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Researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technion in Haifa are the first in the world to characterize the way the hymen membrane covering the sex organ of tiny female worms, which shows they are virgins, is produced.
According to Prof. Benjamin Podbilewicz of the Technion biology department and colleagues, who managed to make the first such discovery in any animal, the "groundbreaking" study - just published in the prestigious journal Development Cell - has major implications in a variety of fields, including better understanding cancer and treating infertile couples.
Researchers had previously characterized the EFF-1 protein, which causes the cells to fuse. In the new study, Podbilewicz and Dr. Amir Sapir, together with scientists from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Baylor University in Houston, identified an additional fusion protein called AFF-1. The cells that fuse with AFF-1 create the hymen, which is stretched between the worm's uterus and the oviduct and is similar to the human hymen.
"We looked for proteins similar to EFF-1, and found AFF-1," said Podbilewicz. "At the same time, researchers at Baylor, headed by Dr. Anna Newman, also discovered the protein. We decided to join forces to characterize the process in which it functions. For that, we cooperated with the NIH lab headed by Dr. Leonid Chernomordik, who is an expert in fusion of the flu virus."
This work has led to understanding of an important stage in the fusion mechanism.
"Now we are looking for close relativesâ€š slightly more distant, that function in the human fusion process. If we find them, we may be able to contribution to development of the ability to repair diseased tissues and organs in patients by fusing healthy healthy stem cells.
"It could also lead to new ways to restrict the development of tumors by preventing the cancer cells from fusing. Perhaps, in the distant future, deciphering the mechanism in which sperm and ova fuse will lead to a solution to the problem of infertile couples," he said.
The ability of two cells to fuse into one cell is vital in fertilization in both animals and humans. It is also responsible for the development of bodily tissues such as the skeleton, muscles, placenta and other tissues. In addition, cell fusion is a critical stage in viral infection.
The Technion study raises a lot of questions about the functioning and necessity of the virginal hymen, and the questions, the researchers say, are relevant for human hymens as well.
The discovery relates to the C. elegans C, a free-living roundworm (nematode) about one millimeter long that for the last three decades has been used extensively as a model organism. Members of the species have many of the same organ systems as other animals. C. elegans has both a hermaphrodite sex, and a very rare male population.