Researchers at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, have identified a new control of cell division through an enzyme that guarantees cell constituents that are concentrated in organelles without a membrane are properly distributed, opening new options for treatment innovation.
This discovery of a new control of cell division opens up new opportunities for the treatment of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, ageing processes and viral infections.
Phase separation to guarantee distribution of cell components
Researchers at the laboratory of Lucas Pelkmans, professor at the Institute of Molecular Life Sciences at the University of Zurich (UZH), have now discovered that a class of enzymes actively control this process in cells.
When cells divide, the enzyme DYRK3 promotes the mixing of the phases, which guarantees that the cells can correctly build the machinery for separating the chromosomes and dividing the cell content.
The university says that after cell division, the enzyme is broken down and the individual phases start to form again. If everything goes according to plan, the genetic material, organelles and cell contents are correctly distributed among the daughter cells.
Pelkmans said: “These fundamental findings give us completely new insights into cell division: as a process in which the cell contents mix together and then separate again.”
What is the potential for healthcare?
The knowledge that this cell division process is actively regulated by enzymes is highly relevant to the research into and treatment of various wide-spread diseases. If phase separation during cell division does not work properly, the separation of the chromosomes is incomplete, and they are then incorrectly distributed to the daughter cells – a significant characteristic of numerous kinds of cancer.
Many protein defects that may cause neurodegenerative problems are also seemingly the consequence of a failed intracellular phase separation. Pelkman added: “Thanks to the discovery as to which proteins control phase separation, new strategies can be pursued to prevent mistakes in this process”.
Controlling processes and treating infections
Both the distribution of the cell contents across the daughter cells and the specific retention of ‘old’ components in a cell are important processes in ageing. In this case, as well, a finely controlled mixing and separating of phases is an important process that determines the fate of cells.
A further possible application would be viral infections, when viruses infect cells, they often trigger the phase separation of molecules. In this way, they create isolated areas in which new viruses can form.