Ever since we were all single-celled zygotes hurtling through Fallopian tubes, the process of individual cells splitting and forming new ones has been one of the keys to our continued existence. It happens trillions of times every day, but that doesn't mean we have it all figured out.
New research has uncovered a previously unknown player in cell division: chromosomes, the x's and y's that carry most of an organism's DNA. Previously, chromosomes were thought to be just along for the ride during cell division, pulled to either pole of a cell by microscopic tube-like structures called microtubules.
Far from being biological freeloaders, however, chromosomes actually contribute to cell division, according to a paper by by researchers at the University of Montreal and University College London in the UK published today in Nature. They do this by emitting a chemical signal that softens the membrane at the poles of the cell, allowing it to stretch out during a key stage of division called cytokinesis.
"This is such a complicated process, and yet we've been watching it for 100 years or more," said Gilles Hickson, a cell biology researcher at the University in Montreal who co-authored the study. "People ask me, haven't we worked it all out yet? The truth is that so much is happening in such a short space of time, and in such a precise manner."
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This is more than a bit of high school biology class trivia. The scientists behind the discovery say a better understanding of how cell division works could be the key to equally improved cancer treatments.
"If we know all the mechanisms, the more we learn about the basic biology, maybe we can come up with molecular targets to specifically inhibit a cancer cell from dividing instead of globally blocking every cell division," said Hickson. "That's pretty much what chemotherapy does at the moment, and it has all the side effects that go with that."
But any sort of clinical application for human health as a result of this work is far off, Hickson said. The main takeaway is that cell division is a function of numerous mechanisms working together, including ones we may not be aware of.
In other words, these frail meatbags of ours are so incredibly complicated, and there's still more to discover even when it comes to their most basic activities.