UCSF Research Connects Mono Lake, Evolution, and Cardiovascular Health

By Clarice Estrada

Daniel Minor's recent publications makes striking connections between Mono Lake, evolutionary history and cardiovascular health. Minor, PhD, is a professor in the Cardiovascular Research Institute in the School of Medicine.

Here is an excerpt from Julia, project specialist at The Mono-logue, a Mono Lake blog:

"Dr. Minor and his laboratory team study ion channels, or proteins embedded in the lipid membrane surrounding all cells. These proteins serve as channels that allow charged ions of calcium, sodium, and potassium to pass through the membrane, traveling into and out of the cell. This passage of ions is responsible for generating the electrical impulses that allow our muscles, hearts, and brain to function properly. Comprehending how ion channels work is, therefore, the gateway to developing better pharmaceutical solutions to treat things including arrhythmias, epilepsy, and pain. Dr. Minor and his team are interested in better understanding these ion channels as the specific targets for such drugs.

Dr. Minor uses a method known as X-ray crystallography to attain atomic-level views of ion channel structure — information necessary for predicting interactions with drugs. Mono Lake enters the picture here, as the particular ion channel that Minor was able to successfully map comes from Mono Lake.

It is a bacterial ion channel in the genome of Alkalilimnicola ehrlichei — an organism unique to Mono Lake’s alkaline, high-salinity environment. The atomic view of this organism’s ion channel (named NavAe1) provides a rare look into the mechanics of these essential proteins. In mapping the structure of NavAe1, Dr. Minor and his team observed striking similarities between its architecture and that of the human cardiac ion channel, Cav1.2. This discovery, strengthened by further experiments, effectively connects the atomic structures of Mono Lake’s bizarre organisms with atomic structures in the human heart. This connection is possible because the specific structure of these ions channels has been preserved over billions of years of evolution, from bacterial species in Mono Lake to living, breathing human beings.

We can now begin to recognize that we, as human beings on that other end of evolution, are connected to Mono Lake in ways perhaps deeper than we have yet acknowledged. We have protected and celebrated Mono Lake for its natural beauty, its unparalleled recreational opportunities, and its global ecological significance as a stop-over for migratory birds. Minor’s research suggests further cause for celebration — that Mono Lake contains biological blueprints mirrored in our very bodies."

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