Scientists figure out how cells' tiniest motors work

Biologists have figured out how the world's smallest machines work - the molecular motors that separate chromosomes when cells divide, distribute embryonic material and haul precious cargo in every organism from protozoa to people.

Led by the UC San Francisco scientist who discovered this protein motor called kinesin in 1985, the researchers have now scrutinized and measured how the motor changes shape, and they have deduced the crucial mechanism behind a leapfrog motion that allows the motors to transport material throughout cells.

While scientists have known for 15 years that kinesin motors pull their cargo by moving along the cells' internal trackways known as microtubules, the new research reveals how the tiny motors, each only about one ten-millionth of an inch across, generate the force to haul objects up to a thousand times their own size.

The scientists report their discoveries in the December 16 issue of the journal Nature. Senior author is Ronald Vale, PhD, an investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology at UCSF. First author is Sarah Rice, a graduate student in Vale's lab. Altogether, 15 researchers took part in the project, including Ronald Milligan, PhD, professor of cell biology at Scripps Research Institute who led the effort to obtain images of a key component of the microscopic motor.

The mechanism appears to be fundamental to all cells of higher organisms, but with slight modifications engineered to produce different types of motion. There are likely to be 50 or more different kinds of kinesin motors in humans, their discoverer estimates, and that degree of specificity suggests that the motors might make good drug targets. Inhibition of kinesins involved in cell division, for example, might provide a means of stopping the growth of cancer cells, and stimulation of kinesin motors involved in nerve transport may improve neurodegenerative diseases. Research alo

Contact: Wallace Ravvem
University of California - San Francisco

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