The Mystery of the Vault

vault220.jpgFor my third post celebrating the Year of Science, I wanted to write about the secrets of nature that sit right in front of us, in plain view. By coincidence, I happened to be looking at the newest issue of Science and came across a paper about microscopic casks that float by the thousands in our cells, known as vaults. I looked for them in a cell biology textbook. Not there. So I wandered the Tubes and found some papers on line as well an excellent web site about vaults at UCLA. I discovered that scientists haven’t yet figured out what they do.

There are, of course, lots of things about our cells that scientists have yet to figure out. But the blatant obviousness of vaults makes them a stark example of how hard answers are to come by in science. Check out my post.

Update: Thanks to Science European news editor John Travis for pointing me to an article he wrote on the mystery of vaults in 1996. Thirteen years later, he’s still waiting for the mystery to be solved. A question: are vaults mysterious because they’re hard to understand, or because they’re not considered sexy enough for people to get funded to do the necessary research?

[Image source: Kato et al, “A vault ribonucleoprotein particle exhibiting 39-fold dihedral symmetry,” Acta Crystallogr D Biol Crystallogr. 2008 May 1; 64(Pt 5): 525–531]

0 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Vault

  1. Carl–Welcome to one my favorite stories. I wrote a feature on vaults for Science News back in 1996 and was amazed that most cell biologists had never heard of them, let alone knew what they did. Here’s my lead “Can you imagine exploring the anatomy of the human body and missing the heart, the organ that sends life-giving blood coursing through the body? Of course not. Or not noticing the brain, the custodian of memories and creator of thoughts? Don’t be ridiculous. Yet cell biologists may soon have to acknowledge an equally unimaginable oversight in their field. For decades, their powerful microscopes have failed to spot a basic cell component of animals and perhaps any organism with a nucleus”. That they still remain unexplained is crazy to me. And that Rome essentially had to leave the field because no one would fund basic vault research–he got NSF money to study vaults as nanostructures for drug delivery–doesn’r make sense to me. Every few years I check in on the field–someday we will know the vault’s secret

  2. I remember a vague reference to vaults in a friends intro pharmacy textbook (this was probably 7 years ago). I searched through all of my biology, cell biology and molecular biology textbooks with no luck. At the time it seemed odd that no one was mentioning them. I’d forgotten about them completely and it is a pleasant surprise to see you raise them up again.

  3. “In the mid-1600s, the newly invented telescope allowed researchers to peer at tissues from plants” should be “microscope” — Doc’s friends made the same mistake in Cannery Row!

    Very interesting post!

  4. Grammar nitpick in the linked article:

    Autopsies on the mice showed that without vaults the cells lining their lungs did a bad job of absorbing and killing</b the bacteria.


    Vaults look interesting indeed. As you wrote, when closed, they look like footballs; when opened, they look like pinwheels or flowers. Here’s an interesting image of a vault showing closed and opened states, that I just now found serendipitously browsing the UCLA site:

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