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Introduction

This photo shows the hustle and bustle of Grand Central Station.
Figure 5.1 Despite its seeming hustle and bustle, Grand Central Station functions with a high level of organization: People and objects move from one location to another, they cross or are contained within certain boundaries, and they provide a constant flow as part of larger activity. Analogously, a plasma membrane’s functions involve movement within the cell and across boundaries in the process of intracellular and intercellular activities. (credit: modification of work by Randy Le’Moine)

The plasma membrane, which is also called the cell membrane, has many functions, but the most basic one is to define the borders and act as gatekeeper for the cell. The plasma membrane is selectively permeable, meaning that some molecules can freely enter or leave the cell. Others require help from specialized structures or other molecules, or require energy in order to cross. One example of a molecule that assists other molecules across the plasma membrane is a protein called NPC1. This protein is involved in moving cholesterol and other types of fats across the plasma membrane. Some people have a genetic condition that results in an improperly functioning NPC1. As a result, excessive cholesterol accumulates within cells, causing a condition called Niemann-Pick disease type C (NPC).

Scientists from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research discovered that the Ebola virus also uses NPC1 to hitch a ride into cells and then replicate. The scientists used mice that lacked the NPC1 protein to test this hypothesis. When the scientists tried to infect these mice with Ebola, none of the mice got sick. Then they tried to infect mice with partially functioning NPC1 and found that they got sick, but did not die. In other words, without properly functioning NPC1, the Ebola virus cannot infect a mouse. If this pattern also exists in humans, it means that anyone with NPC and its subsequent problem with high cholesterol may also be protected from Ebola.

The complete research report can be found here.