Understanding the viruses that kill cancer cells

Taking inspiration from virology to find better treatments for cancer

There are some viruses, called oncolytic viruses, that can be trained to target and kill cancer cells. Scientists in the field of oncolytics want to engineer these viruses to make them safer and more effective so they can be used to treat more people and different types of cancers. To achieve this, they first have to fully understand at the molecular level all the different ways that the virus has evolved to infect healthy cells and cause disease. A research team from Cardiff University set out to better understand how a protein on the surface of a virus often used to kill cancer, called an adenovirus, binds to human cells to cause an infection. Using X-ray crystallography, the team was able to determine the structure of one the key adenovirus proteins. Using this information and after extensive computational analysis, the research team realised the virus was not binding the receptor on the cells that was originally thought. This has important implications for the development of new virotherapies and engineering of viruses to treat cancer. The more thoroughly the researchers can understand how the adenoviruses interact with cancer cells at the molecular level, the more safe and effective treatments can be brought to clinical trial in the future.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Doubling the DNA alphabet

Implications for life in the universe and DNA storage

Life on Earth is dictated by the DNA alphabet comprised of only four DNA bases or letters: A, T, G and C. It has long been of interest to understand whether there is something very special about the four letters that comprise DNA and whether this is the only code that could support life. At a basic level, this question can be addressed by examining an expanded alphabet and determining the properties of DNA including additional synthetic letters. This study impacts our current understanding of terrestrial DNA and suggests that extraterrestrial life forms could have evolved using a different genetic code than found here on Earth. The work has immediate applications in synthetic biology for the creation of new molecules and greatly expands the ability to store information in DNA.

Now, in breakthrough work, funded by NASA, NSF and NIGMS, Dr. Steven Benner at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, in collaboration with Dr. Millie Georgiadis at the Indiana University School of Medicine, and colleagues at biotechnology companies and other universities, have provided evidence that the standard DNA code can be expanded to include eight letters forming “hachimoji DNA” (“hachi” eight and “moji” letter in Japanese) using four novel synthetic nucleobases (B, S, P and Z) in addition to A, T, C and G and still retain critical features of natural DNA1,2. Structurally, hachimoji DNA can adopt a standard double helical form of DNA and retain Watson-Crick complementary base pairing, which allows the expanded DNA to be faithfully replicated and transcribed by polymerases to produce hachimoji DNA copies and hachimoji RNA. These properties are essential for a genetic system that can support life.

>Read more on the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) at SLAC website

Image: Crystal structure of a double helix built from eight hachimoji building blocks, G (green), A (red), C (dark blue), T (yellow), B (cyan), S (pink), P (purple), and Z (orange). The first four building blocks are found in human DNA; the last four are synthetic, and possibly present in alien life. Each strand of the double helix has the sequence CTTAPCBTASGZTAAG. Notable is the geometric regularity of the pairs, a regularity that is needed for evolution.

Low background noise crucial for single particle imaging experiments

Model experiment brings scientists a step closer to SPI at European XFEL

Taking snapshots of single molecules with X-rays has long been a dream for many scientists. Such experiments have successfully been computationally modelled, but have never been practically demonstrated before.
In a model experiment carried out at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), European XFEL scientists, together with international collaborators, have now come one step closer to successfully carrying out so-called single particle imaging experiments (SPI) at X-ray laser facilities such as European XFEL. In a paper published today in the journal from the International Union of Crystallography (IUCrJ), scientists demonstrate experimentally that, in principle, a 3D structure can indeed be obtained from many tens of thousands of very weak images, using X-rays with similar properties as produced at X-ray free-electron lasers such as European XFEL.

>Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: Reconstruction of the 3D electron density. (a) Reconstruction from the result derived by EMC. The electron density projected along an axis perpendicular to the drawing plane is shown here. (b) Reconstruction from the reference Fourier volume. Again, the projected electron density is shown. (c) 3D iso-surface rendering of the reconstructed electron density shown in panel (a). The threshold of the iso-surface has been set to 0.2, given a normalized density with values between 0 and 1. (d) Scanning electron micrograph from the original sample.
Image source

Structural insights into tiny bacterial harpoons

Bacteria produce complex nano-harpoons on their cell surface. One of their functions is to harpoon and inject toxins into cells that are close by. Producing such a complex weapon requires lots of different moving components that scientists are still trying to understand. Researchers from the University of Sheffield have been using some of Diamond’s crystallography beamlines to understand a particularly enigmatic piece of this tiny puzzle. The team led by David Rice and Mark Thomas worked on a protein component of the harpoon called TssA which they already knew was an integral piece of the machinery. However, unlike the other components of the harpoon, there are distinct variants of the TssA protein that contain radically different amino acid sequences at one end of the protein. The team showed that the structures of the variable region of two different TssA subunits were completely unrelated and they could assemble into distinctly different multisubunit complexes in terms of their size and geometry. This begged the question as to how different bacteria could use this protein with different structures to produce a harpoon with the same function across all species. They found that despite these differences, there was a very specific conserved region at the other end of the protein. They hypothesise that the conserved region is the part that does the work and helps the harpoon to function whereas the variable region acts as a scaffold. They used I02, I03 and I24 in their study and plan to do follow up work using X-ray crystallography and Cryo-EM such as those at the eBIC centre at Diamond. The research was published in Nature Communications.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Macromolecular Crystallography (MX) at Diamond reveals the shape and arrangement of biological molecules at atomic resolution, knowledge of which provides a highly accurate insight into function. 

First users on VMXm

First users from the University of Southampton investigated proteins involved in nutrient uptake of photosynthetic or cyanobacteria to understand how these phytoplankton thrive under scarce nutrient conditions.

The work has immense global significance for biofuels production and biotechnology. This beamline marks the completion of Diamond’s original Phase III funding on time and within budget.

First users have now been welcomed by Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron light source on its new VMXm beamline. The Versatile Macromolecular Crystallography micro/nanofocus (VMXm) beamline becomes the 32nd operational beamline to open its doors to users, completing the portfolio of seven beamlines dedicated to macromolecular crystallography.
The unique VMXm beamline represents a significant landmark for Diamond. It is a specialist tuneable micro/nanofocus macromolecular crystallography (MX) beamline, with an X-ray beam size of less than 0.5 microns, allowing even the tiniest of samples to be analysed. Integrated into the ‘in vacuum’ sample environment is a scanning electron microscope, making VMXm a hybrid X-ray/cryoEM instrument for detecting and measuring data from nanocrystals. VMXm is aimed at research applications where the production of significant quantities of protein and crystals is difficult.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Principal Beamline Scientist Dr Gwyndaf Evans with his team Dr Jose Trincao, Dr Anna Warren, Dr Emma Beale and Dr Adam Crawshaw. First users – Dr Ivo Tews from Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton and joint Diamond-Southampton PhD student Rachel Bolton investigating proteins involved in nutrient uptake of photosynthetic or cyanobacteria.

Snaphot of molecular mechanism at work in lethal virus

X-ray crystallography at the Australian Synchrotron contributed to major research findings.

Data collected on the macromolecular crystallography beamlines at the Australian Synchrotron has contributed to major research findings on two deadly viruses, Hendra and Nipah, found in Australia, Asia and Africa. The viruses can be transmitted to humans not directly by the bat which is the natural carrier but by an infected animal like horses or pigs.

Beamline scientist, Dr David Aragao (pictured above), a co-author on the paper in Nature Communications, said that obtaining a clear motion picture of key biological process at the molecular level of viruses is often not available with current biomedical techniques.
“However, using X-ray crystallography from data collected on both MX1 and MX2 beamlines at the Australian Synchrotron, we were able to obtain  8  ‘photograph-like’ snapshots of the molecular process that allows the Hendra and Nipah virus to replicate.“

Two authors of the paper, PhD students Kate Smith and Sofiya Tsimbalyuk, who are co-supervised by Aragao and his collaborator Professor of Biochemistry Jade Forwood of the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation Charles Sturt University, used the Synchrotron extensively collecting multiple data sets that required extensive refinements over two years to isolate the mechanism of interest.

>Read more on the Australian Synchrotron website

Image: Beamline scientist, Dr David Aragao.

Structure reveals mechanism behind periodic paralysis

The results suggest possible drug designs that could provide relief to patients with a genetic disorder that causes them to be overcome suddenly with profound muscle weakness.

A rare genetic disorder called hypokalemic periodic paralysis (hypoPP) causes sudden, profound muscle weakness in people who occasionally exhibit low levels of potassium in their blood, or hypokalemia. When a patient is hypokalemic, hypoPP affects the function of the muscles responsible for skeletal movement. The disease has been known to stem from mutations in certain membrane proteins that channel and regulate the flow of sodium into cells. Exactly how the mutation affects the proteins’ function, however, was not known.

In earlier work, researchers from the Catterall Lab at the University of Washington had solved the structure of a sodium channel called NavAb from a prokaryote (single-celled organism). As a next step, the group decided to see if NavAb could serve as a model for studying the mutations that cause hypoPP in humans (eukaryotes), with the goal of finding a way to prevent or treat this disorder.

A leak in the pipe?

In a resting state, muscle-cell membranes keep potassium ions and sodium ions separated, inside and outside the cell, respectively, creating a voltage across the membrane. A chemical signal from a nerve cell sets off a cascade of events that results in sodium ions flowing into the cell, changing the membrane potential and and ultimately triggering muscle contraction.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source website

Image: Three states of the voltage-sensing domain (VSD) of a membrane-channel protein. In the normal state, the water-accessible space (magenta) does not extend through the channel, preventing sodium (gray spheres) from passing through. In the disease state, a clear passage allows sodium to leak through, resulting in muscle paralysis. In the “rescued” state, the binding of guanidinium (blue and yellow spheres) effectively closes the channel and blocks sodium leakage. The red sphere represents the location of the disease-causing mutation. The side-chain sticks represent the voltage sensors of the sodium channel.

How legionella manipulates the host cell by means of molecular mimics

Using synchrotron light, researchers from CIC bioGUNE have solved the structure of RavN, a protein that Legionella pneumophila uses for stealing functions and resources of the host cell.

Mimicry is the ability of some animals to resemble others in their environment to ensure their survival. A classic example is the stick bug whose shape and colour make him unnoticed to possible predators. Many intracellular pathogens also use molecular mimicry to ensure their survival. A part of a protein of the pathogen resembles another protein totally different from the host and many intracellular microorganisms use this capability to interfere in cellular processes that enable their survival and replication.

The Membrane Trafficking laboratory of the CIC bioGUNE in the Basque Country, led by Aitor Hierro, in collaboration with other groups from the National Institutes of Health in the United States, have been working for several years in understanding how the infectious bacterium Legionella pneumhopila interacts with human cells. During this research, experiments have been carried out at the XALOC beamline of the ALBA Synchrotron and I04 beamline of Diamond Light Source (UK). The results enabled scientists to solve the structure of RavN, a protein of L. pneumophila that uses this molecular mimicry to trick the infected cell.

>Read more on the ALBA website

Figure: (extract) Schematic representation of the structure of RavN1-123 as ribbon diagram displayed in two orientations (rotated by 90° along the x axis). Secondary elements are indicated as spirals (helices) or arrows (beta strands), with the RING/U-box motif colored in orange and the C-terminal structure colored in slate. (Full image here)

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

Canadian researchers unlock how seaweed is digested

Cattle on the Prairies are hundreds of kilometres from the coast and yet it’s possible that seaweed could make its way into their diet as an additive.

“Seaweed is an incredible opportunity. It is a sustainable feedstock. It grows rapidly, it doesn’t require arable land or fresh water to grow,” said Wade Abbott, research scientist at Agriculture and Agi-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre.

It may seem like a leap to go from the human gut to that of cattle, but Abbott explained that by understanding the human gut microbiome, or microorganisms, and the microbiome’s ability to use the sugars found in seaweed in its symbiotic relationship with the host, he sees potential to expand what is now a limited use of algae products.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Culturing gut bacteria in the lab (shown in these test tubes) allows researchers ‎to determine which genes in the genomes of bacteria are activated and discover new enzymes that digest rare substrates like agarose.
Credit: Wade Abbott

New high-precision instrument enables rapid measurements of protein crystals

A team of scientists and engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a new scientific instrument that enables ultra-precise and high-speed characterization of protein crystals at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II)—a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Brookhaven, which generates high energy x-rays that can be harnessed to probe the protein crystals. Called the FastForward MX goniometer, this advanced instrument will significantly increase the efficiency of protein crystallography by reducing the run time of experiments from hours to minutes.

Protein crystallography is an essential research technique that uses x-ray diffraction for uncovering the 3D structures of proteins and other complex biological molecules, and understanding their function within our cells. Using this knowledge about the basic structure of life, scientists can advance drug design, improve medical treatments, and unravel other environmental and biochemical processes governing our everyday lives.

>Read more on the NSLS-II website

Image: Yuan Gao, Wuxian Shi, Evgeny Nazaretski, Stuart Myers, Weihe Xu and, Martin Fuchs designed and implemented the new goniometer scanner system for ultra-fast and efficient serial protein crystallography at the Frontier Microfocusing Macromolecular Crystallography (FMX) beamline at the National Synchrotron Light Source II.

Respiratory virus study points to likely vaccine target

The proteins that bind

Researchers reveal the structure of a protein that helps bacteria aggregate

Serine-rich repeat proteins (SRRPs), which help bacteria attach to surfaces, have been structurally characterised in pathogenic bacteria but not in beneficial bacteria such as those present in the gut. Dr Nathalie Juge’s team at the Quadram Institute Bioscience has previously identified SRRP as a main adhesin in Lactobacillus reuteri strains from pigs and mice. Now, together with colleagues at the University of East Anglia, they have described the structure and activity of the binding region of L. reuteri SRRPs in a paper published in PNAS. Using the Macromolecular Crystallography beamlines (I03 and I04) at Diamond Light Source, they discovered that the structure of these proteins is unique among characterised SRRPs and is surprisingly similar to pectin degrading enzymes. Molecular simulations and binding experiments revealed a pH-dependent binding to pectin and to proteins from the epithelium known as mucins. Altogether, these findings shed light on the activity of a key protein in these bacteria and may help guide the development of more targeted probiotic interventions.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Figure: (Left) Cartoon representation of crystal structures of the binding region of SRRP53608. (Right) Cartoon representation of crystal structures of the binding region of SRRP100-23. The N-terminus is shown with blue balls and the C-terminus is shown with red balls.

Fighting malaria with X-rays

Today 25 April, is World Malaria Day.

Considered as one of humanity’s oldest life-threatening diseases, nearly half the world population is at risk, with 216 million people affected in 91 countries worldwide in 2016. Malaria causes 445 000 deaths every year, mainly among children. The ESRF has been involved in research into Malaria since 2005, with different techniques being used in the quest to find ways to prevent or cure the disease.

Malaria in humans is caused by Plasmodium parasites, the greatest threat coming from two species: P. falciparum and P. vivax. The parasites are introduced through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. They travel to the liver where they multiply, producing thousands of new parasites. These enter the blood stream and invade red blood cells, where they feed on hemoglobin (Hgb) in order to grow and multiply. After creating up to 20 new parasites, the red blood cells burst, releasing daughter parasites ready for new invasions. This life cycle leads to an exponential growth of infected red blood cells that may cause the death of the human host.

The research carried out over the years at the ESRF has aimed to identify mechanisms critical for the parasite’s survival in the hope of providing an intelligent basis for the development of drugs to stop the parasite’s multiplication and spread.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Inside the experimental hutch of the ESRF’s ID16A nano-analysis beamlin.
Credit: Pierre Jayet

Solution to plastic pollution on the horizon

Engineering a unique plastic-degrading enzyme

The inner workings of a recently discovered bacterium with a fascinating ability to use plastic as an energy source have been recently revealed in PNAS. The world’s unique Long-Wavelength Macromolecular Crystallography (MX) beamline here at Diamond Light Source was used to successfully solve the structure of the bacterial enzyme responsible for chopping up the plastic. This newly evolved enzyme could be the key to tackling the worldwide problem of plastic waste.

Plastic pollution is a global threat that desperately needs addressing. Plastics are rarely biodegradable and they can remain in the environment for centuries. One of the most abundant plastics that contributes hugely to this dire situation is poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET).

PET is used largely in textiles, where it is commonly referred to as polyester, but it is also used as packaging for liquids and foodstuffs. In fact, PET’s excellent water-repellent properties led to it being the plastic of choice for soft drink bottles. However, once plastic bottles are discarded in the environment the water resistance of PET means that they are highly resistant to natural biodegradation. PET bottles can linger for hundreds of years and plastic waste like this will accumulate over time unless a solution is found to degrade them.

A recent breakthrough came in the discovery of a unique bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, which was found feeding on waste from an industrial PET recycling facility. PET has only been widely used since the 1970s, so the bacterium had evolved at breakneck speed to be able to take advantage of the new food source.

The bacterium had the amazing ability to degrade PET and use it to provide carbon for energy. Central to this ability was the production of a PET-digesting enzyme, known as PETase.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website