Magazine article Science News

Positive Signal: Lone Protons Carry Messages between Cells

Magazine article Science News

Positive Signal: Lone Protons Carry Messages between Cells

Article excerpt

Roundworms need protons to poop.

New research shows that protons released by roundworms' intestines trigger surrounding muscles to contract, causing the worm to defecate. The discovery marks the first time that scientists have found protons transmitting signals between cells.

The research also adds new support to the idea that protons might relay electrical signals in the human brain.

"A proton acting as a transmitter between cells was pretty unexpected," says Erik Jorgensen, lead scientist on the study at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "This is a fundamental subatomic particle, so it was a little hard to imagine it performing that role."

Normally, signals between cells are carried by multi-atom molecules with specific shapes that fit into corresponding receptor molecules. A proton is what's left when a hydrogen atom is stripped of its electron; it's about 1/100,000th the size of the original atom.

In spite of their tiny size and lack of a characteristic shape, protons already were known to activate receptors on the surfaces of some nerve cells. These receptors, called acid-sensing ion channels (ASICs), allow pain nerves to sense the ambient concentration of protons--in other words, the pH. That's why touching strong acid burns.

Jorgensen's team found an ASIC-like receptor on the muscle cells surrounding the gut of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. Previous studies by other researchers had shown that the worms' intestines pump protons into the space next to the muscles, and Jorgensen and his colleagues wondered whether these protons could be causing muscle contraction by binding to the receptors. …

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