The Changing Needs of a Cell: No Membrane? No Problem!

Russian nesting dolls. Credit: iStock.

How “membrane-less” organelles help with key cellular functions

Scientists have long known that animal and plant cells have specialized subdivisions called organelles. These organelles are surrounded by a semi-permeable barrier, called a membrane, that both organizes the organelles and insulates them from the rest of the cell’s mix of proteins, salt, and water. This set-up helps to make cells efficient and productive, aiding in energy production and other specialized functions. But, because of their semi-permeable membranes, organelles can’t regroup and reform in response to stress or other outside changes. Cells need a rapid response team working alongside the membrane-bound organelles to meet these fluctuating needs. Until recently, who those rapid responders were and how they worked has been a mystery.

Recent research has led biologists to learn that the inside of a cell or an organelle is not just a lot of different molecules dissolved in water. Instead, we now know that cells contain many pockets of liquid droplets (one type of liquid surrounded by a liquid of different density) with specialized composition and function that are not surrounded by membranes. Because these “membrane-less organelles” are not confined, they can rapidly come together in response to chemical signals, such as those that indicate stress, and equally rapidly fall apart when they are no longer needed, or when the cell is about to divide. This enables membrane-less organelles to be “rapid responders.” They can have complex, multilayered structures that help them to perform many critical cell functions with multiple steps, just like membrane-bound organelles. Scientists even suspect that the way these organelles form as droplets may shed light on how life on Earth first took shape (see sidebar “Could This Be How Life First Took Shape?” at bottom of page).

The Many Membrane-less Organelles

Scientists have identified more than a dozen membrane-less organelles at work in mammalian cells. Several kinds found inside the nucleus—including nuclear speckles, paraspeckles, and Cajal bodies—help with cell growth, stress response, the metabolizing (breaking down) of RNA, and the control of gene expression—the process by which information in a gene is used in the synthesis of a protein. Out in the cytoplasm, P-bodies, germ granules, and stress granules are membrane-less organelles that are involved in metabolizing or protecting messenger RNA (mRNA), controlling which mRNAs are made into proteins, and in maintaining balance, or homeostasis, of the cell’s overall health.

The nucleolus, located inside the nucleus, is probably the largest of the membrane-less organelles. It acts as a factory to assemble ribosomes, the giant molecular machines that “translate” messenger RNAs to make all cellular proteins. Continue reading “The Changing Needs of a Cell: No Membrane? No Problem!”

Zebrafish Scrapbook

Name: Danio rerio Hometown: Freshwater ponds and rivers of India, Nepal, and neighboring countries Occupation: Research Long-term goal: Solving the basic mysteries of life Work site: More than 600 science labs worldwide
Danio rerio That’s me and some other zebrafish, swimming in a tank in one of the more than 600 labs around the world that use us to study embryo development, genetics, and all kinds of human diseases. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Azul.

Apart from the tell-tale stripes that give me my nickname, zebrafish, I look a lot like your standard minnow swimming in the shallows of any pond, lake, or river. But I like to think I’m more important than that. In fact, researchers around the world have turned to me and my extended family to understand some of the most basic mysteries of life. From studying us, they’re learning about how embryos develop, how cancer works, and whether someday humans might be able to rebuild a heart, repair a spinal cord injury, or regrow a severed limb.

Why us? Because zebrafish are pretty special and researchers think we’re easy to work with. First, unlike your standard lab mouse or rat, we lay lots of eggs, producing baby fish that grow up fast. We develop outside our mothers and go from egg to embryo to free-swimming larva in just 3 days (check out this video Exit icon of how we grow, cell by cell, during the first 24 hours). Within 3 months, we’re fully mature.

Not only do zebrafish moms have many babies at the same time, and not only do these babies grow up quickly, but our eggs and embryos are see-through, so scientists can literally watch us grow one cell at a time. We stay mostly transparent for a few weeks after hatching. That makes it super easy for scientists to monitor us for both normal and abnormal development. In fact, scientists have learned how to turn off the genes that give our skin its color. These zebrafish, named casper, after the “friendly ghost” of cartoon fame, stay semi-transparent, or translucent, through adulthood.

And last, but certainly not least, did I mention that we can regenerate? If parts of my body are damaged, even to a significant degree, they can regrow. This holds true for my heart, fins, spinal cord, and even brain tissue. Our regenerative capacity is seemingly unlimited; my caudal fin, for example, can grow back dozens of times. Continue reading “Zebrafish Scrapbook”

“Selfish” Gene Enhances Own Transmission at Expense of Organism’s Fertility

These glowing images of yeast (Schizosaccharomyces kambucha) reproductive cells show an example of a selfish gene at work.
These glowing images of yeast (Schizosaccharomyces kambucha) reproductive cells show an example of a selfish gene at work. Here, the selfish gene boosts its chances of being passed to the next generation by producing both a toxin (stained cyan) and an antitoxin (stained magenta). Cells with a copy of the selfish gene are protected by the antitoxin, left and bottom ovals. Those without the selfish gene are destroyed by the toxin. Scientists suspect that selfish genes could be operating throughout many organisms’ genomes, possibly having a major impact on how genetic material is inherited over generations. Credit: Image courtesy of María Angélica Bravo Núñez and Nicole Nuckolls.

There’s an old saying that rules are meant to be broken. In the 1860s, Gregor Mendel found that each copy of a gene in an organism has an equal chance of being passed to the next generation. According to this simple rule, each version of a gene gets passed to offspring with the same frequency. The natural selection process can then operate efficiently, favoring the genes that produce an advantage for an organism’s survival or reproductive success and, over successive generations, eliminating genes from the gene pool that bring a disadvantage.

Of course, the way organisms inherit genes is not as straightforward as Mendel’s work predicted. In natural systems, inheritance often fails to follow the rules. One culprit scientists are identifying again and again are what are called “selfish genes”: one or more genes that have evolved a method of skewing inheritance in their favor.

Scientists refer to these selfish genes—which are often complexes of multiple genes working together—as “selfish” because they enhance their own transmission to the next generation, sometimes by killing off any of the organism’s reproductive cells that lack copies of those genes. Using a variety of techniques, the genes are effective at passing themselves on to future generations. However, their methods set up a conflict within the organism by damaging its fertility; overall, fewer reproductive cells or offspring survive to produce a new generation.

Selfish genes are a challenge for scientists to identify, but researchers say that knowing more about these genes could help explain a range of genetic mysteries, from causes of infertility to details on how species evolve. The methods these genes use could also be harnessed to help control the reproduction of certain populations such as mosquitos that spread disease.

One recently described selfish gene system is found in the yeast cells pictured above. Sarah Zanders Exit icon and her colleagues at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, study selfish gene systems in yeast to understand how common they are and how they affect a species’ fertility and evolution. “Usually we think about infertility stemming from the good guys failing. For example, a gene that normally promotes fertility could be mutated so that it can no longer do its job,” says Zanders. “But selfish genes are another potential source of infertility. Learning general principles about selfish genes in simple models will guide future searches for selfish genes that could be contributing to human infertility.”

Recently, the scientists discovered a single selfish gene, wtf4, that encodes both a toxin and an antitoxin protein. When yeast produce their reproductive cells, called spores, the wtf4 toxin protein is released into the immediate vicinity, but the antitoxin remains inside spores that contain a copy of wtf4. The toxin destroys all the spores that don’t have the antitoxin protein. Although the yeast has fewer spores—and therefore reduced fertility—each spore carries wtf4, ensuring that the gene will be passed to the next generation of yeast. Continue reading ““Selfish” Gene Enhances Own Transmission at Expense of Organism’s Fertility”