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68 molecular building blocks of life

A researcher from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) claims that 68 molecules can explain the origins of many serious diseases. After reviewing findings from multiple disciplines, he 'realized that only 68 molecular building blocks are used to construct these four fundamental components of cells: the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), proteins, glycans and lipids.' and he said that 'these 68 building blocks provide the structural basis for the molecular choreography that constitutes the entire life of a cell.' So is his unified vision of the building blocks of life correct? We'll soon discover this when other scientists look at his results. But read more...

A researcher from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) claims that 68 molecules can explain the origins of many serious diseases. After reviewing findings from multiple disciplines, he 'realized that only 68 molecular building blocks are used to construct these four fundamental components of cells: the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), proteins, glycans and lipids.' and he said that 'these 68 building blocks provide the structural basis for the molecular choreography that constitutes the entire life of a cell.' So is his unified vision of the building blocks of life correct? We'll soon discover this when other scientists look at his results. But read more...

Illustration of molecular building blocks

You can see above an illustration showing the 68 molecular building blocks (Credit: Jamey Marth). This illustration "defines the basic molecular building blocks of life and currently includes 32 glycans (sugar linkages found throughout the cell) and eight kinds of lipids (which compose cell membranes) along with the more well-known 20 amino acids that are used to make proteins and the eight nucleosides that compose the nucleic acids, DNA and RNA." For additional clarity, here is a link to a much larger version of this picture.

This project was led Jamey Marth, UC San Diego Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine working at the Moores UCSD Cancer Center and Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Here is a quote from Marth. "'These 68 building blocks provide the structural basis for the molecular choreography that constitutes the entire life of a cell,' said Marth. 'And two of the four cellular components are produced by these molecular building blocks in processes that cannot be encoded by the genes. These cellular components -- the glycans and lipids -- may now hold the keys to uncovering the origins of many grievous diseases that continue to evade understanding.'"

Marth added: "'We have now found instances where the pathogenesis of widespread and chronic diseases can be attributed to a change in the glycome, for example, in the absence of definable changes in the genome or proteome,' Marth said, adding that, as biomedical researchers, 'we need to begin to cultivate the integration of disciplines in a holistic and rigorous way in order to perceive and most effectively manipulate the biological mechanisms of health and disease.'"

This research work has been published in Nature Cell Biology under the title "A unified vision of the building blocks of life" (Volume 10, Number 9, Page 1015, September 2008). The scientific journal doesn't include a link to the abstract, but you can buy the 2-page paper for US$18.

Fortunately, Thomas Joseph, who writes the (It's a ...) Micro World (... after all) blog, had access to this paper. You'll find his analysis in a post named Periodic Table of Life - 68 "Elements" (September 4, 2008)

Here is Marth conclusion. "Defining the molecular building blocks of life provides a conceptual framework for biology that has the potential to enhance education and research by promoting the integration of knowledge. The insights afforded by bridging the divides that exist between disciplines can further moderate the view that researchers must invariably sacrifice breadth of knowledge to acquire depth of understanding. Cultivating this integration would reflect a more holistic and rigorous endeavour, which will ultimately be required if we are to perceive and most effectively manipulate the biological mechanisms of health and disease."

And here is Joseph's own conclusion. "It's an interesting concept. I'm not sure that the figure presented lends itself to easy memorization, a better understanding of the interactions of the molecules, or if it is as useful as the periodic table. Do we need to have better interdisciplinary collaborations? Most certainly. You see a fair amount of overlap (in some cases, not all) between the gene jockeys and protein chemists, but I think glycan and lipid research has lagged far behind (at least in the areas of microbiology to which I have been exposed). So, while an interesting concept, I'm not sure what traction this correspondence will obtain. Time will tell I suppose."

Sources: University of California at San Diego news release, September 3, 2008; and various websites

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