Sense of touch/nerve research

UI researchers identify protein involved in mammals' sense of touch

IOWA CITY, Iowa Of all the senses, touch is the least understood at the molecular level. Sensory receptors in the skin transmit a wealth of information about our environment. However, the receptors that respond to mechanical stimulation in mammals have remained unknown.

Now, University of Iowa researchers and their colleagues at the Max-Delbruck-Center (MDC) for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, Germany, have made a discovery that is the first step in understanding the molecular basis for this process. The findings appear in the October 26 issue of the journal Nature.

"This work identified one of the molecular components that may form a sensory receptor for light touch in mammals," said Maggie P. Price, Ph.D., UI assistant research scientist in internal medicine and lead author of the study.

The researchers have identified a protein that plays a role in the perception of light touch in mice. The protein was discovered because of its similarity to a protein thought to mediate the sense of touch in a small worm, C. elegans. Researchers often use this worm to search for interesting genes. By looking at genetic mutations, which disrupted the worms' sense of touch, other researchers identified genes postulated to be involved in touch sensation.

"We used the information about those C. elegans genes to help us identify proteins in mice that might have a similar function," Price said.

The protein they found is called brain sodium channel 1 (BNC1). As the name suggests, it was initially found in the brain. However, they soon found that BNC1 was also present in sensory nerves. These cells send out long nerve fibers that end just below the skin. The team showed that the protein is present at the very tips of the nerve endings.

To test the function of the BNC1 protein, the researchers generated genetically modified mice that could not make

Contact: Jennifer Brown
University of Iowa

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