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Understanding why aluminium is so toxic to life

A research group headed by Associate Professor Richard Gardner from the School of Biological Sciences at Auckland University has been awarded a grant from the competitive Marsden Fund for a project to discover why aluminium is so toxic to plants, animals and microbial cells.

Dr Gardner is a pioneer in using yeast as a model to study aluminium tolerance. He believes that aluminium inhibits yeast growth by blocking magnesium uptake - an element vital to all living cells.

The most abundant metal on earth and major component of most soils, aluminium is not essential for life, and can be toxic to plant, animal and microbial cells.

It takes a soluble form in acidic soils, which comprise more than a third of the world's arable lands. That means aluminium toxicity is a major factor limiting global agricultural production.

It is also blamed for causing neurotoxicity in mammalian cells and is known to be responsible for dialysis-induced dementias. Aluminium has also been implicated as a factor causing Alzheimer’s disease, though hard evidence for this involvement is lacking.

As part of the project, the research group will undertake the molecular analysis of a family of genes that transport magnesium into cells. It will look at how aluminium interacts with cellular uptake of magnesium facilitated by proteins encoded by these genes.

Dr Gardner's research group also includes Dr Peter Ryan from the Division of Plant Industry at the CSIRO in Canberra, Australia, Dr Paul Donaldson from Auckland University's School of Medicine, and Dr Andrew Allan from HortResearch in Auckland.

This work will lead to a better understanding of aluminium toxicity and tolerance in cells, and of magnesium deficiency, an key problem in mammalian nutrition.

The award is worth $155,000 a year for the next three years.

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