JAN 05, 2019 4:06 PM PST

The Body's Largest Cellular Receptor is Identified

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

The largest cellular receptor in the body, which binds to vitamin B12, has now been identified. "What we're looking at is evolution at a structural level. A receptor with a toadstool structure that stems from way back and the common ancestors of insects and humans,” said researcher Christian Brix Folsted Andersen, Ph.D., an Associate Professor at the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University in Denmark. The work has been reported in Nature Communications.

Many people have to use vitamin B12 supplements, and still can't absorb the vitamin. / Image credit: Maxpixel

We need vitamin B12 for a variety of important functions including making red blood cells and controlling DNA. Most adults need around 2.4 micrograms a day, and the vitamin is not produced in our bodies, so we have to ingest it in foods like beef, eggs or fish or use supplements. While some people may benefit from supplementation, others cannot absorb it even when large amounts are taken. That makes B12 deficiency fairly common, which can lead to anemia, problems in the nervous system, and other health issues.

The receptor for B12 is a strange and ancient molecule that seems to have been created when two proteins combined. Researchers still don’t know why biology has been kept like this. Dorothy Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize for elucidating the structure of B12 in the 1960s; now we know its receptor is over than one thousand times larger. It’s helped the researchers understand why absorption of the vitamin can go wrong in so many people.

"With the help of x-ray crystallography, we've succeeded in determining how the receptor is able to organize itself in a previously unknown way in human biology. With this new knowledge we're finally able to explain why thousands of people around the world with specific genetic changes are unable to absorb the vitamin," Andersen said from where he's currently working at the University of Washington.

"But in my mind, the most interesting aspect is that with the help of advanced electron microscopy, which I'm learning about in detail here in Seattle, we have been able to see how the receptor as a whole looks and thus also see how the receptor absorbs the B12 vitamin in the intestines and various other substances in the kidneys. It's fantastic to have the opportunity to see this as the first person ever," he added.

Andersen noted that in the context of evolution, the receptor is unusual; it’s not like anything else that’s been discovered before. "At the same time, by comparing genes we can see that the receptor has the same structure as we find in insects and that it must have been evolved very early in evolution - many millions of years ago and thus long before the origin of mammals," he said.

Christian Brix Folsted Andersen has been at collaborating with Søren K. Moestrup on studies of B12 transport for a long time. In 2010, their efforts led to insight into how the receptor identifies B12 in the small intestine.

"The research we're carrying out today is a continuation of decades of research into the vitamin B12. Indeed, twenty-five years ago we had no idea about what was going on the shadowy recesses of the intestines. Now the lights have been turned on, and we can see how it all works in a way that none of us could have imagined," said Søren K. Moestrup.

"Apart from obviously being very satisfying from a scientific viewpoint, it also opens completely new perspectives for medical treatment. For example, we now have in-depth knowledge about a receptor that could evidently be used to transport drugs into the kidneys and intestines," he added.

Learn more about vitamin B12 absorption in the body from the video.


Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via Aarhus University, Harvard Health Publishing, Nature Communications

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
MAY 09, 2021
Genetics & Genomics
Another Neurodevelopmental Disorder is Discovered
MAY 09, 2021
Another Neurodevelopmental Disorder is Discovered
Researchers are identifying more rare disorders because of advances in genetic sequencing technologies, which have made ...
MAY 10, 2021
Genetics & Genomics
DNA Supercoiling is Found to Play a Role in Gene Expression
MAY 10, 2021
DNA Supercoiling is Found to Play a Role in Gene Expression
A cell has many ways to control gene expression, one of which is the structure of the genome itself; active genes have t ...
MAY 17, 2021
Cell & Molecular Biology
Survey Results: Where Is Pluripotent Stem Cell Research Now?
MAY 17, 2021
Survey Results: Where Is Pluripotent Stem Cell Research Now?
Human pluripotent stem cell (hPSC) lines are now commonly used across the globe. In the lab, researchers rely on hPSCs t ...
MAY 18, 2021
Genetics & Genomics
The Oral Microbiome Reveals How Long We've Loved Starchy Foods
MAY 18, 2021
The Oral Microbiome Reveals How Long We've Loved Starchy Foods
Bacteria are everywhere, including our guts and mouths. Researchers are learnings more about the history of the human mi ...
MAY 18, 2021
Cell & Molecular Biology
Cilia are Discovered to be Crucial to the Lymphatic System
MAY 18, 2021
Cilia are Discovered to be Crucial to the Lymphatic System
In recent years, researchers have been learning more about why cellular antennas called cilia are so important. Cilia ca ...
MAY 19, 2021
Genetics & Genomics
The Genetic Secrets of Long-Lived People
MAY 19, 2021
The Genetic Secrets of Long-Lived People
For 2019, the United Nations estimated that the average life expectancy for a person is 72.6 years of age. People that l ...
Loading Comments...