Recent findings about the change in oxygen levels in cells show new important factors about oxygen that translate to one’s well-being. William G. Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza discovered how cells can “sense and adapt to changing oxygen availability,” and are now being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Oxygen is a crucial aspect to how a cell’s functionality. Mitochondria in cells use oxygen to aid in converting food into ATP (energy), a process known as cellular respiration.

A representation of the reaction of cell respiration.

 

Gregg Semenza wanted to further look into the rise of levels of the hormone erythroprotein (EPO), a response to low levels of oxygen, or hypoxia. He found that “oxygen sensing mechanisms were present in virtually all tissues, not only in the kidney cells where EPO is normally produced.” While Semenza analyzing cultured liver cells, Semenza found a protein complex that was unknown to science. He named unidentified DNA segment the “hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF).”

Over the course of 24 years, Semanza continued to explore aspects of HIF and found two different DNA-binding proteins, now named “HIF-1a and ARNT.” Researchers worked with Semanza in finding out which parts of the HIF assist in cellular respiration. While Semenza and Ratcliffe were researching regulation of EPO, Kaelin Jr. was researching von-Hippel-Lindau’s disease (VHL). Kaelin Jr.’s research showed that VHL gene “encodes a protein that prevents the onset of cancer,” and that cancer cells lacking a functional VHL gene have “abnormally high levels of hypoxia-related genes.” But when the VHL gene was reintroduced into cancer cells, “normal levels were restored.” Eventually, Kaelin Jr. and his team found that VHL needs HIF-1a for degradation at normal oxygen levels.

Kaelin Jr. and Ratcliffe both published articles that center around protein modification called prolyl hydroxylation which “allows VHL to recognize and bind to HIF-1α degradation with the help of oxygen-sensitive enzymes.” The papers also wrote that the gene activating function of HIF-1α “was regulated by oxygen-dependent hydroxylation.” The researchers now had a much clearer idea of the effects of how oxygen is sensed within cells.

These groundbreaking finds give the science world more information about how oxygen levels are regulated in cells in physiological processes. Sensing oxygen levels is important for muscles during physical exercise, as well as the generation of blood cells and strength of one’s immune system.

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