The newly recognized way that this protein can change its shape is important because slight changes in the shape of vinculin completely change its role in the cell, making the protein a versatile tool for completing different tasks. For example, by alternately changing its shape from active to inactive forms, vinculin can control the cell's ability to remain stationary or move through its environment.
Vinculin enables cells to move within developing tissues and organs of the embryo and spark the healing of wounds. But vinculin can also regulate the ability of cancer cells to move away from tumors and spread cancer to other parts of the body, according to Tina Izard, Ph.D., assistant member in the Department of Hematology-Oncology. Izard led the research team and is the first and senior author of a report on this work.
The discovery of how vinculin changes its shape holds promise for developing new ways to prevent the spread of cancer cells. The milestone discoveries of changes in the shape and function of vinculin illustrate the versatility of some proteins and help explain how the enormous complexity of the human body can arise from a mere 30,000 to 40,000 genes, according to Philippe R.J. Bois, Ph.D., a Van Vleet Foundation fellow in the St. Jude Department of Genetics.
"It was already known that cells can read certain genes in different ways to make different proteins," Bois said. "But these new findings significantly enhance our appreciation of the scope of protein function in the cell."