Mutation prevents pain

Summaries of newsworthy papers published in Nature on 14 December 2006. Fossils push back date of mammals’ first flight, CO2 receptors and malaria, Botulinum toxin structure unveiled, Martian plains as old as the hills, Bendy organic electronics, Dental plans and diets, and Triassic microworld caught in amber


This press release is copyright Nature.

VOL.444 NO.7121 DATED 14 DECEMBER 2006

This press release contains:

- Summaries of newsworthy papers:

Genetics: Mutation prevents pain
Relics: Fossils push back date of mammals’ first flight
Genetics: CO2 receptors and malaria
Infectious disease: Botulinum toxin structure unveiled
Planetary science: Martian plains as old as the hills
Electronics: Bendy organic electronics
Relics: Dental plans and diets
And finally… Triassic microworld caught in amber

- Mention of papers to be published at the same time with the same embargo
- Geographical listing of authors

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[1] Genetics: Mutation prevents pain (pp 894-898; N&V)

A mutation in one key gene can rob people of their ability to experience pain, a study in this week’s Nature suggests. It’s thought the discovery could lead to the development of whole-body analgesics that do not cause side effects.

Although they are rare, people with the inability to feel pain do exist. Their peripheral and central nervous systems are apparently normal, and they usually enjoy good health aside from the risk of accidents and undetected illnesses. But the cause of this remarkable condition has been an enigma.

C Geoffrey Woods and colleagues studied individuals from three related families from Northern Pakistan who had never experienced pain. Each carried a mutation in the SCN9A gene, which encodes a protein called a voltage-gated sodium channel. The protein is commonly found on pain-responsive neurons, and tissue culture studies reveal that the mutations stop the channel from functioning. This in turn seems to prevent the individuals from experiencing pain.

Pain is an essential sense that has evolved in all complex organisms to minimize tissue and cellular damage, and hence prolong life. The first person with pain-insensitivity that Woods’ team investigated for the present study was a boy who was well known to the medical service because he regularly performed ‘street theatre’. He could place knives through his arms and walk on burning coals, without experiencing any pain. He died on his fourteenth birthday, after jumping off a house roof. Woods and his team studied six related members from the boy’s clan.


C Geoffrey Woods (University of Cambridge, UK)
Tel: +44 1223 767 811; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

Stephen G. Waxman (Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, USA) N&V author
Tel: +1 203 785 6351; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

[2] Relics: Fossils push back date of mammals’ first flight (pp 889-893)

The first flying mammals may have taken to the skies much earlier than has been thought, a paper in this week’s Nature suggests.

Jin Meng and colleagues analysed the fossil remains of a small, squirrel-sized mammal that lived in Inner Mongolia around 125 million years ago. The unusual animal, which differs from all other known Mesozoic fauna, had sharp teeth, elongated limbs and tail, and a fur-covered fold of skin membrane that was probably used for gliding flight.

It’s thought that the mammal, which was probably nocturnal and dined on insects, was similar in size to modern flying squirrels. But the earliest confirmed fossil record of bats is 51 million years old, suggesting that the Mesozoic mammal flirted with flight at the same time as, if not earlier than, when birds exploited the skies.


Jin Meng (American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY, USA)
Tel: +1 212 496 3337; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

[3] Genetics: CO2 receptors and malaria (AOP)
DOI: 10.1038/nature05466

***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 13 December at 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern time (which is also when the embargo lifts) as part of our AOP (ahead of print) programme. Although we have included it on this release to avoid multiple mailings it will not appear in print on 14 December, but at a later date.***

The discovery of a pair of receptors that enable fruit flies to sense carbon dioxide (CO2) could boost the development of a new type of mosquito repellent.

Mosquitoes and other insects are extraordinarily sensitive to CO2, using specialized neurons to detect the CO2 emitted from their hosts. But the molecular mechanism behind this feat was unknown. Online this week in Nature, Leslie B. Vosshall and colleagues demonstrate that two receptors, called Gr21a and Gr63a, endow fruit flies with their CO2 sensitivity. Flies with only one of the two receptors are CO2-insensitive, and when both genes are expressed in a fly's CO2-insensitive neurons, the cells become sensitive to the gas.

Similar genes were also found in the malaria mosquito (Anopheles gambiae). So the team hope that drugs designed to inactivate the receptors could also reduce the attraction that mosquitoes feel towards the exhalations of humans.


Leslie B. Vosshall (The Rockefeller University, New York, NY, USA)
Tel: +1 212 327 7236; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

[4] & [5] Infectious disease: Botulinum toxin structure unveiled (AOP; N&V)
DOI: 10.1038/nature05411
DOI: 10.1038/nature05387

***These papers will be published electronically on Nature's website on 13 December at 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern time (which is also when the embargo lifts) as part of our AOP (ahead of print) programme. Although we have included them on this release to avoid multiple mailings they will not appear in print on 14 December, but at a later date.***

The structure of botulinum toxin B bound to one of its receptor is revealed in two papers online in this week’s Nature. It’s hoped the discovery will aid the development of vaccines and drugs to combat this deadly toxin.

Botulinum toxins produced by Clostridia botulinum bacteria target the junctions between neurons and muscles causing paralysis. Two teams, one led by Raymond C. Stevens and the other by Axel T. Brunger, published the structure, which reveals how the neurotoxin binds to targets on the exposed surface of the neuron and thus providing insight into the high affinity and specificity of this interaction.


Raymond C. Stevens (The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, USA) Author paper [4]
Tel: +1 858 784 9416; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

Axel T. Brunger (Stanford University, CA, USA) Author paper [5]
Tel: +1 650 736 1031; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

Giampietro Schiavo (Cancer Research UK, London, UK) N&V author
Tel: +44 20 7269 3300; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

[6] Planetary science: Martian plains as old as the hills (pp 905-908)

A series of buried impact craters has been discovered in the northern hemisphere of Mars, supporting the notion that this area of crust is a lot older than initially thought. The craters, detected by the MARSIS radar instrument aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft, are analysed by Thomas Watters and colleagues in this week's Nature.

The martian crust is characterized by a topographic difference between the northern and southern hemispheres. The northern hemisphere is mainly lowland and sparsely cratered, whereas the southern hemisphere consists of heavily cratered ancient highlands. This hemispheric dichotomy remains one of the most intriguing features on Mars, and determining the age of the crust in the northern plains is a key factor in understanding the origin of the dichotomy and the evolution of the planet's interior. Various theories have been proposed as to why the northern crust appears so different from the southern highlands, including giant impacts and plate tectonics having operated on Mars, but only in the north.

The authors have imaged 14 per cent of the northern lowlands, and their radar measurements reveal 11 buried impact basins ranging in diameter from about 130 to 470 kilometres. The basins show the same profile as other well known impact craters; parabolic shaped echoes reveal features such as rim walls, the peak ring and basin floor. The number of detected buried basins larger than 200 kilometres in diameter and the corresponding crater density of the regions studied suggest that the lowland crust is probably ancient - some 4,000 million years old - and therefore close in age to the highland crust, supporting estimates made from topographic data. The authors conclude that the crustal dichotomy formed during the early geological evolution of Mars.

Thomas R. Watters (National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA) Tel: +1 202 633 2483; Email: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

[7] Electronics: Bendy organic electronics (pp 913-917; N&V)

Researchers have devised an efficient way to position single organic crystals on bendy substrates, bringing the prospect of high performance, organic, flexible electronics one step closer.

Zhenan Bao and colleagues used a technique called microcontact printing to control the growth of organic molecules on a substrate. The method, which is a little like potato printing, involves carving a shape into a stamp, dipping it in ‘ink’, and then pressing it onto a substrate, such as silicon or flexible plastic. The ‘printed’ area is rougher than the surroundings, which prompts vapour-phase organic molecules to settle down on it and grow into a crystal. The team used their technique to make large arrays of high-performance organic single-crystal transistors that work well even when bent.


Zhenan Bao (Stanford University, CA, USA)
Tel: +1 650 723 2419; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

Paul Heremans (IMEC, Belgium) N&V author
Tel: +32 16 281521; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

[8] Relics: Dental plans and diets (AOP)
DOI: 10.1038/nature05433

***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 13 December at 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern time (which is also when the embargo lifts) as part of our AOP (ahead of print) programme. Although we have included it on this release to avoid multiple mailings it will not appear in print on 14 December, but at a later date.***

Palaeontologists have come up with a quick and clever method for reconstructing the diets of extinct animals.

Alistair R. Evans and colleagues studied 441 digital images of teeth taken from 81 different species and measured how simple or complex the overall tooth shapes were. Animals with similar diet had similar dental complexity, they report online in Nature this week, suggesting that surface complexity of tooth crowns directly reflects the food that is eaten.

The team hope that their method will prove useful to palaeontologists who, until now, have had to painstakingly compare the teeth of fossilized animals with the living relatives in order to speculate about ancient diets. This technique becomes hard with strange fossils, so it’s thought the new method will prove especially useful for fossils with no living analogue.


Alistair R. Evans (University of Helsinki, Finland)
Tel: +358 405 044 558; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

[9] And finally… Triassic microworld caught in amber (p 835)

A Triassic microworld of bacteria, fungi and other microbes has been found, captured in amber. The find, reported in a Brief Communication in this week's Nature, offers insights into the evolution and palaeoecology of Lower Mesozoic organisms and suggests that many microbial species have survived over geological epochs.

Alexander R. Schmidt and colleagues studied millimetre-sized drop-shaped pieces of amber found in the largest known Triassic amber deposit near the town of Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Italian Dolomites. The 220-million-year-old droplets contain bacteria, fungi, algae and protozoans that resemble existing species. The find suggests that the basal levels of the food webs of land-living communities have undergone little or no morphological change since that time.

Amber provides a good medium for conserving soft-bodied organisms, but finds older than 135 million years are rare and till now have not contained any microbes. It's thought that these microbes became trapped in the resin of ancient conifers growing in humid coastal forests. They were caught in amber and then fell to earth.


Alexander R. Schmidt (Museum f�r Naturkunde der Humboldt-Univerit�t zu Berlin, Germany)
Tel: +49 30 2093 8945; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>


[10] Negligible glacial-interglacial variation in continental chemical weathering rates (pp 918-921)

[11] Slip on ’weak’ faults by the rotation of regional stress in the fracture damage zone (pp 922-925)

[12] Dynamical evolution of ecosystems (pp 926-928)

[13] Characterization of a carbohydrate transporter from symbiotic glomeromycotan fungi (pp 933-936)

[14] Inhibition of cytohesins by SecinH3 leads to hepatic insulin resistance (pp 941-944)

[15] The cytohesin Steppke is essential for insulin signalling in Drosophila (pp 945-948; N&V)

[16] Minority spin condensate in the spin-polarized superfluid 3He A1 phase (pp 909-912; N&V)


***These papers will be published electronically on Nature's website on 13 December at 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern time (which is also when the embargo lifts) as part of our AOP (ahead of print) programme. Although we have included them on this release to avoid multiple mailings they will not appear in print on 14 December, but at a later date.***

[17] A stomatin-domain protein essential for touch sensation in the mouse
DOI: 10.1038/nature05394

[18] Essential role for collectrin in renal amino acid transport
DOI: 10.1038/nature05475

[19] Phosphorylation of Sld2 and Sld3 by cyclin-dependent kinases promotes DNA replication in budding yeast
DOI: 10.1038/nature05432

[20] CDK-dependent phosphorylation of Sld2 and Sld3 initiates DNA replication in budding yeast
DOI: 10.1038/nature05465


The following list of places refers to the whereabouts of authors on the papers numbered in this release. For example, London: 4 - this means that on paper number four, there will be at least one author affiliated to an institute or company in London. The listing may be for an author's main affiliation, or for a place where they are working temporarily. Please see the PDF of the paper for full details.

Vienna: 18

Toronto: 18

Beijing: 2

Copenhagen: 12

Helsinki: 8

Berlin: 9, 17
Berlin-Buch: 17
Bonn: 13, 14, 15
Darmstadt: 13
Hamburg: 17
Hannover: 5
Martinsried: 3
Munich: 13, 14

Padua: 9, 12
Rome: 1, 6

Chiba: 16
Saitama: 20
Shizuoka: 20

Amman: 1

Lahore: 1

Zurich: 18

Al-Anin: 1

Bradford: 1
Bristol: 10
Cambridge: 1
Durham: 11
Leeds: 1
Liverpool: 11
London: 1, 11
Sandwich: 1
South Mimms: 18

La Jolla: 4
Los Angeles: 3, 7
Pasadena: 6
Stanford: 5, 7
District of Columbia
Washington: 6
Lawrence: 6
Baltimore: 20
Greenbelt: 6
Laytonsville: 6
St Louis: 6
New Jersey
Piscataway: 16
New York
New York: 2, 3
Stony Brook: 2
University Park: 12
Houston: 6
Madison: 4


For North America and Canada

Katie McGoldrick, Nature Washington
Tel: +1 202 737 2355; E-mail: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

From Japan, Korea, China, Singapore and Taiwan

Itsumi Kitahara, Nature Tokyo
Tel: +81 3 3267 8751; E-mail: [email protected]

For the UK/Europe/other countries not listed above

Helen Jamison, Nature London
Tel: +44 20 7843 4658; E-mail [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

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Published: 13 Dec 2006

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