Cells need to make proteins that support biological processes and cell functions. And when a cell needs to make proteins, it needs the help of ribosomes, the protein synthesisers of the body. For decades,scientists around the world believed that all ribosomes were the same. Some speculated that their composition, and hence their function, might vary, but no one had been able to provide experimental or observational proof of the claim.
All of that changed when Nikolai Slavov, assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Northeastern University found direct evidence that they were different. Slavov and his colleagues revealed the disparities in full-colour schematics in a paper published in the journal Cell Reports. The concept of “specialised ribosomes”—that not all ribosomes house the same standard 80 core proteins but rather varieties of them—had finally been validated. The findings could have implications for new directions in fields from cancer therapeutics to regenerative medicine.
The research won him a five-year, $2.35 million award from the National Institutes of HealthCommon Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research programwhich supports highly creative early-career researchers taking out-of-the-box approaches to major challenges in biomedical research.
“Ribosomes are one of the most fundamental and highly conserved structures in biology,” says Slavov. “The grant will enable me to investigate the specialised ribosome hypothesis further and flush out how the ribosomes’ varying compositions affect their biological function. Our work could help reshape our understanding of a central tenet of the field: how information from genes is regulated.”
Before Slavov’s discovery, scientists believed that ribosomes in unperturbed cells had a passive role in the expression of genetic information. His findings indicated that ribosomes not only assembled proteins, they also appeared to regulate that production. Ribosomes may determine, for example, how many and which types of proteins will be made in specific tissues.
The potential applications are broad—from tissue engineering to cancer inhibition. “The award supports basic research—those applications are in the future,” says Slavov. “ However, continued validation of my specialised ribosomes hypothesis could one day directly suggest rational therapies for cancers such as glioblastoma, which currently doesn’t have any effective treatment.”