ETH Zurich researchers have shown that mosses and humans share unexpected common characteristics. These evolutionary relics could be useful in the production of therapeutic proteins.
At first glance, mosses and human beings have little in common. The moss Physcomitrella patens is small, pale green, immobile, and uses sunlight as its energy source. Humans are large, mobile, and need to obtain energy by eating vegetable or animal foods.
Transferring mammalian genes into moss
This made the result of the experiments carried out by researchers in the group led by Martin Fussenegger, Professor of Chemical and Bioengineering at ETH Zurich, all the more astonishing. In collaboration with researchers at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau, the PhD student Marc Gitzinger carried out tests to see what happens when unmodified human or mammalian genes are inserted into the moss genome. They transferred the foreign, unmodified genes into the moss and discovered that the moss was easily able to manufacture the proteins encoded therein.
This cannot be taken for granted, since the same process does not work when a mammalian gene is implanted into what are known as “higher” flowering plants. The reason is that sections of the start and finish sequences of the genes of animals, plants, fungi and bacteria are considerably different. They are responsible for ensuring that a gene in the organism is recognized as such, and the proteins encoded by it are produced in the correct amount and are released from the cell. The more remote the relationship between living organisms, the greater the difference between these sequences. This is why biotechnologists must normally adapt them to a foreign organism before transplanting a gene into it. The researchers were astonished to find that this was not necessary in the case of the moss.
Moss as a generalist
The explanation given for this by Ralf Reski, Professor of Plant Biotechnology at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau, is that the moss has remained a generalist. It underwent the last major modification about 450 million years ago when it changed from living in water to a life on land, adapting to the new living conditions and then remaining unaltered for millions of years, both in its appearance and at a genetic level.
The process used by the moss to produce its proteins is less sophisticated than in “higher” organisms. In contrast to the moss, these latter organisms underwent major further developments and specializations over the course of 450 million years. On the other hand, the moss clearly retained – for millions of years – the ability to read foreign genes such as those from mammals and thus also from humans, and to translate them into proteins, probably without ever having made any use of this capability during these 450 million years.
A cost-effective alternative to mammalian cells
Today, the moss Physcomitrella patens and its ability to manufacture mammalian proteins could help to satisfy the large worldwide demand for therapeutic proteins. One well-known example is insulin, which enables diabetics to control their blood sugar level.
Nowadays, therapeutic proteins are mainly manufactured in mammalian cells, which are very expensive to culture. They need to be maintained at body temperature with a continuous supply of nutrients and oxygen, and the production process is costly. At present, global production capacity cannot match the demand. Because of the difficulties involved in handling them, production is possible only in industrialized countries.
In contrast, the moss Physcomitrella patens is comparatively undemanding. It needs water, a couple of nutrient salts and some light to allow it to flourish and produce proteins. This makes it convenient and simple to handle in a bioreactor, and, in the future, it might enable even less developed nations to satisfy their requirement for therapeutic proteins. However, further research will be needed before the moss can be used to produce therapeutic proteins on an industrial scale.
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