Home Cellular science Brain-eating amoeba helps scientists better understand the building blocks of life

Brain-eating amoeba helps scientists better understand the building blocks of life


AMHERST, Mass. — To understand how life became what it is today, there is perhaps no better answer than a brain-eating amoeba. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are studying an organism called Naegleria and I think it may offer new insight into the evolution of life on Earth.

Scientists have studied how Naegleria evolved to develop microtubules that help the cell perform internal tasks ranging from transporting food and waste to providing structural support. The findings may also help design treatment strategies against brain-eating amoebas.

Life relies on microtubules made up of sets of tubulins. In addition to maintaining the daily functions of the cell, microtubules help divide and replicate the cell. Specifically, there is a stage in mitosis where microtubules pull chromosomes to opposite sides of the cell, splitting them into two identical sets.

Previously, biologists assumed that the brain-eating amoeba used a specific type of tubulin during cell division. But in the new study, the team showed that Naegleria evolved to have three different sets of tubulins. One pair of tubulins helps only during mitosis while the other, called flagellated tubulinis responsible for cell movement.

In the study, the team compared tubulins in Naegleria and the structures they build with those seen in other species. “If we can understand the basic biology of Naegleria“says Katrina Velle, postdoctoral researcher in biology at UMass Amherst and lead author of the study, in a statement. “We can learn how to kill it by designing drugs that target the amoeba’s unique tubulins.”

Naegleria gruberi cells use one set of tubulins to build a mitotic spindle (cyan, left) and another set of tubulins (orange, right) to transform into a type of flagellated cell. (Credit: Katrina Velle, Fritz-Laylin Lab, UMass Amherst)

Naegleria can also give researchers insight into the ground rules that have guided the evolutionary progress of life. “All organisms must replicate,” says Lillian Fritz-Laylin, a UMass Amherst biology professor and lead author of the paper. “We know how replication processes work for certain cells, but there’s a huge whole that we don’t understand. Naegleria let’s test the rules made by the scientists to see if they hold up here.

The team used microscopes to study the Naegleria cells they have grown in the lab. These cells were stained with different chemicals to identify tubulins, emitting a vibrant color. The microscopes helped them take very high resolution 3D photographs that allowed them to measure, count and analyze the different microtubule structures.

“People often think that technology drives science,” adds Fritz-Laylin. “But in this case, the questions we are trying to answer are so fundamental to the functioning of life on earth, and of such interest to so many scientific specialties, that we had to assemble an international team of experts In this case, collaboration, teamwork and effective communication drove the science.

The study is published in the journal Current biology.