(Story contributed by Jim H. Smith)
A recent discovery made by Michael McAlear, chair and associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, and four of his students helps explain the function of ribosomes and sheds light on genetic processes scientists have been trying to decode for more than half a century. A paper authored by McAlear and his laboratory team, describing the discovery, was published last month in the distinguished journal BMC Genomics.
The discovery resulted from long-term research into the regulation of ribosomes, often described as molecular “machines,” the organelles of all living cells in which protein synthesis occurs. Guided by genetic “blueprints” delivered to them by messenger RNA, ribosomes gather amino acids, the building blocks of protein, and assemble them into polypeptides, the intricate chains of amino acids that, depending upon their arrangement, form the unique protein characteristics required for specific biological functions.
Scientists have known about ribosomes and their essential function for a long time. Cell biologist George Palade was awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for discovering them in 1955. But while scientists have understood what ribosomes are and what they do, they’ve spent the last half century trying to decipher the complex array of metabolic processes that play a role in the production of new proteins. It is one thing to know what ribosomes do, quite another to know how they do it.