"Pickle Gene" May Hold Clue to Cancer
Biochemist Joe Ogas, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., set out to determine why pickle-shaped swellings developed on some laboratory plant roots. Instead, he stumbled upon a biochemical on/off switch that could help researchers better understand cancer and, at the same time, develop new oil crops. A gene he discovered and named the "Pickle gene," when mutated, causes the root swellings. The results may help human health researchers understand and fight cancer, a disease in which cellular developmental controls go awry.
"We were looking at genetically modified Arabidopsis plants, trying to understand root development," he explains. "What we found was something totally different that will help us understand how plant cells change identity. It will help explain how seeds throw a biochemical switch that turns them into seedlings."
Ogas says that plants depend on a pair of biochemical switches as they change from seed to adult. He found that, in germinating seeds with the normal Pickle genes, one switch turns on while the other turns off. The first turns on the development of characteristics for a mature plant, initiating both root and shoot growth. At the same time, the plant with the normal Pickle gene produces a protein called chromatin remodeling factor, which flips the biochemical off-switch that stops the expression of embryo characteristics. …