Understanding how motor proteins shape our cells

Understanding the busy networks inside our cells can help researchers develop new cancer treatments and prevent dangerous fungal infections.

With the help of the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan, a research team led by John Allingham from Queen’s University and Hernando Sosa from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine has shed light on a protein that regulates the intricate microscopic networks that give cells their shape and helps ship important molecules to diverse locations.

Using the CMCF beamline at the CLS and the cryo-EM facility at the Simons Electron Microscopy Center (SEMC) at the New York Structural Biology Center, the team found the missing pieces of an important puzzle.

In their published work, they are the first group to clearly describe the mechanism of action of a tiny motor protein called Kinesin-8 that enables it to control the structures of microtubule fiber networks inside the cell.

Read more on the CLS website

Image: Cells, Canadian Light Source.

Targeting a parasite’s DNA could be more effective way to treat malaria

Research from the University of Sheffield using Diamond has explored a new way of killing the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria. 

According to the World Health Organisation, there were 241 million cases of malaria and 627,000 deaths worldwide in 2020 – making the study and treatment of this disease a high-priority issue for scientists around the world. In a feasibility study, researchers from the University of Sheffield used Diamond to reveal a novel way of fighting the life-threatening disease, malaria. The study discovered molecules that interfered with the parasite’s DNA processing enzyme, but not the equivalent human one. 

A research team from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular Disease examined and targeted an enzyme that maintains the classic double-helical structure of the malaria parasite’s DNA, which contains the blueprint of life, which could be a more effective way to combat malaria.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: A flap endonuclease cuts DNA (the orange intertwined worms), credit University of Sheffield

New insight into how mammal ancestors became warm-blooded

The shapes of the ear canals of mammal ancestors reveal when warm-bloodedness evolved. The study published in Nature demonstrates that mammal ancestors became warm-blooded later than previously thought – nearly 20 million years later-, and that the acquisition of endothermy seems to have occurred very quickly in geological terms, in less than a million years. The international team of scientists, led by London’s Natural History Museum, the University of Lisbon’s Instituto Superior Técnico, the Field Museum in Chicago, and including the University of Witwatersrand, used the ESRF bright X-rays to scan delicate and dense fossils.

Read more on the ESRF website

Image: Comparison of bony labyrinth shape in two examples of warm-blooded (left) and cold-blooded (right) prehistoric mammal ancestors. © Romain David and Ricardo Araújo.

Assembly lines for designer bioactive compounds

Researchers successfully bioengineered changes to a molecular “assembly line” for bioactive compounds, based in part on insights gained from small-angle x-ray scattering at the Advanced Light Source (ALS).

The ability to re-engineer these assembly lines could improve their performance and facilitate the synthesis of new medically useful compounds.

Microbes are known to possess molecular “assembly lines” that produce an important class of compounds, many of which have uses as antibiotics, antifungals, and immunosuppressants. The compounds are peptides—chains of amino acids like RNA, but shorter and produced, not by ribosomes, but by cellular machines known as nonribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPSs).

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source website

Image: Top: Comparison of experimental SAXS scattering data (black) with theoretical curves (green) obtained using an ensemble optimization method (EOM) shows excellent agreement. Bottom: LgrA structural models corresponding to the EOM analyses show large differences in conformation, similar to the differences observed using crystallography.

Researchers use CHESS to map protein motion

Cornell structural biologists took a new approach to using a classic method of X-ray analysis to capture something the conventional method had never accounted for: the collective motion of proteins.

And they did so by creating software to painstakingly stitch together the scraps of data that are usually disregarded in the process.
Cornell structural biologists took a new approach to using a classic method of X-ray analysis to capture something the conventional method had never accounted for: the collective motion of proteins. And they did so by creating software to painstakingly stitch together the scraps of data that are usually disregarded in the process.
Their paper, “Diffuse X-ray Scattering from Correlated Motions in a Protein Crystal,”published March 9 in Nature Communications.
As a structural biologist, Nozomi Ando, M.S. ’04, Ph.D. ’08, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, is interested in charting the motion of proteins, and their internal parts, to better understand protein function. This type of movement is well known but has been difficult to document because the standard technique for imaging proteins is X-ray crystallography, which produces essentially static snapshots.

>Read more on the CHESS website
>Read also: Diffuse X-ray Scattering from Correlated Motions in a Protein Crystal

Image: This slice through the three-dimensional diffuse map shows intense peaks resulting from lattice vibration, as well as cloudy features caused by internal protein motions.

Using European XFEL to shed light on photosynthesis

First membrane protein studied at European XFEL

In a paper now published in Nature Communications an international group of scientists show that the fast X-ray pulse rate produced by the European XFEL can be used to study the structure of membrane proteins such as those involved in the process of photosynthesis. These results open up eagerly awaited experimental opportunities for scientists studying these types of proteins.

Large proteins and protein complexes are difficult to study with traditional structural biology approaches. Large protein complexes, such as those that sit across cell membranes and regulate traffic in and out of cells, are difficult to crystalize and generally only produce small crystals that are hard to analyse. The extremely fast X-ray pulses generated by European XFEL now enable scientists to collect large amounts of data from a stream of small crystals to develop detailed models of the 3D structure of these proteins.

>Read more on the European XFEL website

Image (extract, full illustration in the article): Graphic shows the basic design of a serial femtosecond crystallography experiment at European XFEL. X-ray bursts strike crystallized samples resulting in diffraction patterns that can be reassembled into detailed images.
Credit: Shireen Dooling for the Biodesign Institute at ASU

New approach for solving protein structures from tiny crystals

Technique opens door for studies of countless hard-to-crystallize proteins involved in health and disease

Using x-rays to reveal the atomic-scale 3-D structures of proteins has led to countless advances in understanding how these molecules work in bacteria, viruses, plants, and humans—and has guided the development of precision drugs to combat diseases such as cancer and AIDS. But many proteins can’t be grown into crystals large enough for their atomic arrangements to be deciphered. To tackle this challenge, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and colleagues at Columbia University have developed a new approach for solving protein structures from tiny crystals.

The method relies on unique sample-handling, signal-extraction, and data-assembly approaches, and a beamline capable of focusing intense x-rays at Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II)—a DOE Office of Science user facility—to a millionth-of-a-meter spot, about one-fiftieth the width of a human hair.

>Read more on the NSLS-II at Brookhaven Lab website

Image: Wuxian Shi, Martin Fuchs, Sean McSweeney, Babak Andi, and Qun Liu at the FMX beamline at Brookhaven Lab’s National Synchrotron Light Source II, which was used to determine a protein structure from thousands of tiny crystals.

Biological material discovered in Jurassic fossil

Ichthyosaurs were reptiles that roamed the Jurassic oceans 180 million years ago. They are extremely well studied and the form will probably be instantly recognisable from museums and textbooks. They resemble modern toothed whales such as dolphins and this similarity led researchers to hypothesise that the two creatures had similar strategies for survival in the marine environment. However, until now, there was little evidence to support this hypothesis. The research team led by Lund researcher Johan Lindgren went on the search for biological material within fossils to help solve this puzzle. After a lot of preparation in the lab and traveling around the world to perform experiments, they discovered that the fossil contained remnants of smooth skin and subcutaneous blubber. This is compelling evidence that the Ichthyosaurs were indeed warm-blooded and confirms the previous hypothesis. Lindgren showed visible delight when he described how you could see that the 180-million-year-old blubber was indeed visibly flexible after treatment in his laboratory.

>Read more on the MAX IV Laboratory website

Image: MAX IV’s Anders Engdahl was part of a team that published a landmark study about biological tissue found in a Jurassic fossil. The work published this week in Nature is one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind and sheds new light on the life of a prehistoric sea creature.

New research helps pursuit for malaria vaccine

Scientists from The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) identify structure of key malaria protein

Using technology available at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, SickKids scientists have taken an important step forward on the path to finding effective biomedical interventions to halt the spread of malaria, a disease that affected an estimated 216 million people worldwide in 2016 alone.

Jean-Philippe Julien, a scientist in the Molecular Medicine program at SickKids, and his colleagues focused on a molecule known to be essential for the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum to go through the sexual stages of its lifecycle. Disrupting that stage of the lifecycle has the potential to reduce infections and deaths from malaria because parasite transmission between humans would be blocked by inhibiting parasite development in the Anopheles mosquito.

“The protein we looked at was identified several years ago as an important target for malaria parasite biology,” says Julien, who is also a Canada Research Chair in Structural Immunology and an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Biochemistry and Immunology at the University of Toronto. “The field has tried for over a decade to clarify its structure in order to guide the development of biomedical interventions that can curb the spread of malaria.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: One of the structures of the malaria protein (orange) being recognized by the humanized blocking antibody (green and blue).

The ESRF CryoEM excels in its first year

In November 2017, a Titan Krios cryo-electron microscope (cryo-EM) was inaugurated at the ESRF, the European Synchrotron, France. Data collected on this cryo-EM features in a Nature publication describing the activation cycle of a serotonin receptor, which is targeted by medication against chemotherapy- and radiotherapy-induced nausea.

“This publication is a true reward for us: the first one in less than a year from inauguration and we hope this kind of rewards will grow in number”, explains Isai Kandiah, ESRF scientist who runs the facility. “It shows the revolution that cryo-EM is leading in structural biology”, she adds. Thanks to cryo-EM, researchers can now freeze biomolecules, including membrane proteins of high medical importance, in several different conformations in action and visualise each of these to atomic resolution. Cryo-EM thus allows researchers to produce snapshots revealing the dynamics of proteins when they interact with other molecules, information that is crucial both for a basic understanding of life’s chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals. The user programme of the cryo-electron microscope at the ESRF is run jointly with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), the Institut de Biologie Structurale (IBS) and the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL).

The research in Nature is a result of an international collaboration of scientists from the Institute of Structural biology (IBS-mixed research unit CEA-CNRS-University Grenoble Alps), CEA, CNRS, the Institut Pasteur, the University of Lorraine (France), the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), the University of Illinois (US) and the biotech company Theranyx. The focus of the paper, featuring data from the ESRF cryo-EM, is the activation cycle of the 5-HT3 receptor, belonging to the family of serotonin receptors. These receptors are well-known because they influence various biological and neurological processes such as anxiety, appetite, mood, nausea, sleep and thermoregulation, among others. Unlike the other serotonin receptors, which are G protein-coupled receptors, 5-HT3 is a neurotransmitter-gated ion channel and changes its conformation during activation. It is present in the brain, as well as in the enteric nervous system, the peripheral nervous system that drives the digestive tract.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: A close-up view of the Cryo-EM at the ESRF.
Credit: S. Candé.

SwissFEL makes protein structures visible

Successful pilot experiment on biomolecules at the newest large research facility of PSI

For the development of new medicinal agents, accurate knowledge of biological processes in the body is a prerequisite. Here proteins play a crucial role. At the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI, the X-ray free-electron laser SwissFEL has now, for the first time, directed its strong light onto protein crystals and made their structures visible. The special characteristics of the X-ray laser enable completely novel experiments in which scientists can watch how proteins move and change their shape. The new method, which in Switzerland is only possible at PSI, will in the future aid in the discovery of new drugs.

Less than two years after the X-ray free-electron laser SwissFEL started operations, PSI researchers, together with the Swiss company leadXpro, have successfully completed their first experiment using it to study biological molecules. With that, they have achieved another milestone before this new PSI large research facility becomes available for experiments, at the beginning of 2019, to all users from academia and industry. SwissFEL is one of only five facilities worldwide in which researchers can investigate biological processes in proteins or protein complexes with high-energy X-ray laser light.

>Read more on the SwissFEL website

Image: Michael Hennig (left) and Karol Nass at the experiment station in SwissFEL where their pilot experiment was conducted.
Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir Dzambegovic

X-rays reveal L-shape of scaffolding protein

Structural biologists discover unexpected results at PETRA III at DESY in Germany.

An investigation at DESY’s X-ray light source PETRA III has revealed a surprising shape of an important scaffolding protein for biological cells. The scaffolding protein PDZK1 is comprised of four so-called PDZ domains, three linkers and a C-terminal tail. While bioinformatics tools had suggested that PDZK1’s PDZ domains and linkers would behave like beads on a string moving around in a highly flexible manner, the X-ray experiments showed that PDZK1 has a relatively defined L-shaped conformation with only moderate flexibility. The team led by Christian Löw from the Centre for Structural Systems Biology CSSB at DESY and Dmitri Svergun from the Hamburg branch of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory EMBL report their results in the journal Structure.

Similar to metal scaffolding which provides construction workers with access points to a building, scaffolding proteins mediate interactions between proteins situated on the membrane of the human cell. While the molecular structure of each of PDZK1’s four individual PDZ domains has been solved using X-ray crystallography and NMR spectroscopy, the overall arrangement of the domains in the protein as well as their interactions was not yet understood.

>Read more on the PETRA III at DESY website

Image: Artistic shape interpretation of the scaffolding protein PDZK1. (Credit: Manon Boschard)tistic shape interpretation of the scaffolding protein PDZK1.
Credit: Manon Boschard

Shining a new light on biological cells

Combined X-ray and fluorescence microscope reveals unseen molecular details

A research team from the University of Göttingen has commissioned at the X-ray source PETRA III at DESY a worldwide unique microscope combination to gain novel insights into biological cells. The team led by Tim Salditt and Sarah Köster describes the combined X-ray and optical fluorescence microscope in the journal Nature Communications. To test the performance of the device installed at DESY’s measuring station P10, the scientists investigated heart muscle cells with their new method.

Modern light microscopy provides with ever sharper images important new insights into the interior processes of biological cells, but highest resolution is obtained only for the fraction of biomolecules which emit fluorescence light. For this purpose, small fluorescent markers have to be first attached to the molecules of interest, for example proteins or DNA. The controlled switching of the fluorescent dye in the so-called STED (stimulated emission depletion) microscope then enables highest resolution down to a few billionth of a meter, according to principle of optical switching between on- and off-state introduced by Nobel prize winner Stefan Hell from Göttingen.

>Read more on the PETRA III at DESY website

Image: STED image (left) and X-ray imaging (right) of the same cardiac tissue cell from a rat. For STED, the network of actin filaments in the cell, which is important for the cell’s mechanical properties, have been labeled with a fluorescent dye. Contrast in the X-ray image, on the other hand, is directly related to the total electron density, with contributions of labeled and unlabeled molecules. By having both contrasts at hand, the structure of the cell can be imaged in a more complete manner, with the two imaging modalities “informing each other”.
Credit: University of Göttingen, M. Bernhardt et al.

First serial crystallography experiments performed at BioMAX

BioMAX has successfully performed the first serial crystallography experiments at the beamline. This new method is performed at room temperature which allows structural biologists to study their molecules at more biologically relevant conditions. The technique can also be used on smaller crystals which will alleviate some of the restrictions for molecules such as membrane proteins, that do not typically form large crystals. Eventually, it is hoped that this technique will allow users at the BioMAX and MicroMAX beamlines to take snapshots of the dynamic states of proteins in rapid succession giving a dynamic view of protein movement and activity.

The serial crystallography technique promises to be very useful to users of both synchrotrons and XFELs. Over the course of one experiment, users were able to measure between 20 and 50 crystals every second, resulting in 20 TB of data from just 3 proteins. BioMAX hopes to quickly master this complex technique in order to offer it to users as soon as possible. It also gives us a glimpse of what will be possible at the newly funded MicroMAX beamline.

>Read more on the MAX IV Laboratory website

Image: BioMAX serial crystallography setup using a High Viscosity Extrusion (HVE) injector specially designed for the BioMAX endstation by Bruce Doak of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Heidelberg, and fabricated at that institute.

Biological light sensor filmed in action

Film shows one of the fastest processes in biology

Using X-ray laser technology, a team led by researchers of the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI has recorded one of the fastest processes in biology. In doing so, they produced a molecular movie that reveals how the light sensor retinal is activated in a protein molecule. Such reactions occur in numerous organisms that use the information or energy content of light – they enable certain bacteria to produce energy through photosynthesis, initiate the process of vision in humans and animals, and regulate adaptations to the circadian rhythm. The movie shows for the first time how a protein efficiently controls the reaction of the embedded light sensor. The images, now published in the journal Science, were captured at the free-electron X-ray laser LCLS at Stanford University in California. Further investigations are planned at SwissFEL, the new free-electron X-ray laser at PSI. Besides the scientists from Switzerland, researchers from Japan, the USA, Germany, Israel, and Sweden took part in this study.

>Read more on the SwissFEL at Paul Scherrer Institute website

Image: Jörg Standfuss at the injector with which protein crystals for the experiments at the Californian X-ray laser LCLS were tested. In the near future, this technology will also be available at PSI’s X-ray laser SwissFEL, for scientists from all over the world.
Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir DzaAmbegovic

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