Tracking the evolution of life-supporting protein functions

Why we need to understand protein functions

To many people, the word “protein” brings to mind nutrients. But proteins are actually the foundation of life itself. Genes, the blueprints of life, essentially provide recipes for proteins. Our team is looking at how certain proteins function. If we can understand how they work, we may be able to artificially regulate their functions or create new functions based on their structure. This holds the promise of curing disease, enhancing vital activities, and so on.

Analysing the functions of enzymes associated with somnogens

Ever since I was a student, when I began my research career, I’ve been researching the functions of enzymes and proteins. In particular, I’m interested in enzymes that synthesise sleep-inducing substances (somnogens) in the brains of humans and other mammals. I wanted to learn how these enzymes had evolved from their ancestral pre-mammalian genes. This investigation turned up some interesting facts.

Looking at the evolution of an enzyme’s function

Our research suggested that a certain cane toad protein is a prototype of the somnogen-synthesising enzyme. But what about even earlier in evolution? What was the protein’s role in fish, before it had become an enzyme? We extracted the protein from medaka fish (Japanese rice fish, Oryzias latipes) and analysed its functions. We found that it binds with prostaglandins secreted within the brain and reproductive organs. Perhaps the protein is involved in the reproductive behaviour of fish. We are now looking into where in the body the protein is expressed and how its level of expression changes in relation to reproductive behaviour.

All research has its uses

Many proteins have been overlooked because their functions are unknown. If we can use cutting-edge research to reveal even one protein function, that would provide information that could be used to design new proteins or even improve protein function.
To me, there’s no such thing as useless research—it’s all useful in some way. Every researcher has their own area of interest. It’s important for a researcher to identify a theme that they would enjoy pursuing. As your area of interest broadens, and as you gather more expertise, you’ll be able to gain different insights into a given topic. Then it’s time to identify the next interesting project. In research, as in any other work, it’s important to explore ways to make the work more enjoyable.

Shigeru Shimamoto
Lecturer, Department of Life Science

Affiliation: Department/ Life Science Laboratory: Molecular Function and Structure Regulation Laboratory

Career overview April 2010–March 2011 PD researcher under the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science fellowship programme, School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Osaka University Graduate School
April 2011–March 2014 Research associate, Department of Life Science, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Kindai University
From April 2015 Lecturer, Department of Life Science, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Kindai University