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03.03.2009

An inconspicuous relative

Prof. Ralf Reski and his team of scientists at the University of Freiburg have been dealing with the function of moss for many years. The plant biologist has now uncovered impressive evidence of the relationship between mosses and other organisms.

Together with a team of researchers led by Prof. Martin Fussenegger at the ETH Zurich, the Freiburg scientists have taken a decisive step towards being able to compare the biological processes of complex organisms with the way the moss “Physcomitrella patents” functions. When plants and animals moved from the sea to the land more than 400 million years ago, mosses were among the first to colonise the land. This was at a time when the last common ancestor of fish and humans was still alive. Since then, mosses have remained virtually unchanged. Everybody can recognise mosses from forests and gardens. If we follow Darwin’s theory of evolution we can also imagine that mosses may be related in some way to humans. However, the scientists are now sure that humans and mosses use the same genetic control elements, and this knowledge is truly sensational.
Humans and mosses – closer relatives than anticipated
Humans and mosses – closer relatives than anticipated  (© University of Freiburg)

The researchers, whose findings were recently published in the scientific journal "Plant Biotechnology Journal", discovered that key components of the mammalian transcription, translation and secretion machineries are also fully functional in the moss Physcomitrella patens. "Although humans and mosses are very different from each other, they have surprising genetic similarities in that they have the same molecular components (eds. notes: promoters, polyadenylation sites)," said Reski further explaining that this finding supports Darwin's evolutionary theory according to which all living organisms emerged from one common ancestor. Reski's team are using the moss as a "living laboratory". "Our findings bring us a decisive step forward in synthetic biology which enables us to shape natural processes in a way that allows us to optimally control and use these processes," explains Reski. Working in close cooperation with biologists, chemists and engineers, including researchers from "bioss", the first excellence cluster in Freiburg that focuses on synthetic biology, the findings gained from moss research create an important basis for understanding complex biological systems. "We are using our detailed knowledge of Physcomitrella patens in a research project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) where we are focusing on developing new drug production methods," said Reski. This shows that, despite their advanced age, mosses have not lost their attraction and will most likely play an important role in the lives of humans and not just remain something pleasant to look at in forests and gardens.

On the recommendation of:
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Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (P) - 03.03.2009

Original publication:
Marc Gitzinger, Dr. Juliana Parsons, Prof. Dr. Ralf Reski and Prof. Dr. Martin Fussenegger, "Functional cross-kingdom conservation of mammalian and moss (Physcomitrella patens) transcription, translation and secretion machineries", Plant Biotechnology Journal.

Further information:
Prof. Dr. Ralf Reski
Tel.: (49)0761/203-6969
Fax: (49)0761/203-6967
E-mail: pbt(at)biologie.uni-freiburg.de

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