Mysterious Microbe Offers Clues to How Cancer Works

An ancient microbe that operates like cancer may be a missing link.

ByABC News
July 15, 2008, 4:27 PM

July 16, 2008 — -- A tiny aquatic microbe that has been swimming around the planet formore than a billion years has stunned scientists who have discoveredthat it has a sophisticated communications network that is moreelaborate than that found in higher life forms, including humans. Whatmakes the finding particularly surprising is the microbe has only onecell, so it's sort of like living in a community with only onetelephone. Who are you going to talk to?

The microbe, known as Monosiga brevicollis, has fascinated scientistsfor more than a century because it could be the bridge between fungusand multi-celled animals, and thus, the pathway the first organismsfollowed into the animal kingdom. We share some of the same genes,tyrosine kinases, except the microbe has a lot more of them, 128 tojust 90 found in humans.

That particular gene allows the cells in a human body to talk to eachother, and respond to external stimuli, talents that would seem to beof little use to a single-celled organism.

Earlier this year scientists from several research institutions completed mapping the microbe's genome, but when some of them took a closer look at the data, they found far more kinases than they had expected.

"We were absolutely stunned," said computational biologist GerardManning of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.Manning is the lead author of a report on the findings in a recentonline edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This particular microbe has been suspected of being at least part ofthe bridge to the animal world, and the first critter across the pathis believed to have been the sponge, Manning said in a telephoneinterview. If that's true, then another gap in the evolutionary trailhas been closed, but that's not the only reason scientists are excitedover the findings.

It turns out that this very simple microbe is a lot like us, and themore we understand it, the more we are likely to understand ourselves,Manning said. It's important, he added, because the same gene thatgives the microbe the ability to communicate is implicated in mostforms of human cancer.