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Cellular Suicide May Be Key to Brain Health and Food Security

Research into the self-destruction of cells in humans and plants may lead to the development of treatments for neurodegenerative brain diseases and the development of disease-resistant plants.


In a new study, researchers from Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom have determined the role of certain proteins in cell suicide. The relevant findings were published in the August 23, 2019 issue of the journal Science, entitled “NAD + cleavage activity by animal and plant TIR domains in cell death pathways”. The corresponding authors of the paper are Boston Kobe, Thomas Ve and Peter Dodds of the University of Queensland, Australia.


“To sustain life, a variety of organisms such as humans and plants have cells that commit suicide for the benefit of the rest of each organism,” Kobe says. “This is a key part of our body’s immune response: infected cells often commit suicide, so larger organisms can survive.”


“But surprisingly, studying the proteins involved in human neuronal cell death has led us to discover how cell death occurs in plants. We found a common way for human and plant cells to trigger cell suicide.”


These researchers combined structural biology, biochemistry, neurobiology, and plant science approaches to analyze cells and proteins, thus setting the stage for some potentially groundbreaking discoveries.


“Neurodegenerative diseases affect millions of people around the world and arise for different reasons, but what is associated with them is the degradation of brain cells. A specific protein, SARM1, is essential for brain cell degradation in different neurodegenerative diseases. We provide important information about this protein—revealing its three-dimensional structure—which will accelerate the development of drugs that may delay or prevent this brain cell degradation.” Said Kobe.


A better understanding of the cell death process may also lead to the development of disease-resistant plants, which can help increase yield, reduce waste, and enhance food security.


Global food security is also an increasingly important issue. Plant diseases cause more than 15% of crop losses each year, even before the crop is harvested.


“Specific plant resistance genes can protect plants from disease, but little is known about how the products of these genes function. Part of this resistance lies in the self-destruction of infected cells, as in human neurons. Given the understanding of how this process occurs in neurons, we are able to discover how resistance arises in plants. This brings us closer to designing effective synthetic resistance genes that can be used to provide additional protection in Australia and worldwide. “

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