For Professor Orna Amster-Choder, communication is the key to success. As a molecular biologist at the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC), she examines the mechanisms that allow cells to receive signals and respond to them. Prof. Amster-Choder studies cross-membrane communication in cells, examining how outside stimuli trigger gene expression. She works with a model that allows her to follow an extended cascade of events — starting with the recognition of signals by a sensor in the membrane, and ending with the “decision” to produce a specific gene-based protein deep within the cell.
This “long view”, says Amster-Choder, led her to discover previously-overlooked interactions between components of the signaling cascade. “The old ‘simplistic’ view assumed that signaling proteins diffuse inside the cell, eventually binding with each other and prompting an action,” she says. “But this seems to contradict something else we know — that the gene-making machinery responds to environmental cues very efficiently. Using E. coli bacteria, we’ve shown that two groups of molecules — the membrane-based sensor that receives the initial signal and the regulator that gives the final ‘go-ahead’ to gene expression — cluster together at the cell membrane until a signal is received. They then break apart, subtly changing the regulator’s structure and thereby priming it to do its job effectively.”
Such basic research has important practical implications such as the involvement of certain signal transduction proteins in Urinary tract infection (UTI), a disease caused by uropathogenic E. coli (UPEC). UTI is the most common form of extraintestinal E. coli infection, and UPEC is the most common cause for UTI. Studies of such proteins can be useful in designing new antimicrobial drugs. Amster-Choder’s lab is “now working to develop new tools to treat and prevent bacterial infections, a task that has become increasingly difficult due to widespread antibiotic resistance.”
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