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Thousands of novel protein families identified in the human body

Protein engineering, synthetic biology, LOCKR, bacterial expression, cell signalingIn a recent study published in Cell, scientists at Stanford University have revealed that the bacteria of the human microbiome might be making themselves a lot more at home in our bodies than we expected.

Using a computational method to analyze the human microbiome at four different anatomical sites, Sberro et al. identified over 4,000 conserved, small protein families, most of which were novel with no assigned function or domain. This is revolutionary because the open reading frames that code for these small proteins (< 50 amino acids) are typically overlooked by researchers due to difficulties in distinguishing them from random in-frame genome fragments. Through meticulous data analysis and mapping, the research group was able to sort through and infer the roles these new protein families might play across a broad range of different bacterial functions (housekeeping, mediating cell-cell and cell-host communication, defending against phage attack etc).

By uncovering this large population of novel proteins, it will be interesting to better elucidate the extent to which the human microbiome impacts our health and well-being. Furthermore, as small proteins make informative models for studying protein folding and drug design, it will be truly exciting to see how this discovery will aid in advancing the future of therapeutic development.

Sberro H, Fremin BJ, Zlitni S, et al. Large-Scale Analyses of Human Microbiomes Reveal Thousands of Small, Novel Genes. Cell. (2019).

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