Curing cancer; Plant diversity decreasing

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Studies on cell division advance research on the cure to cancers.
Nasser Rusan/ National Institute of Health

Cell division research could stop cancer

According to the National Institutes of Health, 1.5 million people in the United States are diagnosed with cancer each year and 600,000 die from it. However, a cure for most types of the disease still eludes scientists.

However, two recent discoveries in cell division will allow researchers to create more effective treatments that limit the division and the spread of cancer cells.

Researchers at Donald Danforth Plant Science Center have found a protein in algae that is similar to one in human cells that is often misregulated in cancers.

Using these algae cells, the researchers learned the protein tells a cell how large to grow before division and how many times to split. This same protein, when manipulated, caused the cell to either divide too many times or grow too large, both of which can cause the cells to die quicker.

Using this knowledge about cell division in algae, researchers may be able to isolate the protein in human cells, stop production and cause cancer cells to die.

Similar progress has been made by researchers at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who have learned more about the genetic structure of an enzyme that helps cells to divide. Since cancer occurs when cells divide out of control, understanding the structure of enzyme can lead scientists to find chemical inhibitors that bind to the enzyme and block cell proliferation.

The enzyme, separase, breaks down proteins and allows chromosomes to separate for cell division. Scientists had previously known about the enzyme but did not know how it worked to help cells multiply.

Further research built upon these discoveries may lead to a drug that keeps cancer cells from dividing and multiplying.

Increasing levels of nitrogen can lead to less diverse ecosystems.AMDewhurst/ Wikimedia Commons
Increasing levels of nitrogen can lead to less diverse ecosystems.

Atmospheric nitrogen production leads to decrease in plant diversity

While scientists have been tracking the increased levels of nitrogen in the atmosphere for decades, a recent study links this with decreasing plant diversity. The study released by the University of Colorado tracked 15,000 sites across the United States finding 24 percent of them experienced a loss in plant diversity. Grasslands (especially those with acidic soil) were the most vulnerable.

“The numerous plant species that live in an ecosystem are a bit like rivets on an airplane,” Samuel Simkin, a post-doctoral research associate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at CU and lead author of the new study, said in a press release. “You might be able to lose a few without issue, but losing too many can be disastrous. It’s hard to determine where that tipping point is.”

A study in 2011 found that ecosystems with more plant species were nearly 1.5 times more productive than those with only one species. More diverse communities are more efficient at capturing nutrients and light, in addition to generating oxygen and taking-up carbon dioxide more than twice as fast as plant monocultures. Plant diversity can also help to prevent droughts.

While in small quantities nitrogen stimulates plant growth, too much can taint the soil and water supplies.

But, it is not just the threat of nitrogen sticking around in the air. Recent studies have shown that nitrogen stays in the soil after fertilizer stops being applied and can leak into water supplies. In the past century, global release of nitrogen into the atmosphere has tripled due to agriculture and industrial processes.