'Wurst' ensures that the respiratory system works

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A newly discovered transmembrane protein called "Wurst" (sausage) appears to play a decisive role in breathing possibly in all animals, from flies to human beings. This insight is reported by scientists from the University of Bonn and the Gttingen-based Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in the online edition of the journal "Nature Cell Biology". In the common fruit fly, Drosophila, the protein ensures the proper formation and functioning of the respiratory system. Indeed, it may have a key function in the process of lung maturation in mammals, too. This discovery possibly means that the protein could offer an exciting starting point for the development of new drugs to treat respiratory problems such as impaired lung function in premature infants.

Insects do not have lungs. Rather, their gas exchange is performed by means of small holes in the chitin exoskeleton. Oxygen is delivered to the cells via an extensive system of air-conveying tubes. Known as tracheae in insects, the tubes split into ever smaller branches, ending in ultra-fine end sections that deliver the respiratory gas into the tissue.

"The tracheae system in insects reveals similarities to our own lungs," explains the Bonn-based development biologist Professor Dr. Michael Hoch. "Our lungs also consist of a system of tubes that branch out like trees, finally ending in the air cells called alveoli. This is where the inhaled oxygen enters the blood." Analogies have also been discovered in the way the two respiratory systems develop. Thus, a series of very similar growth factors ensure that the tubes branch out appropriately and achieve the right diameter.

Another factor shared by tracheal breathers and lung breathers is that the respiratory tubes are initially filled with liquid in their early development. At the birth of

Contact: Professor Dr. Michael Hoch
University of Bonn

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