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.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. …
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.