Robots eavesdrop on cellular discussions

For the first time, scientists have figured out a way to record the "conversations" taking place simultaneously between thousands of molecules inside a single cell.

Using robots to monitor the goings-on of thousands of individual baker's yeast cells growing on a small plastic grid, scientists supported by the National Institutes of Health, in collaboration with CuraGen Corporation of New Haven, Connecticut, have accomplished a biological milestone in determining which molecules in a cell "talk" to others by making physical contact.

Without an automated approach, the job of looking -- one by one -- for all the physical contacts among the protein products of the thousands of genes in a yeast cell would be a painstakingly slow process.

Even though the researchers detected only a fraction -- roughly a thousand -- of such physical contacts, the impact of the new approach is expected to be significant.

"Scientists all over the world working in yeast will be able to use this information," said Dr. Stanley Fields of the University of Washington, one of the paper's senior authors. The work appears in the February 10 issue of Nature, and is featured on the cover of the journal.

Baker's yeast -- known to researchers as Saccharomyces cerevisiae -- is a laboratory darling to thousands of scientists who probe mysteries of biology, a large number of which are germane to understanding human health and disease. Though primitive, yeast cells share an extraordinary number of important similarities with more highly evolved species, including humans.

"Listening in" on which proteins physically talk to other proteins is a critical task for researchers, since all cells rely on extensive and ongoing molecular discussions to carry out life's functions -- everything from breathing to memory.

Other scientists have developed powerful approaches to determine which of the thousands of genes are "turned on" in a particular cell, but they haven't had a "guide book

Contact: Alison Davis
NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences

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