Studies Examine Star-Nosed Moles at the Molecular Level

Photo: Researchers look to locate a gene of the star-nosed mole that allows it to feel no pain in its nose. The mole is named for is distinctly star-shaped nose with 22 appendages.
James Besser/Staff
Researchers look to locate a gene of the star-nosed mole that allows it to feel no pain in its nose. The mole is named for is distinctly star-shaped nose with 22 appendages.

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Bautista Lab and Touch Research

Diana Bautista, Assistant Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Berkeley, explains her research regarding the molecular mechanisms behind touch.

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Every summer, Diana Bautista departs from the comfort of pipettes, microscopes and centrifuges, exchanging them for forays into the wilderness where she sets mole traps underground in the rural swamps of Pennsylvania.

Bautista, an assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at UC Berkeley, is on the hunt for a mole that feels no pain, at least in its nose. As the star-nosed mole - aptly named for the 22 appendages in the shape of a star that define its face - searches for the tastiest tidbits the Earth has to offer, its nose is its guide.

The mole's nose, one of the most touch-sensitive organs known in the world, provides the perfect platform for Bautista's research, which investigates the mechanisms behind the sense of touch. Since the mole's nose lacks a significant amount of pain receptors, Bautista can isolate the gene that controls the other type of receptors, called light touch receptors.

"We don't know what happens under normal conditions when our skin is brushed by a feather or if we feel a pin prick, so this can help us identify the genes that allow us to experience those sensations," she said. "When we begin to understand touch under normal conditions, we can say how does it go wrong under conditions of disease and what role these genes play."

In human skin, touch receptors specialized to react to pain or light touch are evenly distributed throughout the epidermis and are impossible to differentiate from one another.

In her lab, Bautista and her students isolate the touch cells in the mole's nose and extract the RNA - which encode the proteins that dictate the cell's function - to pinpoint the gene that controls the cell. Once they have located the gene, Bautista and her students can transplant an artificial version into a cell unrelated to touch and test whether the cell becomes touch-sensitive. Conversely, researchers can test whether a touch cell lacking the gene is still touch-sensitive.

"One of the cool things about touch cells is you can put them in a dish, and you can poke them, and they'll respond to touch with an electrical signal," Bautista said.

Along with the mole's sensitive star-nose, Bautista said her lab draws upon thousands of years of inadvertent human discovery of healing properties in plants - such as the Szechuan peppercorn that was used in Eastern Asia to numb pain - to explore the effects they have on touch receptors.

By observing touch-sensitive cells' interaction with these numbing plants - and with less soothing relatives like wasabi - Bautista's team can record which receptors the plant compounds target.

"Wasabi actually targets a very specific pain receptor in our skin," Bautista said. "By identifying the active component in wasabi, we can figure out exactly the receptor that it targets in pain cells in the body that causes that painful sensation."

Graduate student Kristin Gerhold, who has worked in Bautista's lab for three years, examined how cells responded to a tickle sensation, while other students studied how cells react to being stretched.

"The approaches that we take are all really cool," Gerhold said. "I really like that in the lab, we actually go all the way from looking at things at the single molecule level to seeing how they affect the entire animal."

Unlike the other four senses, the molecular mechanisms behind touch are relatively unknown to researchers.

"What we're doing is exploratory," Bautista said. "We have an idea of the type of molecules that we expect to find, but what's different about our research is that we don't have any predicted hypothesis about what that molecule is. It's high-risk because you don't know what you're going to get, but if you get something, it's going to be really exciting."


Claire Perlman covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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