Nerves control everything we do, from how we think and move to how we sleep and learn. But scientists are only now beginning to understand how our genes determine the way nerves function and “signal,” or communicate with, each other.
Researchers at OMRF have discovered the function of one gene critical to proper nerve signaling. The findings, made by OMRF’s Stacey Edwards and Kenneth Miller, Ph.D., appear in the latest issue of the Journal of Cell Biology, and the journal selected the study to be highlighted in a separate news article.
Miller led a team of researchers that found that a particular gene—known as Rab2—is critical for nerve cells to make and package signals that mediate communication between neurons. The pathways those signals travel have been linked to depression, schizophrenia and sleep disorders.
“That doesn’t mean we’ve found a treatment for those diseases,” Miller said. “But what we have now is a clearer picture of how nerve cells work when things are going right. This is just a piece of the puzzle of how nerve signaling works. Putting the rest of the puzzle together with further research will give us an important framework for understanding and rationally addressing human neurological disorders.”
Miller said it’s a common perception that the Human Genome Project revealed everything there is to know about human genes, but in reality it just identified all of the genes in the human genome.
“The functions of at least 40 percent of the genes are still a mystery,” he said.
The discovery was made using C. elegans, a millimeter-sized roundworm studied because of the similarities between their genomes and those of humans. Researchers use C. elegans as a model for understanding many different aspects of human biology and disease, including cancer, cell death, development, aging, infection, neurological diseases and basic cell biology.
“Model organisms such as C. elegans, which allow researchers to use powerful genetic approaches, have been and will continue to be critical for understanding the functions of those mystery genes,” he said.
“Many human gene equivalents are found in C. elegans, so we know they must have an important function in all animals, but nobody knows what they do,” Miller said. “The gene we found in the worms was 88 percent identical to the human gene, yet prior to our study, its function was essentially unknown.” Miller said the next step will include using C. elegans to identify other genes that control nerve cell signals to get a better idea of how the system works.
Miller’s study was funded by grants from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST).