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Scientists have discovered that the single cilium on each cell receives signals that form neurons, sculpt the body and organize the brain. Cilia heal wounds and grow cells. When they malfunction, they help cause cancer. Damage to primary cilia is linked to kidney disease, obesity and failure of adult neuron development.
Largely ignored as vestigial, primary cilia are now pivotal players in the signaling that shape the fetus and assure normal adult cell growth.
“Primary cilia are turning out to be a kind of signaling machine that no one had appreciated,” said Matthew Scott, a geneticist at Stanford Medical School. “It’s as if there was a shed out back with all sorts of weird machinery, and hardly anyone had ever looked in. But the farm can’t work without it.”
More startling than the finding of this elaborate system was the discovery a few years later that traffic on the cilia highway includes the signals that switch on genes to drive development of the embryo. These signals are themselves proteins, like the highly important Sonic hedgehog.