The Mystery of the Vault

For my third post celebrating the Year of Science, I wanted to write about the secrets of nature that sit right in front of us, in plain view. By coincidence, I happened to be looking at the newest issue of Science and came across a paper about microscopic casks that float by the thousands in our cells, known as vaults. I looked for them in a cell biology textbook. Not there. So I wandered the Tubes and found some papers on line as well an excellent web site about vaults at UCLA. I discovered that scientists haven’t yet figured out what they do.

There are, of course, lots of things about our cells that scientists have yet to figure out. But the blatant obviousness of vaults makes them a stark example of how hard answers are to come by in science. Check out my post.

Update: Thanks to Science European news editor John Travis for pointing me to an article he wrote on the mystery of vaults in 1996. Thirteen years later, he’s still waiting for the mystery to be solved. A question: are vaults mysterious because they’re hard to understand, or because they’re not considered sexy enough for people to get funded to do the necessary research?

[Image source: Kato et al, “A vault ribonucleoprotein particle exhibiting 39-fold dihedral symmetry,” Acta Crystallogr D Biol Crystallogr. 2008 May 1; 64(Pt 5): 525–531]

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