It isn’t enough for mechanics to know that a car is working; they also need to know how it works.
The same is true for OMRF scientist Susannah Rankin, Ph.D. As a cell biologist, she studies a particular protein that is important in making sure cells divide correctly. Understanding how this protein—called sororin—works is important to understanding birth defects and diseases such as cancer.
Because sororin doesn’t look anything like other proteins, Rankin was faced with a technical challenge. “The different parts of proteins affect other cellular pieces around them in a variety of ways,” Rankin said. “In order to discover how sororin works, we had to find out what was different when bits of it were missing.”
To figure out the inner workings of proteins, Rankin doesn’t use hydraulic lifts or wrenches. She uses a chemical process to implant DNA into bacteria to rapidly replicate the gene for sororin. She chemically extracts the DNA from the bacteria and applies enzymes that act like scissors to cut out specific sections of the genes.
Those altered DNA strands are then implanted back into human cells, where Rankin and her OMRF team use high-powered microscopes to study the proteins’ effect on cell division to see if and how they work.
“It’s like if you’re trying to understand what every part of a car’s engine does,” she said. “In a way, it’s like we would take out a piece and ask, ‘Does it still start? Do the lights come on? Is it making more smoke than before?’”
Projects like this help researchers understand how and why proteins in the body work the way they do. In this case, knowing how sororin functions can pay dividends into future research about birth defects and diseases such as Down syndrome and cancer, conditions where cell division plays a key role.
“There’s still so much to learn about sororin,” Rankin said. “But now that we know which parts make the engine go, we know where to look when things go wrong.”