Cilia are hair-like follicles found throughout various parts of the body, including the ears. They act as little antennae, alerting the body to environmental changes. Researchers now have new insight on these unique structures thanks to recent experiments designed to discover which molecules are allowed access to the cilia.

It was found that the cilia have a larger than anticipated access area, allowing entry of a far greater amount of protein than previously believed was possible. Cilia themselves will only allow proteins needed for their particular function to stay after entering – while 9 out of 10 proteins will fit into the cilia, most are kicked out as they don’t match the cell’s needs. Thus researchers only ever find certain proteins in a particular cilium.

Each individual cilium performs its function by acquiring data on its surroundings and then passing that information on to the cell by utilizing the protein signals stored in its hollow center. This recent study has revealed information about the way cilia collect the proteins needed to send these messages.

When cilia have defects it can result in a wide range of problems, depending on the location of the cilia that are damaged – hearing loss, kidney disease and vision problems can all be the result of damaged cilia in those parts of the body. Cilia perform unique functions in each part of the body, but it is always in connection with surrounding data. For example, in the eye cilia perform the function of wavelength detection, which is vital in being able to see a full spectrum of colors. Each type of cilia provides a messenger service that allows cells to react appropriately to their surroundings.

Cilia will produce larger amounts of certain proteins, alerting cells to how they should respond. Each cilium has a hole at its base allowing these messenger proteins in, yet there appears to be nothing seems in place to keep other proteins out. Scientists used to believe it was a simple matter of how tiny the hole was, but new research shows the entry point to be ten times the expected size. Therefore, essentially any size molecule can find its way into cilia, although the smaller the molecule the faster it can do so. Now researchers want to try and discern how cilia determine which proteins to keep and which to release.

The implication is that conditions such as hearing and vision loss could be better combated once the functioning of cilia is fully understood.