MSU research into how plants regulate proteins could help humans get to Mars

Michigan

A file image of Mars courtesy NASA.

EAST LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – Spartan researchers have gotten a $1.95 million grant to study how plant cells fold proteins. Related research could help get humans to Mars.

The grant, from the National Institutes of Health, will pay for research to expand our understanding of how cells fold proteins into the proper shape.

Proteins are long, chain-like molecules that do many essential functions for life. A structure inside the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), which is a bit like a 3-D spider web, folds many of our proteins into the proper shape.

Proteins that are folded incorrectly can be dangerous or deadly and have been linked to illnesses like Alzheimer’s and cancer. The ER is responsible for watching out for incorrectly-folded proteins and triggering the “unfolded protein response” (UPR), which is a defense mechanism that tells the cell to dump the bad proteins and produce more good ones.

However, this process is extremely complicated and not very well understood. The Spartan researchers, led by Frederica Barndizzi, will study the UPR in plants to better understand how it works and how it can be fixed when something goes wrong.

“This is really exciting and important for humans,” Brandizzi says. “Human cells that have a defect in the UPR might be able to be brought back to life and functional by introducing single mutations that we are mapping in our lab.”

Altering the ER could also let the researchers boost the production of important products, like pharmaceuticals and antibodies.

Brandizzi’s lab is also studying how the ER and UPR are affected by conditions in space.

Growing food during space travel will probably be essential for a successful manned mission to Mars. However, space introduces lots of unusual stresses on plants, like microgravity, cosmic radiation, and inhospitable temperatures. The MSU researchers looked at plants that had been taken to the International Space Station or put through simulations of those extreme conditions to find out how they would change the UPR.

Understanding those effects could help us protect plants on Earth from stress factors, like rising global temperatures, while also ensuring that our astronauts will be able to grow food on their way to the red planet.

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