Eugene Koonin, National Center for Biotechnology Information

It might also have had the beginnings of internal structure, with a transport system involving vesicles. However, it likely lacked some signature features of eukaryotes, including a nucleus and mitochondria. Not everyone is persuaded that Loki bridges the gap between eukaryotes and prokaryotes. The claim is based on too few genes, says evolutionary biologist William Martin of Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in Germany. “Six proteins, does that bridge the gap? Not in my book,” he says. If researchers could pinpoint some of Loki’s cells, they might be able to strengthen the case by confirming that it really has the features hinted at by its genes. The hunt is on, Ettema says. “We are currently looking very hard to get these cells out of sediments.” ■ 616

Japan’s ‘NIH’ starts with modest funding but high ambitions Key priority is filling nation’s sparse drug pipeline promote personalized medicine. But regulations precluded the machines from being apan’s biomedical community has used for cancer research at hospitals, which long envied the funding and political are overseen by the health ministry. Simiclout of the U.S. National Institutes of lar barriers block collaborations in regenHealth (NIH). Now, after 2 years of erative medicine, robotics, and other work. planning, the country has its own verSuematsu, a medical doctor and biochemsion in the Japan Agency for Medical ist, says that one of his primary objectives is Research and Development (AMED). “to tackle these barriers one by one.” Officially launched last month, AMED When first announced, Abe’s “Japan NIH” has a wide-ranging mandate to smooth the plan got a rocky reception from academics. flow of basic discoverWorried that an emies to the clinic and phasis on applications the market. But unlike would come at the exNIH, AMED does not pense of basic research, have its own campus the heads of 52 scientific or facilities. The fledgsocieties in June 2013 ling agency’s budget— signed an “Emergency roughly $1.2 billion this Declaration” expressing year—is also a fraction “strong concerns about of NIH’s $30 billion in the distribution of re2015, and three differsources and the process ent ministries have a of training researchers.” say in how much of that Those concerns have money is spent. Makoto largely evaporated, as Suematsu, AMED’s first AMED’s “moment of truth,” Suematsu says, the largest source of president, says he aims will come in the next 1 or 2 years. grants to academics to increase the portion (about $2.5 billion in of the budget under his direct control and 2014) remains independent of AMED. improve cooperation between the minisAMED is charged with advancing work tries. “The moment of truth will come in the in fields ranging from infectious diseases to next 1 or 2 years,” he says. cancer and brain science to rare maladies In spring 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and regenerative medicine. The agency will made biomedical reform a central plank of start to stake out its own territory later this his economic growth strategy. He noted that year, Suematsu says, when it begins its own despite success in cutting-edge research, Jagrantmaking. It will start small, with just pan was not competitive in world markets $170 million in funding up for grabs. for drugs and medical devices. Driving that Grants won’t be enough to fill the treatpoint home, a 2013 paper in the journal ments pipeline, however. In the United Joho Kanri reported that in 2012, Japanese States, small and venture businesses play pharmaceutical companies had 780 small a key role in shepherding new pharmamolecule drug candidates in the clinical ceuticals though preclinical work and tripipeline while U.S. competitors had 4110. als. But Japan is weak in mechanisms to Abe and others suspected that bureaulicense academic discoveries and lacks cracy was at least partly to blame for a “systems which support small and medium feeble drug pipeline. Separate ministries enterprises and [startup] ventures,” says oversee each of the three activities critiYoshiyuki Osabe, an intellectual property cal to developing new treatments: basic specialist at the Japan Patent Office in Tokyo. research, health care delivery, and com“AMED can’t do it alone,” agrees Ryuichi mercialization. As a result of this balMorishita, a gene-therapy scientist at kanization, for example, in the mid-2000s Osaka University. Other initiatives in the the education ministry (in charge of baworks, he says, will address gaps that must sic research) purchased high-throughput be filled to make Japan’s medical industry genome sequencers under a scheme to an engine of economic growth. ■ By Dennis Normile


8 MAY 2015 • VOL 348 ISSUE 6235

Published by AAAS

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“It tells us something very important about the origin of eukaryotes.”



similarities with eukaryotes, the researchers say. For example, actin proteins help form the cytoskeleton that braces eukaryotic cells and enables them to move. Loki carries actinlike genes that are more similar to the eukaryotic versions than are the varieties found in other archaea. In eukaryotic cells, enzymes known as small GTPases perform a slew of functions, from shaping the cytoskeleton to orchestrating the transportation of material in tiny membrane containers called vesicles. Genes for a handful of these enzymes have turned up in bacteria and in other archaea, but “we found 60 to 70 of those guys in Loki,” Ettema says. Unlike other prokaryotes, Loki also harbors several genes for parts of the ESCRT protein complex that in eukaryotes bends and snips membranes, abilities important for cell division and for forming vesicles that ferry molecular junk for disposal. “This is the most eukaryotelike prokaryote we’ve ever seen,” says evolutionary biologist James McInerney of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. An evolutionary tree based on the genomes of all three new archaea suggests that they are the closest known relatives of eukaryotes. To McInerney, the result “is another stake through the heart of the three-domain tree.” Loki’s molecular features suggest that eukaryotes’ ancestor could have had an actin cytoskeleton and might have been able to gobble up cells or other types of food.

Biomedical research. Japan's 'NIH' starts with modest funding but high ambitions.

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