Elephants, Mice, and Clocks...


Topics: Biology, DNA, Evolution, Research

In her laboratory in Barcelona, Spain, Miki Ebisuya has built a clock without cogs, springs, or numbers. This clock doesn’t tick. It is made of genes and proteins, and it keeps time in a layer of cells that Ebisuya’s team has grown in its lab. This biological clock is tiny, but it could help to explain some of the most conspicuous differences between animal species.

Animal cells bustle with activity, and the pace varies between species. In all observed instances, mouse cells run faster than human cells, which tick faster than whale cells. These differences affect how big an animal gets, how its parts are arranged, and perhaps even how long it will live. But biologists have long wondered what cellular timekeepers control these speeds, and why they vary.

A wave of research is starting to yield answers for one of the many clocks that control the workings of cells. There is a clock in early embryos that beats out a regular rhythm by activating and deactivating genes. This ‘segmentation clock’ creates repeating body segments such as the vertebrae in our spines. This is the timepiece that Ebisuya has made in her lab.

“I’m interested in biological time,” says Ebisuya, a developmental biologist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory Barcelona. “But lifespan or gestation period, they are too long for me to study.” The swift speed of the segmentation clock makes it an ideal model system, she says.

These cellular clocks help explain why elephants are bigger than mice, Michael Marshall, Nature

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