Cilia - the prodigal organelle
Phil Beales1*and Peter K Jackson2
Cilia are the oldest known cellular organelle, first
described in 1675 by Anthony van Leeuwenhoek in proto-
zoa . He described them as ‘incredibly thin feet, or little
legs, which were moved very nimbly’. The term ‘cilium’
(Latin for eyelash) was probably first coined by Otto Mul-
ler in 1786 . Structurally and functionally similar to
eukaryotic flagella, cilia were originally defined by their
motility and for many decades this was their only ascribed
purpose. During the latter half of the 19th century came
the observation of another class of solitary cilium, which
for the most-part was non-motile [3-5]. Zimmerman, who
first described ‘centralgeissel’ (central flagella) in mamma-
lian cells also proposed a sensory role for them, but they
received little attention thereafter . The organelle was
renamed ‘primary cilia’ in 1968  because the primary
cilium was noted to appear first before multiciliated cells
appear in the central nervous system. But their function
remained elusive until this past decade. In fact, the revela-
tion that primary cilia have a sensory role, signalling to the
cell interior external cues which underlie many human
diseases, has somewhat eclipsed research into motile cilia.
This split with two cilia categories is however, short lived
as more recent evidence indicates that, as long suspected,
motile cilia/flagella also have sensory potential (see  for
So why establish a journal devoted to this once forgot-
ten organelle? The reasons are simple: interest and
importance. In 1997-1998 there were a handful of publi-
cations citing work on primary cilia with the main focus
on olfactory receptors (Figure 1). That year however, saw
the publication of Nonaka and Hirokawa’s seminal paper
on nodal cilia and left-right asymmetry which helped
kick-start the field . The year 1998 also produced the
classic purification of the intraflagellar transport (IFT)
complexes from Cole and Rosenbaum , providing the
molecular basis for previous discovery from Koszminski
and Rosenbaum of the intraflagellar transport process
. This led in rapid succession to links between poly-
cystic kidney disease and cilia, starting with the link of
C. elegans homolog of the PKD1 and PKD2 polycystins,
mutated in human polycystic kidney disease, to sensory
cilia ; the link of IFT-B components to mutations in
left-right asymmetry ; and the link between the IFT-
B complex, the polycystic kidney disease gene tg737 and
ciliary assembly . In 2003, work from Kathryn Ander-
son’s lab made the striking connection between primary
cilia and Hedgehog signaling , which caught the
attention of developmental biologists and helped bring
cilia into the mainstream of developmental cell biology.
A variety of links between cilia and morphogen pathways
have since been published, causing both enthusiasm and
controversy. The year 2006 saw a 20-fold increase in
publications on the topic with an emphasis on the role of
cilia in polycystic kidney disease. Since 2007, a growing
number of publications have characterized interacting
networks of proteins that form critical parts of the ciliary
trafficking and signaling machinery, and linked these net-
works and complexes to the human genetic disease, pro-
viding deeper explanations for human genetic diseases
like Bardet-Biedl syndrome, nephronophthisis, Joubert,
and Meckel-Gruber syndromes. Publications in 2011
continued to report a plethora of inherited diseases
linked to cilia dysfunction and mechanisms governing
trafficking to and within the cilium. Within little over a
decade, a new field of biomedical research was born out
of observations of this forgotten organelle. This interest
will continue unabated for the foreseeable future as new
and exciting cellular, developmental and disease-related
revelations are made.
It has emerged that the cilium should not be viewed in
isolation but rather as intrinsically linked to other orga-
nelles - the basal body, centrosome, actin, and microtub-
ular cytoskeleton; to other cellular processes - cell cycle,
division, and cytokinesis; and to other signaling pathways
important for development: Hedgehog, Wnt, Notch. We
are mindful of the need to maintain flexibility and
breadth in the types of manuscripts that will be consid-
ered for publication in Cilia. As reflected in the launch
edition, we welcome papers covering the function of the
centrosome, as well as aspects of the cytoskeleton of
interest to cilia biologists. We are especially interested in
* Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
1UCL Institute of Child Health, London WC1N 1EH, UK
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
Beales and Jackson Cilia 2012, 1:1
© 2012 Beales and Jackson; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
articles that help explain links between cilia and disease
process. There is a great opportunity to not only connect
cilia to human genetic diseases (‘ciliopathies’), but to
explain the role of ciliary signaling in normal physiology
and potentially to link cilia to disease pathologies that are
not clearly genetic in nature. To date, we know little
about the role that cilia may play in metabolic disease,
infectious disease, and only a glimmer of what the role of
cilia in cancer may be.
Cilia expects to publish a wide range of topics from
the structure of cilia to human genetics to ciliotherapeu-
tics and our expectation is that the journal’s structure
will evolve. This should not be a problem for an online
journal. We expect to publish both full research articles
and shorter reports. These reports might range from a
collection of clinical observations on a ciliary disease, to
a human genetics analysis of mutations in a disease
cluster, to an ‘omics’ analysis of some ciliary regulators,
and to detailed microscopy revealing a new structure.
The reports need not be long, even one figure could be
considered. They only need be of immediate interest to
our community of cilia biologists, and to have data of
high quality. We also welcome solicitations for reviews
or opinion pieces. We are committed to a rapid and fair
review of papers.
Of paramount importance to both of us as editors is
the fact that Cilia is an open access title and we are
grateful to BioMed Central for their commitment to sup-
port its launch and maintain its profile. We have been
delighted by the enthusiastic response of the contributing
authors whose works are showcased in this first edition.
1UCL Institute of Child Health, London WC1N 1EH, UK.2Genentech Inc.,
South San Francisco, CA 94080, USA.
Received: 12 April 2012 Accepted: 25 April 2012
Published: 25 April 2012
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Cite this article as: Beales and Jackson: Cilia - the prodigal organelle.
Cilia 2012 1:1.
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