Cellular log jams averted

November 19, 2004

In The Birth of the Cell , which summarised the history of cell biology in the first half of the 20th century, Henry Harris wrote: "Whatever the origin of life may have been, the universal solution to the problems confronting its further evolution was the progressive assembly of the cell."

The modern era of cell biology began in the Seventies when it began to evolve a close partnership with molecular biology. As information was obtained about the genetic control of protein structure and the mechanisms of protein synthesis, a major problem presented itself. How could the thousands of proteins synthesised in our cells find their way to the right part of the cell, let alone to the cell surface? Why do not each of our cells end up with a massive protein traffic jam resembling the M25 in the morning?

The beginnings of an answer came when Gunter Blobel discovered that newly synthesised proteins contain signal sequences that carry information about the appropriate route for the protein to take. This was remarkable because it suggested that proteins do not have a single structure, but rather assume a series of different confirmations and amino acid sequences during their lifetime, each with particular functions. From these discoveries, the investigation of cellular trafficking took off.

The appearance of Traffic in 2000 reflected the evolution of a field that by then encompassed not only many aspects of normal cell biology, but also the consequences of failure of intracellular transport processes in human diseases ranging from hypertension to defects of pigmentation. Furthermore, it had become apparent that intracellular transport pathways were exploited by a variety of human pathogens and by the immune system.

Although the genesis of Traffic was marred by the death of Thomas Kreis, its major instigator, the editors have been able to follow his wishes and produce a lively journal with an increasingly diverse coverage, ranging from conventional cell biology to mathematical modelling.

An invitation to review a journal outside one's own immediate field is among the more daunting accompaniments of increasing age. However, I ploughed through 36 issues of Traffic with increasing pleasure. As well as what seems to be a uniformly high quality of original papers, the large number and breadth of review articles, many written for the non-expert, suggest that this journal has an unusually imaginative editorial board and that it will be a valuable addition to the current biological literature.

Its subject is at the core of the long journey towards an understanding of how the products of the human genome interact at the molecular and cellular levels to make us what we are. It deserves a wide readership.

Just one minor geriatric irritation. Like all journals, Traffic finds it necessary to obfuscate its articles with headlines carrying ghastly puns: Nature 's recent "Loader of the ringers" and "Gate expectations" are typical examples. Traffic has "Tool box", describing new technology, "Traffic report", offering authoritative reviews, and "Transit authority", presumably offering even more authoritative reviews. As more is learnt about the regulation of protein movement in cells, "Traffic lights" is bound to follow - but, please, not "Traffic cops".

Sir David Weatherall is emeritus regius professor of medicine, Oxford University.


Editor - Frances M. Brodsky, Mark C. P. Marsh and Sandra L. Schmid
Publisher - Blackwell. Monthly
Price - Institutions £470.00. Individuals £138.00
ISSN - ISSN 1398 9219 and 1600 0854 (online)

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