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Bestselling author and organizing consultant Marie Kondo has helped people around the world declutter their homes by getting rid of physical items that do not bring them joy. Keeping the crowded environment inside a living cell organized also requires work and involves removing molecules that are no longer needed. A fertilized egg cell, for example, contains molecules from the mother that regulate the initial stages as it develops into an embryo. Later on, the embryo takes control of its own development by destroying these inherited molecules and switches to making its own instead. This process is called the maternal-to-zygotic transition.
The molecules passed from the mother to the egg cell include proteins and messenger RNAs (molecules that include the coded instructions to make new proteins). Previous research has begun to reveal how the embryo destroys the mRNAs it inherits from its mother and how it starts to make its own. Yet almost nothing is known about how an embryo gets rid of its mother’s proteins. To address this question, Zavortink, Rutt, Dzitoyeva et al. used an approach known as an RNA interference screen to identify factors required to destroy three maternal proteins in fruit fly embryos.
The experiments helped identify one enzyme that worked together with another larger enzyme complex to destroy the maternal proteins. This enzyme belongs to a class of enzymes known as ubiquitin-conjugating enzymes (or E2 enzymes) and it was given the name “Kdo”, short for “Marie Kondo”. Further experiments showed that the mRNAs that code for the Kdo enzyme were present in unfertilized eggs, but in a repressed state that prevented the eggs from making the enzyme. Once an egg started to develop into an embryo, these mRNAs became active and the embryo started to make Kdo enzymes. This led to the three maternal proteins being destroyed during the maternal-to-zygotic transition.
These findings reveal a new pathway that regulates the destruction of maternal proteins as the embryo develops. The next challenge will be identifying other maternal proteins that do not “spark joy” and understanding the role their destruction plays in the earliest events of embryonic development.