Nature study shows how molecules escape from the nucleus
Albert Einstein College of Medicine findings mark key advance in using microscopy to reveal secrets of living cells
September 15, 2010 – (BRONX, NY) – By constructing a microscope apparatus that achieves resolution never before possible in living cells, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have illuminated the molecular interactions that occur during one of the most important “trips” in all of biology: the journey of individual messenger Ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules from the nucleus into the cytoplasm (the area between the nucleus and cell membrane) so that proteins can be made. The results, published in the September 15 online edition of Nature, mark a major advance in the use of microscopes for scientific investigation (microscopy). The findings could lead to treatments for disorders such as myotonic dystrophy in which messenger RNA gets stuck inside the nucleus of cells.
Messenger RNA molecules (green structures) pass through the nuclear pore (red) from the nucleus to the cytoplasm.
His co-author, David Grünwald, is at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. Prior to their work, the limit of microscopy resolution was 200 nanometers (billionths of a meter), meaning that molecules closer than that could not be distinguished as separate entities in living cells. In this paper, the researchers improved that resolution limit by 10 fold, successfully differentiating molecules only 20 nanometers apart.
Protein synthesis is arguably the most important of all cellular processes. The instructions for making proteins are encoded in the Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of genes, which reside on chromosomes in the nucleus of a cell. In protein synthesis, DNA instructions of a gene are transcribed, or copied, onto messenger RNA; these molecules of messenger RNA must then travel out of the nucleus and into the cytoplasm, where amino acids are linked together to form the specified proteins.
Molecules shuttling between the nucleus and cytoplasm are known to pass through protein complexes called nuclear pores. After tagging messenger RNA molecules with a yellow fluorescent protein (which appears green in the accompanying image) and tagging the nuclear pore with a red fluorescent protein, the researchers used high-speed cameras to film messenger RNA molecules as they traveled across the pores. The Nature paper reveals the dynamic and surprising mechanism by which nuclear pores “translocate” messenger RNA molecules from the nucleus into the cytoplasm: this is the first time their pore transport has been seen in living cells in real time.
“Up until now, we’d really had no idea how messenger RNA travels through nuclear pores,” said Dr. Singer. “Researchers intuitively thought that the squeezing of these molecules through a narrow channel such as the nuclear pore would be the slow part of the translocation process. But to our surprise, we observed that messenger RNA molecules pass rapidly through the nuclear pores, and that the slow events were docking on the nuclear side and then waiting for release into the cytoplasm.”
More specifically, Dr. Singer found that single messenger RNA molecules arrive at the nuclear pore and wait for 80 milliseconds (80 thousandths of a second) to enter; they then pass through the pore breathtakingly fast—in just 5 milliseconds; finally, the molecules wait on the other side of the pore for another 80 milliseconds before being released into the cytoplasm.
The waiting periods observed in this study, and the observation that 10 percent of messenger RNA molecules sit for seconds at nuclear pores without gaining entry, suggest that messenger RNA could be screened for quality at this point.
“Researchers have speculated that messenger RNA molecules that are defective in some way, perhaps because the genes they’re derived from are mutated, may be inspected and destroyed before getting into the cytoplasm or a short time later, and the question has been, ‘Where might that surveillance be happening?’,” said Dr. Singer. “So we’re wondering if those messenger RNA molecules that couldn’t get through the nuclear pores were subjected to a quality control mechanism that didn’t give them a clean bill of health for entry.”
In previous research, Dr. Singer studied myotonic dystrophy, a severe inherited disorder marked by wasting of the muscles and caused by a mutation involving repeated DNA sequences of three nucleotides. Dr. Singer found that in the cells of people with myotonic dystrophy, messenger RNA gets stuck in the nucleus and can’t enter the cytoplasm. “By understanding how messenger RNA exits the nucleus, we may be able to develop treatments for myotonic dystrophy and other disorders in which messenger RNA transport is blocked,” he said.
The paper, “In Vivo Imaging of Labelled Endogenous β-actin mRNA during Nucleocytoplasmic Transport,” was published in the September 15 online edition of Nature.
Robert Singer, Ph.D., discusses his breakthrough in microscopy which allowed, for the first time, the tracking of RNA pore transport in living cells in real time. Dr. Singer is professor and co-chair of anatomy and structural biology, professor of cell biology and neuroscience and co-director of the Gruss-Lipper Biophotonics Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. : www.einstein.yu.edu/video/?VID=219&ts=sciencetalk&tsa=tabs-2#top
About Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University
Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University is one of the nation’s premier centers for research, medical education and clinical investigation. During the 2009-2010 academic year, Einstein is home to 722 M.D. students, 243 Ph.D. students, 128 students in the combined M.D./Ph.D. program, and approximately 350 postdoctoral research fellows. The College of Medicine has 2,775 fulltime faculty members located on the main campus and at its clinical affiliates. In 2009, Einstein received more than $155 million in support from the NIH. This includes the funding of major research centers at Einstein in diabetes, cancer, liver disease, and AIDS. Other areas where the College of Medicine is concentrating its efforts include developmental brain research, neuroscience, cardiac disease, and initiatives to reduce and eliminate ethnic and racial health disparities. Through its extensive affiliation network involving five medical centers in the Bronx, Manhattan and Long Island – which includes Montefiore Medical Center, The University Hospital and Academic Medical Center for Einstein – the College of Medicine runs one of the largest post-graduate medical training programs in the United States, offering approximately 150 residency programs to more than 2,500 physicians in training. For more information, please visit
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