chain of amino acids strung together inside a tiny cellular factory known as the ribosome. The human body uses the amino
acid tryptophan to make thousands of proteins and other important molecules,
including niacin, or Vitamin B3.

People must get their tryptophan from food - unlike bacteria, which can manufacture their own supplies internally. Infants require large amounts of tryptophan for normal development, and diets poor in tryptophan can result in pellagra - a disease of the skin and central nervous system caused by niacin deficiency.

The terminator

In the 1970s, Yanofsky and his colleagues discovered a previously unknown mechanism for regulating tryptophan production in Escherichia coli - a common bacterium that lives in the intestines of humans and other vertebrates.

Their discovery focused on a molecule known as messenger RNA (mRNA), which carries

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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