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Researchers discover how worms' noses sense oxygen

ustom MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) chamber - only 100 microns (1/10 millimeter or 4 thousandths of an inch) thick - to study worm reactions to oxygen levels. Built at UC Berkeley by UCSF postdoctoral fellow Hang Lu, it has speeded behavioral studies of these denizens of the soil and served as a prototype for further nematode studies.

By knocking out several genes coding for parts of the guanylate cyclase enzyme, they were able to show that this enzyme was acting as an oxygen detector, primarily steering worms away from too much oxygen. The enzyme is found in three separate neurons that innervate the worm's nose.

Bargmann speculates that the oxygen-sensing system used by C. elegans may be used by other animals who must avoid low-oxygen environments, including fish. Humans may also have such a detector to trigger hyperventilation during exercise or exposure to anoxic environments.

"We are immersed in a 21 percent oxygen atmosphere all the time, and our blood stream and lungs maintain the optimum oxygen levels in our tissues. So, we take oxygen levels for granted," Bargmann said. "But most other animals on the planet live in water or the soil, such as C. elegans. And since oxygen diffuses much more slowly in those environments, they must evolve ways to sense oxygen and react to changes in oxygen levels."

Marletta's students continue to take apart the guanylate cyclase enzyme and, working with Kuriyan, are trying to crystallize the pieces in order to get X-ray diffraction data to determine the 3-D structure.

"Biology has learned to use NO in cell-to-cell signaling, evolving a system to generate and use it at very low concentrations. But what kind of receptors can work at very low concentrations of NO?" Marletta said. "We want to find out how nature engineered a guanylate cyclase protein that doesn't bind oxygen but still binds NO."

"It's surprising," he added, "that 225 years after Lavoisier discovered oxygen,
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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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