X-ray laser opens new view on Alzheimer proteins

Graphene enables structural analysis of naturally occurring amyloids

A new experimental method permits the X-ray analysis of amyloids, a class of large, filamentous biomolecules which are an important hallmark of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. An international team of researchers headed by DESY scientists has used a powerful X-ray laser to gain insights into the structure of different amyloid samples. The X-ray scattering from amyloid fibrils give patterns somewhat similar to those obtained by Rosalind Franklin from DNA in 1952, which led to the discovery of the well-known structure, the double helix. The X-ray laser, trillions of times more intense than Franklin’s X-ray tube, opens up the ability to examine individual amyloid fibrils, the constituents of amyloid filaments. With such powerful X-ray beams any extraneous material can overwhelm the signal from the invisibly small fibril sample. Ultrathin carbon film – graphene – solved this problem to allow extremely sensitive patterns to be recorded. This marks an important step towards studying individual molecules using X-ray lasers, a goal that structural biologists have long been pursuing. The scientists present their new technique in the journal Nature Communications.

Amyloids are long, ordered strands of proteins which consist of thousands of identical subunits. While amyloids are believed to play a major role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases, recently more and more functional amyloid forms have been identified. “The ‘feel-good hormone’ endorphin, for example, can form amyloid fibrils in the pituitary gland. They dissolve into individual molecules when the acidity of their surroundings changes, after which these molecules can fulfil their purpose in the body,” explains DESY’s Carolin Seuring, a scientist at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL) and the principal author of the paper. “Other amyloid proteins, such as those found in post-mortem brains of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, accumulate as amyloid fibrils in the brain, and cannot be broken down and therefore impair brain function in the long term.”

Image: On the ultra-thin, extremely regular layer of graphene, the fibrils align themselves in parallel in large domains. The intense X-ray light from the X-rax free-electron laser LCLS at the SLAC National Accelerator Center enabled the researchers to gain partial information about the fibril structure from ensembles of just a few fibrils.
Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory