University of Dundee

Blindfold Handshake in the Cell Prevents Diseases

17 Feb 2010

Researchers at the University of Dundee have made a significant new discovery about how cells behave and protect themselves against cancers and genetic disorders.

Professor Tomo Tanaka and his team members Dr Etsushi Kitamura and Mr Shinya Komoto, all at the College of Life Sciences, working in collaboration with researchers in Japan and Germany, have uncovered how cells ensure inheritance of their genetic information in order to prevent diseases.

The research team discovered what Professor Tanaka described as a `blindfold handshake in the crucial process of cell division, which generates the growth of tissue and organs.

The research is published in the latest issue of the scientific journal Developmental Cell.

Human cells contain 46 chromosomes, all of which carry vital genetic information that is crucial for the proper function of cells. Each chromosome must be precisely copied and separated as cells divide during growth of tissues and organs. Loss or excess of any chromosome could generate cancer cells, or cause genetic disorders such as Down's syndrome.

The process of chromosome separation is regulated by a network of `threads called microtubules which pull the chromosomes apart into each newborn cell, said Professor Tanaka. It had been thought this process the network was organised by the cell ends.

To prepare for this process of chromosome separation, the thread network must first find and capture each chromosome. Normal cells can achieve this process in a defined, very short time window but it has been a mystery how they accomplish it so efficiently.

We have discovered that these thread networks, somewhat unexpectedly, are generated not only from the cell ends but also from sites on the chromosomes themselves. Even more unexpectedly, chromosomes organize the thread network more frequently when preparation for chromosome separation is delayed, as if they sense there is a delay and they must be hurried.

It is remarkable that our cells invented such a clever mechanism. Because the thread networks from cell ends and from chromosomes can find each other and mingle quickly, cells become prepared for chromosome separation efficiently and on time. It is like two blindfolded persons trying to find each others hand for shaking; to achieve their handshake quickly, both persons need to extend their arms and move them around until they touch and their hands grasp each other.

The research team believes that this is one of the most crucial steps in assuring cells chromosome inheritance during their divisions, thus preventing cell death, cancers and other diseases. The team is currently trying to discover how the blindfold handshake is maintained without breakage once established.

Professor Tanaka is a Principal Investigator in Wellcome Trust Centre for Gene Regulation and Expression at College of Life Sciences, University of Dundee. The research has been funded by Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Association for International Cancer Research.

About the University of Dundee:
The University of Dundee has powered its way to an internationally recognised position of excellence in life sciences and medical research with particular expertise in cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and tropical diseases. The University, together with NHS Tayside, has been awarded Cancer Centre status by Cancer Research UK. Dundees scientific research is consistently among the top-rated in the UK for impact. See for further details