Tiny protein motors in cells can steer microtubules in the right direction through branching nerve cell structures, according to Penn State researchers who used laboratory experiments to test a model of how these cellular information highways stay organized in living cells.
"We proposed a model of how it works in vivo, in the living cell," said Melissa Rolls, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. "But because of the complexity of the living cells, we couldn't tell if the model was possible."
Rolls then collaborated with William O. Hancock, professor of biomedical engineering, who was already working on the tiny kinesin motors that move materials throughout the cell, to test the model in the laboratory, in vitro.
"Kinesins are little machines that use chemical energy to generate mechanical forces sufficient to carry materials through the cell," said Hancock.
Cells produce enzymes, proteins and signaling chemicals in the center of the cell, and these materials are then moved to other cell areas by kinesin motors. Dendrites in nerves cells are very long, and motors need to transport molecules relatively long distances on microtubules that are constantly forming and dissolving within the cell. Because dendrites branch, the researchers wondered how the microtubules themselves move in the right direction.
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