Most life on Earth is dormant, after pulling an ‘emergency brake’

Most life on Earth is dormant, after pulling an ‘emergency brake’

Dan Samorodnitsky writes:

Researchers recently reported the discovery of a natural protein, named Balon, that can bring a cell’s production of new proteins to a screeching halt. Balon was found in bacteria that hibernate in Arctic permafrost, but it also seems to be made by many other organisms and may be an overlooked mechanism for dormancy throughout the tree of life.

For most life forms, the ability to shut oneself off is a vital part of staying alive. Harsh conditions like lack of food or cold weather can appear out of nowhere. In these dire straits, rather than keel over and die, many organisms have mastered the art of dormancy. They slow down their activity and metabolism. Then, when better times roll back around, they reanimate.

Sitting around in a dormant state is actually the norm for the majority of life on Earth: By some estimates, 60% of all microbial cells are hibernating at any given time. Even in organisms whose entire bodies do not go dormant, like most mammals, some cellular populations within them rest and wait for the best time to activate.

“We live on a dormant planet,” said Sergey Melnikov, an evolutionary molecular biologist at Newcastle University. “Life is mainly about being asleep.”

But how do cells pull off this feat? Over the years, researchers have discovered a number of “hibernation factors,” proteins that cells use to induce and maintain a dormant state. When a cell detects some kind of adverse condition, like starvation or cold, it produces a suite of hibernation factors to shut its metabolism down. [Continue reading…]

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