Heart study: previously unknown mini-proteins are the heart fuel

The heart continuously pumps blood through the body, thereby supplying organs and tissues with vital oxygen and nutrients. (Image: abhijith3747 / fotolia.com)

Heart energy production puzzle solved

Our hearts still hold many secrets. How does the organ manage to supply every single cell in our body with energy? A German research team recently provided the answer to this question. They discovered a previously unknown group of mini-proteins that the heart uses to generate energy. The revolutionary discovery could lead to numerous new cardiac therapies.


The human heart is part of a great deal of medical research. Diseases of what is probably the most important organ in our body are responsible for more than a third of all deaths in Germany. However, the exact functionality has still not been fully deciphered. Researchers at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine made a terrific discovery. They deciphered a kind of heart engine. Numerous small mini-proteins, which were previously completely unknown, are therefore responsible for the energy production of the heart. The study results were recently presented in the renowned specialist journal “Cell”.

The heart also needs fuel.Researchers discovered microproteins that the heart uses to generate energy. (Image: abhijith3747 / fotolia.com)

New discovery could revolutionize the treatment of heart disease

Today, surprisingly little is known about why the heart sometimes does not do what it is supposed to do. 56 researchers have now shed more light on the darkness. They examined the cellular protein factories in the heart cells. In doing so, they discovered a group of previously unknown proteins that play a key role in the heart's energy production. The team sees the new microproteins as the key to curing heart diseases that are based on a disturbed energy metabolism.

The power plants of the heart

The focus of the research work was the Herzellen protein factories. The so-called ribosomes assemble proteins from individual amino acids. The blueprints for these proteins are stored in the DNA. The ribosomes receive the precise instructions for assembling the proteins from messenger substances called messenger RNA (mRNA). "With the help of a relatively new technology, ribosome profiling, or Ribo-Seq for short, we have now for the first time determined not only in isolated cells but in intact human heart tissue to which points of the mRNA the ribosomes go," explains first author Dr. Sebastiaan van Heesch from the MDC working group in a press release on the study results.

Heart cell fuel discovered

“Using special algorithms, we were then able to calculate which proteins are formed in the heart during translation,” reports van Heesch. In this way, the researchers discovered numerous unknown mini-proteins. Using special microscopic techniques, the team was then able to observe that more than half of the newly discovered microproteins migrate into the cells' power stations (mitochondria) after they have been produced. “This means that they are obviously needed for the heart to generate energy,” concludes the head of the study, Professor Norbert Hübner.

Exclusively for humans?

"Since many heart diseases are due to errors in the energy metabolism, we were of course particularly interested in this result," says Hübner. Together with his colleagues, he now wants to decipher the role of the new microproteins more precisely. The mini-proteins seem to exist only in the human heart. The research team did not find anything in studies on mouse hearts. "These proteins seem to be evolutionarily very young substances," van Heesch sums up. These microproteins again showed how special the human heart is. The research group now hopes that this knowledge can be used for the diagnosis and therapy of heart conditions that are based on a disturbed energy metabolism of the heart. (vb)

Tags:  Naturopathy Generally Extremities