The System I study:
The organism I chose to study is Chlamydomonas. It’s a tiny little single-celled creature with, and this is important, TWO flagella. The flagella are whip-like projections which it uses to move about, to sense its environment, to find a mate and to mate.
Now, like any other such organelle in the cell, flagella are also made up of proteins. A very precise architecture governs the way these proteins are built and assembled. Think of them as very tiny parts in a Lego complex. The thing with Lego is that you can assemble a few blocks into a component, and then you can bring together many such components to make a bigger structure. That’s what happens here. Each individual block comes together with some other blocks and makes small complexes. This happens in the main body of the cell (the cytoplasm). These complexes are then carried by an intricate transport system to the flagella where they become integrated into the main machinery of the flagellum.
As in any production process, there are many checks and balances on when a block is produced, how many are produced, which blocks come together to form a complex, which complexes come together and when, how many such complexes are needed, what other supporting things like nuts and bolts etc., are needed, and so on and so forth.
So, this, in very simple terms is the system I study.
Why do I study it?
It isn’t considered easy to explain the motivation for many kinds of science even to other scientists, much less to non-scientists. However, I’m of the opinion that the broad relevance of any scientific endeavor becomes easy to understand if explained in the right context. I’ll attempt now to do just that by trying to take you through things which most of you would agree are important to study, and then showing you the connection between my work and the things for which you take the motivation to be obvious.
Most of you, I hope, will agree that human diseases are a worthy subject of study.
And if I were to tell you that there is a disease which causes the formation of many cysts in kidneys and that approximately 600000 Americans are affected by it and many more worldwide, you’d start to say “something should be done about this!”
This disease is called Polycystic Kidney disease. It’s pretty bad. And it is only one of many things (and perhaps the least) that can go wrong with humans who don’t have properly functioning cilia/flagella.
This is “all very well” you say, “but what has it to do with a tiny little green cell you grow in your lab?”
The answer lies in many factors:
1) It is hard to study humans due to a lot of practical and ethical questions. So we need to study something simpler.
2) Eventhough this is a very different organism from mammals, it shares a fair amount of commonality (or homology) in certain proteins with mammals. These are the highly ‘conserved’ proteins.
3) It is the only standardized study system that we know of in which one can isolate the flagella/cilia and study them on their own without having to deal with background interference.
4) It provides a fast way to screen a LOT of different genes for potential relevance before studying those genes in mammals like mice or humans.
To recap, diseases are nasty. A lot of nasty diseases come about through the faulty functioning of cilia. It is hard to study cilia in human cells (or any mammalian cells). There’s an alga which makes it easy for us to isolate and study cilia in the lab. The findings from these studies are of critical importance in understanding the mechanisms through which cilia work and therefore critical in understanding how to prevent diseases.
That, in short, is the gist of the question of what system I use and why. I hope I’ve been successful in convincing you of the viability of such an approach. There are constraints unique to addressing a broad audience and also of time and space which limit me from expounding more on the subject. I’d be happy, however, to address any specific questions you might have about my work.
In my next post, I’ll address the specific project that I hope to work on through your help. Until then, take care!