Research published Aug. 1 by scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) links gene mutations found in some patients with Meier-Gorlin syndrome (MGS) with specific cellular dysfunctions that are thought to give rise to a particularly extreme version of dwarfism, small brain size, and other manifestations of abnormal growth which generally characterize that rare condition.
Although only 53 cases of Meier-Gorlin syndrome have been reported in the medical literature since the first patient was described in 1959, it is a malady whose mechanisms are bringing to light new functions for some of the cellular processes common to all life. Pathology related to MGS is traced in the new research to one of these, the fundamental process called mitosis in which cells replicate their genetic material and prepare to divide into two identical "daughter" cells.
CSHL President and Professor Bruce Stillman, Ph.D., a cancer biologist who has made seminal discoveries over three decades that have helped reveal the exquisite choreography of how chromosomes are duplicated in cells, led the new research, which suggests how, during mitosis, mutant versions of a protein called Orc1 contribute in two distinct ways to severe MGS pathology. The research is published online ahead of print in Genes & Development.
Components of the cellular replication machinery
Orc1 is the largest of six proteins that form parts of a cellular machine called the origin recognition complex, or ORC. As Stillman and others discovered 20 years ago, ORC in human cells attaches to DNA at specific locations throughout the genome when a cell is preparing to duplicate its genetic information and go through cell division. These locations are called replication start sites or origins. When ORC and several other helper proteins attach at these positions, each of the assembled groups of proteins is said to form a pre-replication complex (pre-RC).
When pre-RCs have attached at all of the "start" sites throughout the genome -- a process called licensing -- cells can then begin to copy the double helix of DNA to produce two copies, one for each daughter cell. ORC enables a cell to keep track of its DNA replication and this is essential because the genetic material must be copied once, and only once.
Other roles for ORC, including centrosome regulation
Over the years, new roles for many of the ORC proteins have been found within the cell. Not only are they involved in DNA replication; as Stillman (2009) and others have shown, a number of them are also known to be involved in regulation of a cellular organ called the centrosome. Floating inside the cell's watery cytoplasm, the centrosome helps regulate the cell's progression through the cell-cycle. It ensures that the duplicated chromosomes are segregated evenly to the daughter cells. During replication, it organizes the threadlike microtubules that form a delicate spindle that segregates the two identical sets of chromosomes. Serving as anchor points for those "threads" are tiny structures inside the centrosome called centrioles. Just like DNA, which must be licensed to insure it is only copied once per cell cycle, so must the centrosome and centrioles be licensed for proper regulation of cell division.
The centrosome also plays a role in establishing cell outgrowths, such as axons in brain cells and cilia in many other cells of the body.
Mutant ORC proteins are linked to MGS pathology