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Amoeba genome sheds light on early life

March 4, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
At UC Berkeley, there is new hope for some of mankind's biggest maladies from research about the smallest of creatures.

"What we have found is fundamental," Simon Prochnik, a bioinformaticist at the DOE Joint Genome Institute, said.

Prochnik studies the genetic make-up of single celled amoebas. He and a team of researchers have now sequenced the genome of a strange, single-celled organism called Naegleria gruberi. They say it is very similar to the most fundamental and early life that existed on Earth 1 billion years ago.

"Organisms like this would be all that existed on this planet, back then," Procnik said. "This is the first time we have been able to model how early creatures came about."

Naegleria gruberi is uniquely sophisticated and complicated. It swims to food and away from stress. It changes forms depending upon the environment. It has a basic amoeba form, a flagellating form and in difficult conditions, can turn into a hard-shelled cyst.

The more we understand about how amoebas function and move, the more they tell us about own make-up. Amoebas play a large role in human immunity through white blood cells. We also find them in the lungs, the kidneys, and of course, in human sperm cells, which sometimes malfunction, leading to sterility. In development, flagella also play an important part in making sure the layout of the human body happens properly.

Now, Prochnik and his team have what amounts to a genetic parts list that all amoebas have in common.

You can't fix something unless you know it's broken.


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