Chloroplasts and Neurology. Who Knew?

You don’t have to be a chronic tree-caresser to know that plants are cool. They’re alive, they’re incredibly diverse and complex, they come in a mad variety of shapes and designs and colors, and they undergird the whole of the Earth’s food chain. Not bad. Some plants even eat meat. So, yeah; plants are wondrous. And a little scary.

Now researchers in Catalonia are reporting a breakthrough with plant proteins that may have a seismic effect on our approach to such neurological dysfunctions as Huntington’s Disease and Alzheimer’s. As has been reported elsewhere in these pages, when the amino acids that comprise a protein link themselves together, the protein will begin to fold itself into the three-dimensional shape that best suits its destined purpose in the body. When this protein-shaping process goes even mildly awry, though, the results can be degenerative neurological conditions. Much of the study of these unstoppable diseases is related to these instances of misfolding proteins; aberrant shape-shifts that lead to toxic protein-clotting and neural cell death.

A Life-Saving Chaperone

In a plant cell, though, it’s been found that misshaped proteins can be repaired if they just chemically yell for help. Certain common stresses in the plant kingdom, a temperature spike, for instance, can lead to the sort of confused protein-folding mishaps that spell devastation in a human cell. But a plant’s cell’s chloroplasts—the organelles that produce the nutrients that make plants essential to the animal diet, and which drive the growth of the plant itself—are not so easily discouraged.

The nutrient-pumping chloroplasts are crowded with proteins, some of which inevitably fail to properly shape. These misshapen proteins, though, are not as ruinously destructive as their animal protein counterparts. Why not? Because using a molecular process called “Protease Clp”, the chloroplasts break these defective proteins apart, rendering them harmless and non-toxic. Wow, right? But there’s more.

When the buildup of these ruinously odd-shaped plant proteins become too much for even the chloroplast’s unpronounceable “Protease Clp” machinery to fix, the panicked chloroplast sends a chemical distress signal to the nucleus of the cell, which responds by sending out a repair protein like a dapper rescuer on horseback (speaking very metaphorically); an emergency attendant the delighted scientists are calling a chaperone. This chaperone protein arrives to actually unfold the messed-up protein, and then guide its healthy reshaping. Since much of humankind’s neurological disease is based on poor protein-folding, this discovery has Alzheimer researchers holding their collective breath. The research into this latest plant kingdom brouhaha continues apace.

So chalk up another hopeful discovery from the crazy molecular depths of your average leafy twig. Whether our chlorophyll-packed pals are hanging around the condo as air ferns, coloring the garden with rainbow-colored blossoms, or poking up, weed-like, through battered asphalt, one thing is for sure—these guys are the real deal. And plant protein may be the bearer of momentous good news. Did you ever doubt it?


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