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

Climate change and its effects on Rocky Mountain alpine lakes

Alpine lakes in the Rocky Mountains are important biological hot spots of that ecosystem. These lakes do not have enough nutrients to support large amounts of aquatic life because of the cold climate in the surrounding watershed. Rather, the lakes are home to oligotrophs, organisms that grow slowly and can survive in harsh aquatic environments. The lakes also host a variety of cold-water fish, such as trout, that are preyed upon by birds, including osprey and bald eagles.

Researchers from University of Wyoming, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Canadian Light Source conducted experiments at the CLS on the fine dust that is deposited to the Rocky Mountains to learn more about how the alpine lakes could be affected by climate change. They looked specifically at phosphorus in dust and how it is made available to the organisms in the cold lakes and streams, because phosphorus is one of the major limiting nutrients, and its availability could affect the functions and properties of alpine lake ecosystems.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website


Investigation of metal deposition in organs after joint replacement

Synchrotron analysis shows potentially harmful metals from implants can find their way into human organs.

The hip replacement is considered to be one of the most successful orthopaedic interventions, with 75,000 performed each year by the NHS alone. However, the implants used to replace hips contain metals, such as chromium and cobalt, which are potentially toxic and which can be deposited into tissues around the implant site due to wear and corrosion. A team of researchers used X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) on the I18 beamline to show that these metals can also find their way into organ tissues. Their results suggest that chronic diseases, such as diabetes, may create conditions in which mildly toxic trivalent chromium (CrIII) particles from replacement joints are reoxidised within the body to form carcinogenic hexavalent chromium (CrVI). Their results have been published in the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Overview of the study (entire figure to see here).

What makes pollen walls the most durable biological material?

Sporopollenin is the most durable biological material in nature and is a major component of the outer wall of pollen.

Scientists at the Natural History Museum (UK) and the ESRF are investigating the structure of the pollen wall this past weekend, on ID16A, to find out why this material is so resistant.

This experiment would not have taken place if chance, luck, but mostly curiosity had not played a major role in this story. ESRF post-doctoral researcher Ruxandra Cojocaru was talking to colleagues at the facility, looking for an appropriate material for a sedimentation study. Many discussions later, she ended up finding what she needed at the Natural History Museum in London, where curator and pollen specialist Stephen Stukins works.

Several exchanges later, and with an approved proposal for a different project than the original, they are now on ID16A to study the structure of pollen at nanolevel. “Throughout time, there have been species that have disappeared, yet the major plant groups have been relatively resistant to extinction. This may be due to the resistant sporopollenin material that was adapted for plant survival on land, especially exposure to UV radiation”, explains Stukins. With fellow NHM microfossil curator Giles Miller, he has brought fossil samples of Bathonian age, from the Jurassic era, that are part of the museum collection. “What we want to see is the structure of pollen, and more precisely of the sporopollenin outer wall. This is an almost inert biological polymer and we think it is key to the properties of pollen”, says Stukins.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: the sample in its set-up at the European Synchrotron.
Credit: Montserrat Capellas Espuny

Supporting World Cancer Day 2018

Diamond is proud to be supporting World Cancer Day and highlighting our role, working with our user community, in pioneering synchrotron research in every area of cancer – from developing a better understanding of how cancer cells work to delivering new cancer therapies.
Despite major advances in diagnosis and treatment, cancer still claims the lives of 8.8 million people every year around the world. About 4 million of these die prematurely (under the age of 70). World Cancer Day aims to raise the awareness of cancer and its treatment around the world. With the tagline ‘We can. I can.’, World Cancer Day is exploring how everyone can play their part in reducing the global burden of cancer.

Diamond has published over 900 publications in the last 12 months, with around 10% of these focusing on cancer. The wide-ranging research currently covers at least 12 cancer types, with many more general studies on the structure of cancer cells and pathways, potential drug targets and possible drug candidates. Building on last year’s review of some of the key studies in cancer that have taken place at Diamond, here is an update on studies that have been published in the last 12 months.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website


Modified antibody clarifies tumor-killing mechanisms

The structure of an antibody was modified to selectively activate a specific pathway of the immune system, demonstrating its value in killing tumor cells.

Immunotherapy—the use of the immune system to fight disease—has made tremendous progress in the fight against cancer. Antibodies such as immunoglobulin G (IgG) can identify and attack foreign or abnormal substances, including tumor cells. But to control and amplify this response, scientists need to know more about how elements of the immune system recognize tumor cells and trigger their destruction. There are two main pathways for this: antibody-dependent mechanisms and complement-dependent mechanisms.

The antibody pathway involves coating the surfaces of tumor cells with antibodies that recruit “natural killer” (NK) cells and macrophages (a type of white blood cell) to destroy the tumor cells. The complement pathway (so named because it complements the antibody pathway) also engages NK cells and macrophages and includes a third mechanism—a cascade of events culminating in tumor-cell destruction via a membrane attack complex (MAC).

>Read more on the ALS webpage

Image: extract of a schematic illustration (see on the ALS webpage)

Scientists decipher key principle behind reaction of metalloenzymes

So-called pre-distorted states accelerate photochemical reactions too

What enables electrons to be transferred swiftly, for example during photosynthesis? An interdisciplinary team of researchers has worked out the details of how important bioinorganic electron transfer systems operate. Using a combination of very different, time-resolved measurement methods at DESY’s X-ray source PETRA III and other facilities, the scientists were able to show that so-called pre-distorted states can speed up photochemical reactions or make them possible in the first place. The group headed by Sonja Herres-Pawlis from the RWTH Aachen University  Michael Rübhausen from the University of Hamburg and Wolfgang Zinth from Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University, is presenting its findings in the journal Nature Chemistry.

The scientists had studied the pre-distorted, “entatic” state using a model system. An entatic state is the term used by chemists to refer to the configuration of a molecule in which the normal arrangement of the atoms is modified by external binding partners such that the energy threshold for the desired reaction is lowered, resulting in a higher speed of reaction. One example of this is the metalloprotein plastocyanin, which has a copper atom at its centre and is responsible for important steps in the transfer of electrons during photosynthesis. Depending on its oxidation state, the copper atom either prefers a planar configuration, in which all the surrounding atoms are arranged in the same plane (planar geometry), or a tetrahedral arrangement of the neighbouring ligands. However the binding partner in the protein forces the copper atom to adopt a sort of intermediate arrangement. This highly distorted tetrahedron allows a very rapid shift between the two oxidation states of the copper atom.

>Read more on the PETRA III website

Image Caption: Entatic state model complexes optimize the energies of starting and final configuration to enable fast reaction rates (illustrated by the hilly ground). The work demonstrates that the entatic state principle can be used to tune the photochemistry of copper complexes.
Credit: RWTH Aachen, Sonja Herres-Pawlis