This is the molecular science behind why you are such a slob

Life can get messy, even on the molecular level. Thankfully, nature has a unique way of cleaning up and doing away with clutter. Named after famed tidying expert, bestselling author, and Netflix star Marie Kondo, researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine have discovered a new protein in fruit fly embryos that destroys unneeded molecules and keeps embryos organized. 

Marie Kondo has helped countless people all over the world simplify their lives and construct more positive, engaging living spaces. At the core of Ms. Kondo’s recommendations and philosophies is a simple suggestion; if a physical item doesn’t bring you any joy or happiness, get rid of it! 

It’s a refreshingly simple approach to decorating and organization, and one that can also apply to the crowded environments found within cells. Just like an unkempt dorm room or messy apartment, the inside of a cell’s walls can become overrun by unnecessary molecules quickly if some cellular cleaning doesn’t take place. 

More specifically, this research focused on fertilized egg cells. Now, upon initial fertilization, an egg cell is full of inherited maternal molecules that help with its early stages of development. After a certain amount of time, though, the embryo matures enough to the point that it doesn’t need the maternal molecules anymore. This is when the embryo starts to destroy both inherited maternal RNA and inherited maternal proteins.

Scientists already have a pretty good idea of how embryos go about destroying inherited RNA and start producing their own, but the intricacies of how maternal proteins are destroyed have remained a mystery. This is the question the research team set out to answer with their work. 

“Ordinarily, when we talk about getting rid of maternal gene products, we tend to focus on mRNA, or the coded information for making a protein,” says study co-author Olivia Rissland, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in a release. “However, we don’t often talk about destruction of the proteins themselves. One implication of our study is that, during early stages of development, destruction of maternal proteins might be more tightly controlled than we had thought.”

To try and find the missing piece of this puzzle, the study’s authors examined around 150 different enzymes. This was made possible thanks to a new, fluorescent approach that allowed them to actually watch as maternal proteins were destroyed within a group of fertilized fruit fly embryos.

Eventually, after a few months, this strategy led to the discovery of the protein responsible for “throwing out” three maternal proteins. Once they had discovered the protein, researchers decided to name it “Kdo” (short for Marie Kondo).

“The reason why we started looking at these proteins is because they control RNA. Now, we want to see what other proteins are destroyed and how protein destruction affects early development, not just in fruit flies, but in other animals too,” professor Rissland concludes.

Moreover, when the research team looked into the Kdo protein’s mRNA code, they noted that it can be found in a repressed state within unfertilized eggs as well. Once an egg is fertilized and an embryo starts to develop, the mRNA activates and Kdo enzymes/proteins begin production.

It can be tough at times to say goodbye to older items or articles of clothing, but these findings make a strong case that “out with the old and in with the new” is a philosophy that even nature itself believes in.

The full study can be found here, published in eLife.