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Research at UC San Francisco connects Mono Lake, evolution, and cardiovascular health

December 8th, 2013 by Mono Lake Committee Staff

This post was written by Julia Frankenbach, 2013 Project Specialist.

What do bacteria, Mono Lake, and human cardiovascular health have in common? “Not much,” I (and most of my coworkers) would have answered in mid-October.

But this was before the Mono Lake Committee received an inconspicuous manila envelope containing some very conspicuous news. The envelope was from Daniel L. Minor, Ph.D., a biochemist and professor at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Minor wrote to inform us of his research and an upcoming publication that makes striking connections between Mono Lake, evolutionary history, and cardiovascular health.

Dr. Minor and his laboratory team study ion channels, or proteins embedded in the lipid membrane surrounding all cells. These proteins serve as channels that allow charged ions of calcium, sodium, and potassium to pass through the membrane, traveling into and out of the cell. This passage of ions is responsible for generating the electrical impulses that allow our muscles, hearts, and brain to function properly. Comprehending how ion channels work is, therefore, the gateway to developing better pharmaceutical solutions to treat things including arrhythmias, epilepsy, and pain. Dr. Minor and his team are interested in better understanding these ion channels as the specific targets for such drugs.

Dr. Minor uses a method known as X-ray crystallography to attain atomic-level views of ion channel structure—information necessary for predicting interactions with drugs. Mono Lake enters the picture here, as the particular ion channel that Dr. Minor was able to successfully map comes from Mono Lake. It is a bacterial ion channel in the genome of Alkalilimnicola ehrlichei—an organism unique to Mono Lake’s alkaline, high-salinity environment. The atomic view of this organism’s ion channel (named NavAe1) provides a rare look into the mechanics of these essential proteins. In mapping the structure of NavAe1, Dr. Minor and his team observed striking similarities between its architecture and that of the human cardiac ion channel, Cav1.2. This discovery, strengthened by further experiments, effectively connects the atomic structures of Mono Lake’s unique organisms with atomic structures in the human heart. This connection is possible because the specific structure of these ions channels has been preserved over billions of years of evolution, from bacterial species in Mono Lake to living, breathing human beings.

We can now begin to recognize that we, as human beings on that other end of evolution, are connected to Mono Lake in ways perhaps deeper than we have yet acknowledged. We have protected and celebrated Mono Lake for its natural beauty, its unparalleled recreational opportunities, and its global ecological significance as a stop-over for migratory birds. Dr. Minor’s research suggests further cause for celebration—that Mono Lake contains biological blueprints mirrored in our very bodies. We are all friends of the lake, but this research implies a deeper relationship. In a way, Mono Lake is family.

The implications for human health are significant. Dr. Minor continues his research today, seeking further mappings that he believes will lead to understandings directly benefiting human cardiovascular health. This highlights Mono Lake’s value as a biological resource. The lake has taught us about the atomic mechanisms responsible for running our hearts and brains—the very organs, as Dr. Minor poetically observes, that allow us to enjoy the lake’s beauty and protect it from harm.

Dr. Minor expressed his sentiments beautifully: “…I would like to say that as a UC faculty member and Californian who has spent many enjoyable hikes around Mono Lake, I am proud to have been able to make a connection between the research that goes on in my laboratory in San Francisco and this very special California ecosystem. The NavAe1 channel was truly a gift from the lake for us.”

The research paper resulting from this work was published in the Journal of Molecular Biology in October. The cover of the issue features a composite image of Mono Lake tufa towers stylized to depict the discovered structures of the NavAe1 proteins. The article has been published Open Access, so it is available to the public here.

I find it beautiful that in looking to this alkaline lake—a place known for its non-potable water and eerie, alien landscapes—we have ultimately learned about ourselves.

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