A Simon Fraser University team, including Dr. David Vocadlo (shown here) reports that a sugar modification may be a common mechanism among animals that fine tunes gene expression.

Could a sugar molecule be key to fine-tuning how the genome responds to changes in an animal’s environment?  

The motivationAll animals adapt to their environment. One way they do this is by changing the levels of gene expression. How they tune these levels is a topic of high interest because it could enable us to figure out how to promote favourable adaptation and avoid negative adaptations that can cause disease.

The discovery – In this study, published in Nature Chemical Biology, Simon Fraser University (SFU) researchers investigated the way proteins in animals are modified by a specialized sugar unit. Previous work from these researchers showed that this sugar modification of proteins is essential for proper development and that these sugar-modified proteins are found on the genome. Now the authors have developed a chemical method to map the locations of these sugar-modified proteins on the genome. Using the simple fruit fly as a model, they found that these specialized sugars are found at over a thousand different locations across the genome. Moreover, they found that presence of this sugar modification affects diverse groups of genes, regulating the extent to which these gene are expressed.

Its significance – These findings suggest that this sugar modification may be a common mechanism among animals that fine tunes the expression of a large number of genes. Because levels of this sugar modification can change in humans based on blood sugar and nutrients, this work may have broad implications in understanding how organisms can adapt to changes in the availability of nutrients. Ultimately, the research may offer new insights into obesity and cancers, where nutrient availability changes dramatically.

Read the paper“Genome-wide chemical mapping of O-GlcNAcylated proteins in Drosophila melanogaster” by Ta-Wei Liu, Mike Myschyshyn, Donald A Sinclair, Samy Cecioni, Kevin Beja, Barry M Honda, Ryan D Morin & David J Vocadlo. Nature Chemical Biology 13:161–167 (2017). doi:10.1038/nchembio.2247

Website article compiled by Jacqueline Watson with Theresa Kitos