Brussels, 14 January 2002
Researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and biotech start-up company CellZome, both based in Heidelberg, Germany, have announced the completion of a large-scale study of the 'molecular machines' formed by proteins in baker's yeast.
The researchers describe the discovery of over a hundred new protein machines, ranging from two to 83 molecules in size. The study results, published in the current edition of science journal Nature, represent a major step towards transforming information from genome projects into practical applications such as the development of drugs.
'Most things that happen in cells are directed by the activity of protein complexes,' explained Giulio Superti-Furga, scientific director of CellZome and head of a research group at EMBL. 'These 'molecular machines' play crucial roles in diseases as well as the everyday life of the cell.'
By analysing the DNA sequences of human and other cells, genome projects such as the Human Genome Project have provided the instruction book by which cells create proteins. The next task for scientists is to decode this information to understand the functions of molecules and chart their interactions.
Using improvements in mass spectrometry and a new method of separating proteins from cells developed by an EMBL research team, the scientists were able to tease apart the 'molecular machines' found in yeast cells and examine the proteins that compose them.
Gitta Neubauer, one of the scientists working on the project, said: 'It was necessary to analyse more than 20,000 protein samples, ultimately leading to the identification of 17,000 proteins...To our knowledge this is the largest screen that has ever been done using mass spectrometry to dissect protein complexes.'
Using customised databases and special imaging software, the researchers catalogued the complex relationships between over 1,400 yeast proteins - about a third of the yeast genome. They discovered a total of 232 machines, 134 of which are new.
The group now intends to analyse the remaining two thirds of the yeast genome. This initial project focused on proteins which have close relatives in human cells - as humans and yeast belong to the same evolutionary branch, there are many such molecules. It is hoped the study will help researchers identify the components of similar molecular machines in human cells, which scientists regard as a key step in developing 'post-genomic' medicine.
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