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Researchers discover how worms' noses sense oxygen

ronment," he said. "We found that when we lower the oxygen concentration to six percent, the worms disperse in three minutes."

At high concentrations, oxygen is toxic and corrosive. Worms avoid high oxygen presumably because the oxygen creates highly reactive chemicals that damage cells, though oxygen sensors also may help them find food, Marletta said.

Marletta, Cori Bargmann, a UC San Francisco professor of anatomy and biochemistry and biophysics, and their colleagues reported their results on June 27 in the Early Online Edition of Nature. The paper will be published in the July 15 issue of Nature.

Surprisingly, the worm's oxygen sensors, which are actually enzymes that bind oxygen, are similar to enzymes used in humans and other animals to detect the signaling molecule nitric oxide, or NO. NO plays a major role in the cardiovascular system, activating an enzyme that triggers dilation of blood vessels and thereby controls blood pressure.

It was work on this NO-sensing enzyme that led Marletta into C. elegans research. The enzyme, guanylate cyclase, is found in smooth muscle, like that encircling blood vessels. NO binds and activates guanylate cyclase, triggering a cascade of chemical reactions that make the muscle relax, opening up the vessel and lowering blood pressure. NO also activates guanylate cyclase in the brain, where it is involved in learning in memory.

"NO is important in maintaining blood vessel homeostasis, and so is critical to cardiovascular function, gut motility and penile erection, among other things," Marletta said.

Marletta's students have painstakingly picked apart the guanylate cyclase protein, in particular the exact binding site for NO. It turns out to be a heme molecule nearly identical to the heme that binds oxygen in hemoglobin to carry it through the blood stream to muscle. The heme in hemoglobin cannot discriminate between oxygen, carbon monoxide (CO) or NO, which is why CO is toxic: it r
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Contact: Robert Sanders
rls@pa.urel.berkeley.edu
510-643-6998
University of California - Berkeley
8-Jul-2004


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