Salk Institute for Biological Studies: InsideSalk

Arabidopsis Takes Root: Applications to Human Biology

Ecker's sequencing technology, for example, is now being applied to understand the dynamics of the human genome, and is providing greater insight into human stem cells' capacity to self-renew and how other sub-DNA molecules contribute to the development of tumors and disease.

This has led to additional cross-concentration collaborations at Salk between Ecker's lab and Fred H. Gage, professor of the Laboratory of Genetics, and Marc Montminy, professor of the Laboratories for Peptide Biology, who is interested in deeper research of protein-DNA interaction.

Also, the same technique Ecker's lab developed to pinpoint bacterial T-DNA insertions in Arabidopsis has been applied in a collaborative study to look at integration of the HIV/AIDS virus into the human genome.

"The biology that's carried out by plants can have a direct impact on understanding human biology because genes are genes, proteins are proteins," Ecker says. "If I can understand the function of a particular molecular transporter in plants, for example, it probably does the same thing in human."

Connections to human biology are also being made in Salk studies of even lower plant life. Assistant professor Jim Umen's research of the microscopic alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii revealed that the retinoblastoma protein (RB), which works as a tumor suppressor in mammalian cells, also regulates cell size and division. Further research in his lab found that two more proteins (DP and E2F), found in both his alga model and in humans, work in concert with the RB protein to perform this size-regulation function, the loss of which is one property that is shared by cancer cells.

More in-depth research of the alga's flagella, or tiny appendages that enable the organism to swim, could answer additional questions related to human disease. Remarkably, most human cells have similar appendages called cilia whose malfunction is linked to a growing number of genetic disorders such as polycystic kidney disease, retinitis pigmentosa and male infertility.

"When Chris Lamb came back for a visit, he was so pleased and amazed to see how plant biology at Salk had gone through a generation of biologists studying individual genes to now high-throughput plant biology," Ecker says. "It's evolved into a totally different form of research from when he started it."

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InsideSalk 10|08 Issue | © Salk Institute for Biological Studies