A protein vital to proper cell division could be used to create new tests and treatments for infertility, according to scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
OMRF researchers Roberto Pezza and Mike Dresser collaborated on a paper in the journal PLOS Genetics that shows the importance of a protein called HFM1 in keeping chromosomes attached during meiosis — a special kind of cell division used in reproduction.
If DNA is the book of instructions for making humans, then chromosomes — bundles of genes packed together inside the nucleus of every cell in the body — could be considered the chapters. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes in each cell, and they determine everything from a person's gender, height and hair color to basic information about how cells function.
Over time, cells die and are replaced by new cells. To make new cells, chromosomes are duplicated and the cell splits in two, each with its own set of DNA.
But chromosomes have to stick together at the right time and separate at the right time during that process, or else it can cause birth defects, infertility or cancer.
Another critical time for chromosomes is meiosis, which is the process that creates sperm in males and eggs in females.
“Usually when cells divide, they make copies of the chromosomes and then separate them — one complete copy into each new, identical cell,” Pezza said.
“Meiosis is different, because instead of just making a copy, the cell actually divides into four cells, each with one-half the ‘normal' number of the chromosomes.”
The reason the four cells only have half the chromosomes is because they are designed to bond with their opposite number — sperm and egg together combining chromosomes — starting a new generation. That's how children get genetic traits from both mothers and fathers.
The protein HFM1 helps hold chromosomes in place so they can be divided properly, Pezza said.
If something goes wrong and the chromosomes fall apart prematurely, it can cause the cells to divide with the wrong number of chromosomes.
If that happens, it can cause birth defects or spontaneous abortions.
And if the gene that makes the protein is missing or mutated, it can cause infertility.
HFM1 also plays a part in DNA repair, so if it is damaged or missing in adults, it could play a part in cancer development, he said.
“We think this information will lead to new diagnostics that could test for infertility, reproductive safety or cancer risk,” Pezza said.
“It also holds the potential to be developed into new therapies to treat infertility.”
The research was funded by grant No. R01GM087516 from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, and by a grant from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology.
Greg Elwell is a public affairs specialist at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.