Discovery of a phosphate sensing and signaling pathway in plants


Cells require sufficient amounts of the element phosphorus to build their membranes and to store and copy genetic information. Phosphorus is taken up by cells in the form of inorganic phosphate, an important signaling molecule and energy currency. While we take up sufficient amounts of phosphate with our diet, plants have to mobilize and take up phosphate from the soil, where it is poorly bioavailable. Phosphate thus limits the growth of plants, and phosphate fertilizers have to be used to maximize crop yields. How plant cells measure cellular phosphate levels and how they decide if and when to take up more phosphate is poorly understood.

The Hothorn lab has previously shown that phosphate-rich inositol pyrophosphates are nutrient messengers in plants and identified SPX domains as their cellular receptors. In a new report, the Hothorn, Hiller (Biozentrum Basel) and Fiedler (FMP Berlin) labs now report that inositol pyrophosphates control the activity of the transcription factor PHOSPHATE STARVATION RESPONSE 1 (PHR1). When there is enough phosphate in the cell, inositol pyrophosphates bind to the SPX receptor which in turn binds to PHR1, keeping it in a isolated form unable to active gene expression. When phosphate becomes limiting, inositol pyrophosphates are less abundant, the SPX – PHR1 complex dissociates and the free transcription factor can interact with itself and activate the expression of genes involved in phosphate uptake. This signaling mechanism may now be exploited towards the development of phosphate starvation tolerant crops that would require less phosphate fertilizer.

The article was published in Nature Communications, on January 15th 2021.


The wings of a “genetic bird” protect us against viruses


Modelling of HLA-peptide bindings forming the two wings of a bird in flight.

Do populations from different geographic regions have the same potential for defending themselves against pathogens and against viruses in particular? An analysis of human genomes, especially the HLA genes responsible for the so-called “adaptive” immune system, provide some possible answers to this question. These genes, which vary enormously between individuals, code for molecules capable of recognising the different viruses so they can trigger the appropriate immune response.

Alicia Sanchez-Mazas‘s group, partnering with Cambridge University, has identified the HLA variants that bind to families of viruses most effectively. Their study show that, in spite of the great heterogeneity of HLA variants in individuals, all populations benefit from an equivalent potential when it comes to virus protection.

The article was published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, on December 15th, 2020.

Press release from UNIGE.

The Hsp70-Hsp90 co-chaperone Hop/Stip1 shifts the proteostatic balance from folding towards degradation


Despite the key proposed function of Hop/Stip1/Sti1 for protein folding and maturation, it is not essential in a number of eukaryotes and bacteria lack an ortholog. Didier Picard’s group has explored why Hop is present in eukaryotes, what its critical functions are, and whether and how the eukaryotic Hsp70-Hsp90 molecular chaperone machines may function without Hop to ensure proteostasis. Their studies on the functions of Hop as a co-chaperone of the Hsp70-Hsp90 molecular chaperone machines led them to the discovery of alternative cellular strategies that ensure proper protein folding and proteostasis in human and yeast cells lacking this co-chaperone. These findings highlight the persistence of evolutionarily more ancient mechanisms in eukaryotic cells that may contribute to balance protein folding and degradation under certain conditions.

This study was published in Nature Communications on November 25th 2020.


Snakes reveal the origin of skin colours


The skin colour of vertebrates depends on chromatophores — cells found in the deep layers of the skin. The group of Athanasia Tzika in Michel Milinkovitch’s laboratory, specialists in genetic determinism and colour evolution in reptiles, is studying the wide variety of colours sported by different individuals within the corn snake species. The research demonstrates that the dull colour of the lavender variant of corn snake is caused by a mutation in the LYS gene involved in forming lysosomes, the “garbage disposal” vesicles of cells. This single mutation is enough to affect every skin colour, demonstrating that both the reflective crystals and pigments are stored in lysosome-related vesicles. The UNIGE study marks a significant step forward in our understanding of the origin of colours and patterns in the skin of vertebrates.

The article was published in PNAS on October 5th, 2020.

Press release from UNIGE.

Wildcats threatened by their domestic cousins


European wildcats, thought to be extinct 50 or so years ago in the Jura mountains, have since recolonised part of their former territory. This resurgence in an area occupied by domestic cats has gone hand-in-hand with genetic crosses between the two species. The hybridisation between wild and domesticated organisms is known to endanger the gene pool of wild species.

Mathias Currat‘s and Juan Montoya‘s groups, in collaboration with the University of Zurich and the University of Oxford, modelled the interactions between the two species to predict the future of the wildcat in the mountainous region of the Swiss Jura. The different scenarios modelled by the scientists show that within 200 to 300 years —a very short time in evolutionary terms— hybridisation will entail the irreversible genetic replacement of wildcats, making it impossible to distinguish them from their domestic cousins, as is already the case in Scotland and Hungary.

This article was published in Evolutionary Applications on Sept. 2, 2020.

Press release

This study is also covered by other media :

Le chat sauvage va tendre à disparaître selon une étude Léman Bleu Télé / Le Journal, 29.09.2020
Le chat sauvage du Jura bientôt avalé par son cousin domestique RTS La 1ère / Journal 10h / CQFD*, 30.09.2020
Le chat sauvage est menacé de disparition… RTS La 1ère / La Matinale / Journal 7h / L’invité 7.38, 30.09.2020
Sauvage contre domestique: la bataille des chats est déclarée Tribune de Genève, 30.09.2020
Le chat sauvage, victime de son cousin domestique Le Temps, 30.09.2020

Mitochondrial RNA granules are fluid condensates positioned by membrane dynamics


Mitochondria contain the genetic information and expression machinery to produce essential respiratory chain proteins. Within the mitochondrial matrix, newly synthesized RNA, RNA processing proteins and mitoribosome assembly factors form punctate sub-compartments referred to as mitochondrial RNA granules (MRGs). Despite their proposed importance in regulating gene expression, the structural and dynamic properties of MRGs remain largely unknown. EPFL biophysicist Suliana Manley’team and Jean-Claude Martinou’s group investigated the internal architecture of MRGs and found that the MRG ultrastructure consists of compacted RNA embedded within a protein cloud. They revealed that MRGs rapidly exchange components and can undergo fusion, characteristic properties of fluid condensates. Furthermore, MRGs associate with the inner mitochondrial membrane and their fusion coincides with mitochondrial remodelling. Together, these findings reveal that MRGs are nanoscale fluid compartments, which are dispersed along mitochondria via membrane dynamics.

This study was published in Nature Cell Biology on September 28th 2020.


CryoEM symposium cryoGEnic 2020- postponed!


The 2020 symposium has been postponed. It should take place in Fall 2021, maintaining the planned schedule with the same set of speakers.
The 2020 cryoEM symposium will take place here at UNIGE on November 6th, with a spectacular line-up of speakers (including Nobel laureate Jacques Dubochet). This symposium will be very interesting for all people with interest in Structural Biology and the latest developments in cryo-electron microscopy.
The registration to this meeting is free but due to the current circumstances, potentially only limited amount of seats will be available in the seminar room – of course all depending on how the situation with the virus will develop in the next months. Therefore, a homepage has been created and EVERY person that wants to attend the symposium has to register:
Live-stream will possibly also be offered to the symposium so that all talks can be attended from home, your working desks or in the other seminar rooms that will be used for live-streaming. Seats in the auditorium will be distributed on a first come, first served basis.

We’re not all equal in the face of the coronavirus


Are there differences in immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus between populations from different geographic regions? Part of the answer to this question is to be found in the genomes of these groups of people and, more specifically, in the HLA genes responsible for the adaptive immune system. These genes are special in that they often differ between individuals. Thousands of possible variants (or alleles) have been identified, and not all of them are equally effective in fighting a new virus. The frequency of these alleles varies from one population to another due to past migrations and their adaptation to different environments. Alicia Sanchez-Mazas group,  – working in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute in Jena (Germany) and the University of Adelaide (Australia) – has pinpointed the HLA variants that are potentially the most effective against seven viruses, including the new coronavirus. They have also brought to light significant differences between populations.

This article was published in HLA on May 31st, 2020.

Press release from UNIGE.


This study is also covered by other media :

Des populations inégales face au coronavirus Avis d’Expert, RTS, 11.06.2020

Les humains pas tous égaux face au coronavirus Le Temps, 11.06.2020

UNIGE: les humains pas tous égaux face au… Radio Lac, 11.06.2020

Différences d’immunité face au coronavirus / Choisir Revue Culturelle Online, 10.06.2020

Les humains pas tous égaux face au coronavirus L’, 11.06.2020

Coronavirus: les humains ne sont pas tous…, 11.06.2020

We’re not all equal in face of coronavirus MirageNewsCom / Mirage News, 11.06.2020

Our immune systems are not all equal in the… Technology Networks, 11.06.2020

A history of the medical mask and the rise of throwaway culture


What are the causes of the shortage of face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic? Research by Bruno J. Strasser of the University of Geneva and Thomas Schlich of McGill University on the origin of the medical mask answers this question from a historical perspective.

The authors show that masks were developed at the end of the 19th century to prevent surgeons from infecting their patients. But it was during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 that their use became widespread to protect against infectious people. All masks, made of fabric and metal, were reusable. In the 1960s, the industry developed and vigorously promoted disposable masks. Experimental studies showed that they were no more effective than reusable masks. However, they eventually replaced reusable masks, creating a dependence on a constant supply. The recent shortage of masks, with sometimes tragic consequences for medical workers, shows the cost of this historic choice.

This article was published in The Lancet, on May 22nd 2020.

On the same topic:

” L’élimination des masques réutilisables est un choix historique discutable” : Interview from Bruno Strasser in Le Monde, published on May 25th 2020.

“2020, année de la science citoyenne?” : Le grand débat with Bruno Strasser on RTS on May 25th 2020.

“Et si l’erreur c’était de vouloir des masques jetables”: Emission radio Superfail on France Culture, June 1st 2020.