Joel Dacks is an evolutionary cell biologist at the U of A. Four years ago, he began a project on what he calls a “harmless soil amoeba,” when he came across a protein that he had seen before in human cells. The protein is an adaptin that brings things into the cell or expels things. It is the fifth of its kind.
Before Dacks’ work with his team and a team at England’s Cambridge University, it was commonly assumed that there were only four such adaptins.
“When we started the research, and, I would say, up until Jenny [Hirst, of Cambridge] gave the first talk about a year ago, it wasn’t in anybody’s mind that there was a fifth adaptin,” Dacks said.
The discovery was so unexpected that the team included a section in their paper theorizing why this cell component had never been detected before.
“Why wasn’t this found sooner?” Dacks asked. “Because this is well-trodden territory. It’s the equivalent of somebody looking down all of a sudden from a plane and going, ‘Whoo! There’s an extra province between Saskatchewan and Manitoba!’”
Dacks said the part of the cell this adaptin is found in is the least-well-known part of the cell, and that it is difficult to detect, which may explain why it had never been found before.
The adaptin is found in eukaryotic cells, which is the type of cell that all complex life on earth is made of.
According to Dacks, there are three major implications for this discovery.
“The basic cell biological or scientific implications are that we thought we had a reasonable handle on how trafficking within the cell works, and this is a completely new, fairly major complex.”
Tied to this, Dacks said he considers this a sterling argument in favour of “basic research,” or scientific research that is not specifically tailored to medical developments or new technologies.
The second implication, as Dacks sees it, is the evolutionary one. The adaptin complex “looks like it’s an ancient” one, and Dacks called it “the final piece in a puzzle we’d been working on for a while.” He says this adaptin has allowed his team to formulate a hypothesis on the evolution of the eukaryotic cell, which has eluded scientists for decades.
The final important implication of this research is that they have already been able to tie this newly discovered adaptin to a neurodegenerative disease, hereditary spastic paraplegia. This complex’s discovery may speed up research into treatments for the disease.
Dacks says this is why basic research is integral to the progress of science: he had no idea when he started his soil amoeba project that it would lead to such a startling discovery that related to human cells, and to a crippling disease.
“The analogy that I’ve been giving people is, ‘I can tell when my car doesn’t start, but when I lift up the hood and look at the engine, I have no idea what an engine is supposed to look like, so I can’t tell what’s wrong,’ ” Dacks said. “It’s the same kind of thing with a cell.”
This is why Dacks feels there should be a larger space made for research that is not linked to specific medicinal or technological goals.
“I mean, the fact is, fundamentally, we need to understand how the cell works. Then we can start talking about disease.”
Photo: wellcome images/Flickr