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In biblical times, the gate was the most vulnerable point of a walled city. Thus judges were placed there to interview travelers, to ensure that their presence was welcome. The same is true of the gates to the cell’s inner sanctum – the nucleus.
These gates (called nuclear pore complexes) lead to and from the cell’s genetic material, controlling the essential processes of life. Accordingly, they are lined with vigilant guardians who make sure that only desirable molecules pass through. Molecules that succeed in entering the nucleus from other parts of the cell “awaken” genes and cause their expression. The information these genes encode is then relayed to the cell’s “protein factory” by another molecule – called messenger RNA – which exits the nucleus through the same gates.
Dr. Michael Elbaum of the Weizmann Institute’s Material and Interfaces Department studies the passage of molecules through the gates, using a unique tool: tweezers composed of laser beams. By means of laser light he traps the migrating molecules and follows them on their journey.
Understanding the mechanism by which molecules cross the nuclear membrane is crucial to developing methods of controlling this traffic. These methods may be applicable in advanced genetic engineering, including medicalgene therapy.
Dr. Elbaum’s research is supported by the Gabriel Alhadeff Research Fund, the Clore Center for Biological Physics, and the Marcus Sieff Research Fund. He is the incumbent of the Delta Career Development Chair.