A clear path to better insights into biomolecules

An international team of scientists, led by Kartik Ayyer from the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter, Germany, has obtained some of the sharpest possible 3D images of gold nanoparticles, and the results lay the foundation for getting high resolution images of macromolecules. The study was carried out at European XFEL’s Single Particles, Clusters, and Biomolecules & Serial Femtosecond Crystallography (SPB/SFX) instrument and the results have been published in Optica.

Carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids, all of which populate our cells and are vital for life, are macromolecules. A key to understanding how these macromolecules work lies in learning the details about their structure. The team used gold nanoparticles, which acted as a substitute for biomolecules, measured 10 million diffraction patterns and used them to generate 3D images with record-breaking resolution. Gold particles scatter much more X-rays than bio-samples and so make good test specimens. They are able to provide lot more data and this is good for fine-tuning methods that can then be used on biomolecules.

Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: Illustration of 3D diffraction pattern of octahedral nanoparticles obtained by combining many snapshots after structural selection.

Credit: Kartik Ayyer and Joerg Harms, Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter

Diamond helps uncover how an untreatable cancer-causing virus affects immune cells

Scientists have found that human T-cell lymphotropic virus, type 1 (HTLV-1) hijacks cellular machinery to establish an infection.  

Research was undertaken using cutting-edge visualisation techniques such as X-ray crystallography, which was undertaken at Diamond, and single-particle cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM).  

HTLV-1 is a virus that affects T cells, a type of white blood cell which plays a crucial role in our immune system. Currently, between five and 20 million people worldwide are infected by HTLV-1 and no cure or treatment is available. While most people infected with the virus do not experience symptoms, around two to five per cent will go on to develop adult T-cell leukaemia (ATL).  

New research, led by a team from Imperial College London and the Francis Crick Institute, shows in atomic detail how HTLV-1 infects immune cells. By providing a more nuanced understanding of how the virus establishes infection in the body, the research will help to support the development of new, targeted therapies. 

Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: Scanning electron micrograph of a human T lymphocyte (also called a T cell) from the immune system of a healthy donor. Credit: NIAID

A new enzyme cocktail can digest plastic waste six times faster

Research undertaken at Diamond has allowed scientists to create a super-enzyme that degrades plastic bottles six times faster than before.

The super-enzyme, derived from bacteria that lives on a diet of plastic, enables the full recycling of plastic bottles. 

Plastic pollution is a global threat as 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. PET’s excellent water-repellent properties led to it being the plastic of choice for soft drink bottles. However, the water resistance of PET means that they are highly resistant to natural biodegradation and can take hundreds of years to break down in the environment. 

In 2018, researchers discovered that a unique bacterium (Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6) was found feeding on waste from an industrial PET recycling facility. 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 website

New detector accelerates protein crystallography

In Feburary a new detector was installed at one of the three MX beamlines at HZB.

Compared to the old detector the new one is better, faster and more sensitive. It allows to acquire complete data sets of complex proteins within a very short time.

Proteins consist of thousands of building blocks that can form complex architectures with folded or entangled regions. However, their shape plays a decisive role in the function of the protein in the organism. Using macromolecular crystallography at BESSY II, it is possible to decipher the architecture of protein molecules. For this purpose, tiny protein crystals are irradiated with X-ray light from the synchrotron source BESSY II. From the obtained diffraction patterns, the morphology of the molecules can be calculated.

>Read more on the BESSY II at HZB website

Image: 60s on the new detector were sufficient to obtain the electron density of the PETase enzyme.
Credit: HZB

New sample holder for protein crystallography

An HZB research team has developed a novel sample holder that considerably facilitates the preparation of protein crystals for structural analysis.

A short video by the team shows how proteins in solution can be crystallised directly onto the new sample holders themselves, then analysed using the MX beamlines at BESSY II. A patent has already been granted and a manufacturer found. Proteins are huge molecules that often have complex three-dimensional structure and morphology that can include side chains, folds, and twists. This three-dimensional shape is often the determining factor of their function in organisms. It is therefore important to understand the structure of proteins both for fundamental research in biology and for the development of new drugs. To accomplish this, proteins are first precipitated from solution as tiny crystals, then analysed using facilities such as the MX beamlines at BESSY II in order to generate a computer image of the macromolecular structure from the data.

>Read more on the BESSY II at HZB website

Image: Up to three indivudal drops may be placed onto the sample holder.
Credit: HZB

Analyzing poppies to make better drugs

A team of researchers from the University of Calgary has uncovered new information about a class of plant enzymes that could have implications for the pharmaceutical industry. In a paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the scientists explain how they revealed molecular details of an enzyme class that is central to the synthesis of many widely used pharmaceuticals, including the painkillers codeine and morphine.  

The team used the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to better understand how the enzyme behaves, which is crucial for unleashing its potential to make novel medicines. “Until this study, we didn’t know the key structural details of the enzyme. We learned from the structure of the enzyme bound to the product how the methylation reaction locks the product into a certain stereochemistry. It was completely unknown how the enzyme did that before we determined this structure,” corresponding author Dr. Kenneth Ng explained.

Stereochemistry is an important concept when it comes to safety and efficacy in drug design. A molecule can have a few different arrangements—similar to how your left hand is a mirror image of your right hand. These arrangements can lead to very different effects.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: group photo of some of the researchers involved with this project. From left to right: Ken Ng (Professor and corresponding author), Jeremy Morris (PhD graduate and second author), Dean Lang (PhD student and first author), and Peter Facchini (Professor, CSO of Willow Biosciences and senior author).

A new generation of anti-malaria drugs

Malaria is endemic to large areas of Africa, Asia and South America and annually kills more than 400,000 people, a majority of whom are children under age 5, with hundreds of millions of new infections every year. Although artemisinin-based drug combinations are available to treat malaria, reports from Southeast Asia of treatment failures are raising concerns about drug resistance spreading to Africa. Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon because there are several new antimalarial drug candidates undergoing clinical testing as well as other promising drug targets that are under investigation.
An international research team has for the first time determined the atomic structure of a protein kinase called PKG in Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria—a finding that potentially will help create a new generation of anti-malarial drugs and advance fundamental research. PKG[i] plays essential roles in the developmental stages of the parasite’s complex life cycle, so understanding its structure is key to developing malaria-fighting therapies that specifically target PKG and not other human enzymes, according to researcher Dr. Charles Calmettes.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: PKG crystal.

The future of fighting infections

Scientists analyze 3D model of proteins from disease-causing bacteria at the CLS.

Millions of people are affected by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacterium, which can cause sinus infections, middle ear infections and more serious life-threatening diseases, like pneumonia, bacteremia, and meningitis. Up to forty percent of the population are carriers of this bacterium.
Researchers from the University of Victoria (UVic) used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to study proteins that the pathogen uses to break down sugar chains (glycans) present in human tissue during infections. These proteins are key tools the bacterium uses to cause disease.

They used the Canadian Macromolecular Crystallography Facility (CMCF) at the CLS to determine the three-dimensional structure of a specific protein, an enzyme, that the bacterium produces to figure out how it interacts with and breaks down glycans.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: The 3D structure of an enzyme from the disease-causing bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae.

Natural defense against red tide toxin found in bullfrogs

A team led by Berkeley Lab faculty biochemist Daniel Minor has discovered how a protein produced by bullfrogs binds to and inhibits the action of saxitoxin, the deadly neurotoxin made by cyanobacteria and dinoflagellates that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.
The findings, published this week in Science Advances, could lead to the first-ever antidote for the compound, which blocks nerve signaling in animal muscles, causing death by asphyxiation when consumed in sufficient quantities.
“Saxitoxin is among the most lethal natural poisons and is the only marine toxin that has been declared a chemical weapon,” said Minor, who is also a professor at the UCSF Cardiovascular Research Institute. About one thousand times more potent than cyanide, saxitoxin accumulates in tissues and can therefore work its way up the food chain – from the shellfish that eat the microbes to fish, turtles, marine mammals, and us.

>Read more on the ALS website

Image: A photo illustration showing the atomic structures of saxiphilin and saxitoxin, a red tide algal bloom, and an American bullfrog (R. catesbeiana).
Credit: Daniel L. Minor, Jr., and Deborah Stalford/Berkeley Lab.

Study offers new target for antibiotic resistant bacteria

As antibiotic resistance rises, the search for new antibiotic strategies has become imperative. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that antibiotic resistant bacteria cause at least 2 million infections and 23,000 deaths a year in the U.S.; a recent report raised the likely mortality rate to 162,044.
New Cornell research on an enzyme in bacteria essential to making DNA offers a new pathway for targeting pathogens. In “Convergent Allostery in Ribonucleotide Reductase,” published June 14 in Nature Communications, researchers used the MacCHESS research stations at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) to reveal an unexpected mechanism of activation and inactivation in the protein ribonucleotide reductase (RNR).

Understanding the “switch” that turns RNR off provides a possible means to shut off the reproduction of harmful bacteria.
RNRs take ribonucleotides, the building blocks of RNA, and convert them to deoxyribonucleotides, the building blocks of DNA. In all organisms, the regulation of RNRs involves complex mechanisms, and for good reason: These mechanisms prevent errors and dangerous mutations.

>Read more on the CHESS website

Image: William Thomas, a graduate student in the field of chemistry and chemical biology, collects data on ribonucleotide reductase.

Scienstists make breakthrough in creating universal blood type

Enzymes in the human gut can convert A blood type into O.

Half of all Canadians will either need blood or know someone who needs it in their lifetime. Researchers from the University of British Columbia have made a breakthrough in their technique for converting A and B type blood into universal O, the type that is most needed by blood services and hospitals because anyone can receive it.
In a paper published in Nature Microbiology, Stephen Withers and a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the University of British Columbia show how they successfully converted a whole unit of A type blood to O type using their system.  They were able to remove the sugars from the surface of the red blood cells with help from a pair of enzymes that were isolated from the gut microbiome of an AB+ donor.
The Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan (UofS) played a critical role in understanding the structure of a previously unknown enzyme that was part of this pair. The researchers were unable to identify what this unique enzyme looked like from the gene sequence they had.  Crystallography, done at the CLS, was crucial for the researchers to understand how this enzyme works and why it had a particular affinity for the A type blood.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Potassium hunting on protein factories

Amazing insights into the location of elusive potassium ions on bacterial ribosomes

Groundbreaking research at the new long-wavelength macromolecular crystallography beamline (I23) at Diamond Light Source has for the first time demonstrated the location of potassium ions in bacterial ribosomes. Ribosomes are the protein factories of cells and although they are vital for life, little was known of the sites of metal ions that are crucial for their structure and function. The work recently published in Nature Communications showcases the fantastic applications of the I23 beamline and sheds light on the important role of potassium ions.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: (extract, full image here) 70S ribosome elongation complex (potassium atoms rendered as green spheres).

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.