Baudelaire comes to Chemistry

Could an evil molecule be beautiful? In Les Fleurs du Mal, a collection of poems, Baudelaire argued that there was a certain beauty in evil. Well, if there ever was an evil molecule, it’s the Abeta42 peptide, the main component of the senile plaque of Alzheimer’s disease, a molecule whose effects I spent my entire professional career as a neurologist ineffectually fighting. And yet, in a recent paper on the way it forms the fibrils constituting the plaque I found the structure compellingly beautiful.

The papers are Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 113 pp. 9398 – 9400, E4976 – E4984 ’16. People have been working on the structure of the amyloid fibril of Alzheimer’s for decades, consistently stymied by its insolubility. The authors solved it not by Xray crystallography, not by cryoEM, but by solid state NMR. They basically looked at the distance constraints between pairs of isotopically labeled atoms, and built their model that way. Actually they built a bouquet of models using computer aided energy minimization of the peptide backbone. Another independent study produced nearly the same set.

The root mean square deviation of backbone atoms of the 10 lowest energy models of the bouquets in the two studies was small (.89 and .71 Angstroms). Even better the model bouquets of the two papers resemble each other.

There are two chains of Abeta42, EACH shaped like a double horseshoe (similar to the letter S). The two S’s meet around a twofold axis. The interface between the two S’s is form by two noncontiguous areas on each monomer (#15 – #17) and (#34 – #37).

The hydrophilic amino terminal residues (#1 – #14) are poorly ordered, but amino acids #15 – #42 are arranged into 4 short beta strands (I only see 3 obvious ones) that stack up and down the fibril into parallel in register beta-sheets. Each stack of double horseshoes forms a thread and the two threads twist around each other to form a two stranded protofilament.

Glycines allow sharp turns at the corners of the horseshoes. Hydrogen bonds between amides link the two layers of the fibrils. Asparagine side chains form ladders of hydrogen bonds up and down the fibrils. Water isn’t present between the layers because the beta sheets are so close together (counterintuitively this decreases the entropy, because water molecules don’t have to align themselves just so to solvate the side chains).

Each of the horseshoes is stabilized by hydrophobic interactions among the hydrophobic side chains buried in the core. Charged residues are solvent exposed. The interface between the two horsehoes is a hydrophobic interface.

Many of the famlial mutations are on the outer edges of double S structure — they are K16N, A21G, D23N, E22A, E22K, E22G, E22Q.

The surface hydrophobic patch formed by V40 and A42 may explain the greater rate of secondary nucleation by Abeta42 vs. Abeta40.

The cryoEM structures we have of Abeta42 are different showing the phenomenon of amyloid polymorphism.

The PNAS paper used reombinant Abeta and prepared homogenous fibrils by repeated seeding of dissolved Abeta42 with preformed fibrils. The other study used chemically synthesized Abeta and got fibrils without seeding. Details of pH, peptide concentration, salt concentration differed, and yet the results are the same, making both structures more secure.

The new structure doesn’t immediately suggest the toxic mechanism of Abeta.

To indulge in a bit of teleology — the structure is so beautiful and so intricately designed, that the aBeta42 peptide has probably been evolutionarily optimized to perform an (as yet unknown) function in our bodies. Animals lacking Abeta42’s parent (the amyloid precursor protein) don’t form neuromuscular synapses correctly, but they are viable.

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  • Ashutosh  On August 27, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    It’s not just Aß 1-42. As Chris Dobson of Cambridge has repeatedly shown, almost any protein can form the amyloid structure under the right conditions. The cross-beta sheet motif is unusually stable and universal.

  • luysii  On August 28, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Quite true, but I didn’t mention this work, as the conditions to produce amyloid were rather extreme (high pressure, temperature, etc. etc.). Correct me if I’m wrong. Abeta42 just forms it in vivo, which may imply that natural selection has optimized it to perform some function of which we are only dimly aware.

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