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How organisms age may be unraveled. Last week, a group of biologists working at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California found particular proteins that can live for as long as the organism it is in. These proteins can help scientists better understand the process of aging, especially in the brain.
Named ELLPs, they are found on the surface of the nuclei of neurons and make up the transport channels – nuclear pore complex (NPC) – in the cell and control what enters and leaves, blocking any toxins that would damage the neuron. They are different from other proteins, which can only live up to two days at the most; they can, essentially, live for the organism’s entire lifetime.
However, ELLPs are not indestructible in spite of their ability to age with organisms: if they are damaged by toxins, or if they undergo chemical alterations, they cannot be replaced. Any impairment inflicted by toxins causes neurons (hence the nervous system) to deteriorate and damages the genes over time, initiating the gradual progression of aging.
“The fundamental defining feature of aging is an overall decline in the functional capacity of various organs such as the heart and the brain,” Martin Hetzer states in Salk’s press release. Hetzer headed the research and is a professor in Salk’s Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory. “This decline results from deterioration of the homeostasis, or internal stability, within the constituent cells of those organs.”
The team made their discovery through an experiment with aging rats and found that the NPCs deteriorated along with the rats’ neural system, making them arrive at the conclusion that the proteins that make up the NPCs were as old as the rats. Hetzer stated, “Most cells, but not neurons, combat functional deterioration of their protein components through the process of protein turnover, in which the potentially impaired parts of the proteins are replaced with new functional copies.”
“Our results,” he adds, “also suggest that nuclear pore deterioration might be a general aging mechanism leading to age-related defects in nuclear function, such as the loss of youthful gene expression programs.”
With the team’s discovery of the long-lasting proteins, scientists may even come to understand what causes neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Salk is the only laboratory in the world to study the NPCs. Aging, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, and infectious diseases are a view of the issues Salk’s researchers tackle with knowledge of cell biology, neuroscience, neurobiology, and other disciplines.