NASA scientists and academic colleagues are studying tiny hairs inside microorganisms to find clues about kidney disease.

“To accomplish the Vision for Space Exploration, NASA has to ensure astronauts’ health by studying biological processes to develop treatments for potential physical problems,” said NASA’s Ames Research Center Director of Science Dr. Guenter Riegler. “By collaborating with academia, NASA will be able to derive the best research possible to benefit people in space and on Earth,” he added.

Researchers at Ames, in collaboration with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), created the first complete map of the gene activity of flagella (microscopic hairs) on single-cell microorganisms.

“Hairs on the cell surface in algae are virtually identical to human cilia, short hairs inside a human body that drive fluids across the surface of a cell,” said Dr. Viktor Stolc, director of the Ames Genome Research Facility.

“Understanding the genetic make-up of the cilia-like structures, through studying the complete genetic code in microorganisms, helps scientists gain a better understanding of polycystic kidney disease (PKD),” Stolc said.

According to the PKD Foundation, “Polycystic kidney disease is the most common genetic, life-threatening disease affecting more than 600,000 Americans, regardless of sex, age, race or ethnic origin.”

“Gene PKGD1 encodes a protein that is responsible for polycystic kidney disease among human subjects and is also a component of primary cilia in the kidney,” Stolc said.

“In fact, several of the genes identified in the study are known to be involved in control of cell behavior and other tissues, raising the possibility these same genes could be the missing link between cilia and polycystic kidney symptoms,” said Dr. Wallace Marshall, assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF.

Scientists believe understanding cilia functions may lead to the development of countermeasures to prevent PKD, which is one cause of kidney stone formation. Mapping genome activity is creating important new knowledge that is being used for health care. The research results are applicable to astronauts on long-term space missions and to improving quality of life on Earth.

The study results are in this week’s online version of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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