Nature cover - 12th December 2012Cancer begins when cells in our bodies start growing out of control.

So understanding precisely how cells divide in two, and what controls and coordinates this process, is fundamental to our understanding of the disease.

For cell division to go smoothly, several things need to happen one after the other:

  1. The entire DNA ‘recipe’ in the cell’s nucleus needs to be duplicated, so that each daughter cell will have a copy
  2. These duplicated copies of DNA need to be pulled apart – called ‘segregation
  3. The cell needs to pinch in the middle and split in two – known as ‘cytokinesis

Last year a team of researchers at our London Research Institute, led by Dr Mark Petronczki, uncovered an important step in this process, showing how the cell membrane forms a ‘belt’ around its middle, and how this tightens to split the cell in two during cytokinesis.

The images produced during this research were so beautiful that in June, Kuan-Chang Su, one of the researchers in Petronczki’s team, won the prestigious Wellcome Image Award.

Today they’ve gone further, showing exactly how segregation and cytokinesis are coupled to each other.

In work published in the journal Nature (and featured on the journal’s front cover), their discovery neatly explains how these processes happen in the correct order. They’ve found that a protein called centralspindlin, part of the machinery that pulls the chromosomes apart, also reaches out to make contact with the cell membrane.

It acts as a microscopic ‘grappling hook’, pulling the membrane inwards as the chromosomes are pulled apart.

This fascinating video shows how this works:

This discovery is more than just a pretty picture. Understanding the fundamental processes involved in cell division is essential for us to make progress in beating cancer, by shedding light on cells’ molecular ‘nuts and bolts’, and revealing potential targets for future therapies.

As they move forward with their pioneering research, Dr Petronczki’s team are exploring ever deeper into the processes that are not only fundamental to cancer, but to life itself.