Minions sit next to Guy Fieri atop my list of uncool things I'm not supposed to like that I'm actually an enormous fan of. A team of scientists must have heard my call: Science NEEDS more minions.
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Scientists at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation have discovered a tiny new protein they're calling Minion, short for "microprotein inducer of fusion". It's no joke — Minion seems to have a crucial function in holding together our muscle cells, and mice apparently die just after birth without it.
Also, it's named after Minions — those minions.
"We're fans of the movie and fans of the protein," study author Srihari Sampath told Gizmodo. "The movie and the protein have a lot in common."
Sampath and his twin found Minion while hunting for what they called microproteins, those less than 100 amino acids (the protein building blocks) long. The Sampaths described these proteins' genes as hidden or dark, since they're difficult to find and locate due to how short their corresponding segments of DNA are. The team found Minion by analysing RNA, single strands that are essentially copies of the DNA's instructions used to make proteins. That RNA showed up in response to injured mouse muscle generated the tiny Minion protein.
The researchers then used CRISPR/Cas9, a gene editing tool, to remove the Minion protein-generating DNA from mice. The Minion-less mice couldn't thrive past birth, possibly due to respiratory problems, since their lungs couldn't inflate. The researchers also noted fewer muscle fibres fused together in the Minion-free mice.
The RNA responsible for the Minion protein had been previously tagged by other researchers as non-coding, meaning didn't make protein, according to the paper published today in Nature Communications. But Minion instead seems to be a protein important to muscle development.
Minion might ultimately help researchers fuse lots of other things together — "Wouldn't it be cool to fuse an apple and banana into a banapple," said Srihari, likely but not definitely referencing the tiny yellow sexless overall wearer's tagline. More realistically, Minion could have interesting therapeutic applications one day. The Sampaths wouldn't go into specifics because of how nascent our understanding of this protein is.
The two researchers noted that there are probably lots of undiscovered proteins, something they thought would be controversial for scientists to hear. They told me that it's possible that many DNA sequences encoding proteins have gone unanalysed simply because they were too short. I've reached out to a few other experts to see how they feel.
The researchers behind the Minion study, at least, found the idea of a wealth of undiscovered proteins exciting. "The gene we found is incredible," Srinath Sampath told Gizmodo. "It's important and useful and that's fantastic, but we want to expand what the genome really is."