The researchers found that in large cells such as animal eggs, something else is needed to move the chromosomes into the correct location - fibres of the cytoskeletal molecule actin.

"No one has ever shown that actin moves chromosomes,” says Dr. Jan Ellenberg, the EMBL researcher whose group carried out the research. "We were able to do so because our group is one of the few that studies cell division in starfish - an ideal model for observing division in living animal eggs.”

The starfish is an excellent model for studying oocytes, the cells that give rise to egg cells. In this marine animal, these cells are transparent and mature quickly outside the body, and can be kept alive in a drop of seawater.

Ellenberg and PhD student Péter Lénárt studied the starfish oocytes as they underwent meiosis, a special cell division that is needed to halve the number of chromosomes in an egg before it unites with a sperm. When the protective nuclear membrane surrounding the chromosomes breaks down during meiosis, it was thought that microtubules capture the chromosomes and act as ropes to pull them to the surface and expel half of them from the cell.

But when the EMBL researchers measured the microtubules, they discovered that they were, in fact, much too short to transport the chromosomes over the long distance to the surface of the large oocyte. By using a chemical to disable the microtubules, they found that cells were still able to pull chromosomes into the proper positions.

When they repeated the experiment with a chemical that breaks down the other major type of cellular fibres, actin, the cells lost track of their chromosomes and the new cells had unequal amounts of genetic material. This condition, called aneuploidy, is thought to be a major cause of miscarriages and some types of birth defects.; Source: European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL)