Lack of oxygen rapidly leads to the demise of most animals. Menuz et al. (see the Perspective by Crowder) conducted a screen for mutants of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans that are particularly sensitive to the effects of anoxia. The gene Hyl-2, which encodes a ceramide synthase, is a member of a family of genes that influence life span in yeast. Worms have another gene, hyl-1, that also encodes a related ceramide synthase, whose mutants are instead more resistant to anoxia than normal animals. The two ceramide synthases have different specificities for fatty acyl chains, with HYL-2 preferentially producing ceramide molecules with shorter fatty acyl chains. Thus, the abundance of particular ceramides can influence cell survival mechanisms.
V. Menuz, K. S. Howell, S. Gentina, S. Epstein, I. Riezman, M. Fornallaz-Mulhauser, M. O. Hengartner, M. Gomez, H. Riezman, J.-C. Martinou, Protection of C. elegans from anoxia by HYL-2 ceramide synthase. Science 324, 381–384 (2009). [Abstract] [Full Text]