The team from Institut De Recherche Clinique De Montreal (ICRM) in Canada studied a process called compartmentalisation, which establishes and maintains different compartments within a cell, each containing a specific set of proteins.
This process is crucial for neurons (nerve cells) to function properly.
A good example of compartmentalisation is observed in a specialised type of light-sensing neurons found in the retina, the photoreceptors, which are made up of different compartments containing specific proteins essential for vision.
"Our work identified a new mechanism that explains this process. More specifically, we found that a protein called 'Numb' functions like a traffic controller to direct molecules to the appropriate compartments," said lead researcher Michel Cayouette.
"We demonstrated that in the absence of 'Numb', photoreceptors are unable to send a molecule essential for vision to the correct compartment, which causes the cells to progressively degenerate and ultimately die," added Vasanth Ramamurthy, first author of the study.
This is important because the death of photoreceptor cells is known to cause retinal degenerative diseases in humans that lead to blindness, he said.
"We believe our results could eventually have a substantial impact on the development of treatments for retinal degenerative diseases," Cayouette concluded.
The study appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience.