Parkinson’s disease affects neurons in the substantia nigra brain region – their mitochondrial activity ceases and the cells die. In an open-access article published online on August 1, 2014 in The Company of Biologists/Biology Open, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, show that supplying D-lactate or glycolate, two products of the gene DJ-1, can stop and even counteract this process: Adding the substances to cultured HeLa cells and to cells of the nematode C. elegans restored the activity of mitochondria and prevented the degeneration of neurons. Thee team also showed that the two substances rescued the toxic effects of the weed killer Paraquat. Cells that had been treated with this herbicide, which is known to cause a Parkinson's-like harm of mitochondria, recovered after the addition of the two substances. Both glycolic and D-lactic acids occur naturally in unripe fruits and certain kinds of yoghurt. Drs. Teymuras Kurzchalia and Tony Hyman both have labs at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics with rather different research programs – but both happened to stumble upon the gene DJ-1 and joined forces. This gene, originally thought of as an oncogene, has been linked to Parkinson’s disease since 2003. Recent studies showed that DJ-1 belongs to a novel glyxolase family. The major function of these genes is assumed to be the detoxification of aggressive aldehyde by-products from mitochondrial metabolism. The Dresden research team has now shown that the products of DJ-1, D-lactate and glycolate, are actually required to maintain the high mitochondrial potential and thus can prevent the degeneration of neurons implicated in Parkinson’s disease.
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