Partial Structure of Key Protein (Oskar) for Development of Reproductive Cells Is Revealed in EMBL Heidelberg Studies

The structure of two parts of the Oskar protein, known to be essential for the development of reproductive cells, has been solved by scientists from EMBL Heidelberg in Germany. This advance, published online on July 16, 2015 in Cell Reports, has also enabled the research team to gather the first insights into how this poorly understood protein functions. The research was carried out with fruit flies, but has implications for other animals, as many organisms, including humans, also possess part of the Oskar protein. Named after the main character from the Günter Grass novel “The Tin Drum,” who chose never to grow up, the Oskar protein is essential for development. Embryos that develop from fruit fly eggs lacking the normal amount of Oskar protein are unable to form germ cells – cells that allow reproduction – and so the resulting flies are sterile. Complete lack of the Oskar protein also prevents the embryo’s abdomen from forming normally which stunts its growth and causes such flies to die. In a healthy egg, the Oskar protein initiates the formation of what’s known as the germ plasm – a gathering of proteins and RNAs within the cytoplasm, which then goes on to form a new germ cell. Germ plasm normally forms in a particular position within the egg, but if Oskar is artificially moved elsewhere, the germ plasm will form in the new location. Co-author of the paper, Dr. Anne Ephrussi said: “While we’ve known Oskar’s genetic role in development for some time, we’ve not known the mechanism by which this takes place. Solving the structure has enabled us to start to see how the different parts of the protein function at a molecular level, which could help us to understand more about this stage of development in a wide range of organisms.”
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