Category Archives: Molecular Biology

Do not go gentle into that good night

Cells in the body dying of necroptosis obey Dylan Thomas — “Do not go gentle into that good night” all sorts of inflammation ensues around the cell, and systemically if enough die that way at once.

Cells dying from the first discovered form of programmed cell death e.g. apoptosis disobey.  They die very quietly producing no inflammation, and are quietly munched up by phagocytes.  Just how this happens has been a huge mystery.

Well one way to figure out what is going on looks at a phagocyte before it meets an apoptotic cell and afterwards.  Quite a bit it turns out.  The brute force technique looks at the changes in our 20,000 or so protein coding genes.  They found increased expression in 886 and decreased expression in 966, some 9% of our total.  How do you make sense of that.

This is typical of the brute force approach to any condition (e.g. cancer, infection, vascular disease), and shows you just how hard it is to figure out what is going on from the mass of data produced.

The authors of Nature vol. 580 pp. 130 – 135 ’20 (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2121-3.pdf) were far cleverer than that.  What they did was cause a bunch of cells to go apoptotic at once and then the “supernatants and cell pellets from apoptotic cells and live cell controls were subjected to untargeted metabolomic profiling against a library of more than 3,000 biochemical features or compounds.”

Then by a huge amount of work they found 6 metabolites released by the apoptotic cell  which when given together which could switch macrophages (a type of phagocyte)to the non-inflammatory state (e.g. the one above producing all those gene changes).

Then they pared the number of metabolites doing this down to 3 (spermidine, guanosine monophosphate and inosine monophosphate). They call this cocktail of metabolites MEMIX-3.

They get out of the cell dying of apoptosis because the executioner (caspase) chops up a protein channel on the cell surface (pannexin1), allowing the 6 metabolites to escape.  A rather parsimonious suicide note wouldn’t you think.

It gets better. MEMIX-3 obviously is an anti-inflammatory agent, and they showed that it attenuates arthritic symptoms and prevents rejection of a lung transplant.

Brilliant work, and possibly one of great therapeutic import.

Frameshifting

hed oga tet hec atw hoa tet her atw hob ith erp aw

Say what?  It’s a simple sentence made of 3 letter words frameshifted by one

he dog ate the cat who ate the rat who bit her paw

Codons are read as groups of three nucleotides, and frameshifting has always been thought to totally destroy the meaning of a protein, as an entirely different protein is made.

Not so says PNAS vol. 117 pp. 5907 – 5912 ’20. Normally a frameshifted protein has only 7% sequence identity with the original.  This is about what one would expect given that there are 20 amino acids, and chance coincidence would argue for 5%.  But there are more ways for proteins to be similar rather than identical.  One can classify our amino acids in several ways, charged vs. uncharged, aromatic vs. nonaromatic, hydrophilic vs. hydrophobic etc. etc.

The authors looked at 2,900 human proteins, then they frameshifted the original by +1 and compared the hydrophobicity profiles of the two.  Amazingly there was a correlation of .7 between the two, despite sequence identity of 7%.  Similarly frameshifting didn’t disturb the chance of intrinsic disorder.  So frameshifting is embedded in the structure of the universal genetic code, and may have actually contributed to its shaping.  Frameshifting could be an evolutionary mechanism of generating proteins with similar attributes (hydrophobicity, intrinsic order vs. disorder, etc.) but with vastly different sequences.  The evolution, aka natural selection aka deus ex machine aka God could muck about the ready made protein and find something new for it to do.   A remarkable concept.

The gag-pol precursor p180 of the AIDS virus is derived from the gag-pol mRNA by translation involving ribosomal frameshifting within the gag-pol overlap region.  The overlap is 241 nucleotides with pol in the -1 phase with respect to gag (that’s an amazing 80 amino acids).  I was amazed at the efficiency of coding of two different proteins (one and enzyme and one structural), but perhaps they aren’t that different in terms of hydrophobicity (or something else).

I’d love to see the hydropathy profile of the overlap of the two proteins, but I don’t know how to get it.

Decoys and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)

It will take a detour through history to understand how lung cells try to defeat MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staph. Aureus), a very nasty bug.

Back in 1983 President Reagan proposed building an antiMissile defense system, which would shoot down Russian InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) aimed at us.  Almost every scientist of note said it was impossible technically, because even if you could shoot down one (which they didn’t think you could), the Russians would send multiple decoy ICBMs without warheads.  It was an enormously expensive project and one the Russians had no hope of matching.  People still argue whether their attempt to match the US caused the Russians  to collapse — https://history.howstuffworks.com/history-vs-myth/who-won-cold-war1.htm — although collapse they did being overextended in Afghanistan (as we’ve been for 20 years).

But that’s exactly what A549 cells (derived from lung epithelium) do to fake out MRSA according to Nature vol. 579 pp. 260 – 264 ’20.  One of the reasons MRSA is so nasty is that it secretes a protein (alpha toxin) which forms holes in cells it binds to.  Well alpha toxin has a target it must bind to cause trouble, otherwise it would form holes in everything including itself.  The target is an enzyme on the surface of the cell called ADAM10, which is a protease found on the cell membrane.

You may not have thought of it, but when you diet, your cells eat themselves, rather than just sloughing of the cells in the fat you don’t like (love handles, double chin etc. etc.).  Wouldn’t that be nice though.  The process is called autophagy, in which membranes appear, surround small bits of each cell and them fuse with the lysosome, which breaks the contents down into metabolically useful material (sugars, fats, amino acids).  Some 41 different proteins are involved called ATG’s (for AuTophagy Gene).

But the autophagy genes can also be used to secrete stuff to the outside of the cell, and in fact that’s how the lung cells beat MRSA, they secrete zillions of little vesicles called exosomes (an entirely interesting newly discovered story, to be covered at another time), containing the target of alpha toxin — ADAM10.  Clever no?  The authors were so excited they invented a new word for it the defensosome. The ATG involved is called ATG16L1.  Previously the function of ATG16L1 appeared well defined, conjugating phosphatidylethanolamine to LC3, a ubiquitinLike molecule to form the autophagosome.  That’s probably nomenclature overload, but it’s worthwhile getting an appreciation of the complicated things going on inside our cells.

 

Do orphan G Protein Coupled Receptors self stimulate?

Self-stimulation is frowned on in the Bible — Genesis 38:8-10, but one important G Protein Coupled Receptor (GPCR) may actually do it.  At least 1/3 of the drugs in clinical use manipulate GPCRs, and we have lots of them (at least 826/20,000 protein coding genes according to PNAS 115 p. 12733 ’18).  However only 360 or so are not involved in smell, and in one third of them  we have no idea what the natural ligand for them actually is (Cell vol. 177 p. 1933 ’19).  These are the orphan GPCRs, and they make a juicy target for drug discovery (if only  we knew what they did)

One orphan GPCR goes by the name of GPR52. It is found on neurons carrying the D2 dopamine receptor.  GPR52 binds to G(s) family of G proteins stimulating the production of CAMP (which would antagonize dopamine signaling), enough to stimulate (if not self-stimulate) any neuropharmacologist.

Which brings us to the peculiar behavior of GPR52 as shown by Nature vol. 579 pp. 142 – 147 ’20.  The second extracellular loop (ECL2) folds into what would normally be the binding site for an exogenous ligand (the orthosteric site).  Well, it could be protecting the site from inappropriate ligands.  But it isn’t, as removing or mutating ECL2 decreases the activity of GPR52 (e.g. less CAMP is produced).  Pharmacologists have produced a synthetic GPR52 agonist (called c17).  However it binds to a side pocket, in the 7 transmembrane region of the GCPR.   This is interesting in itself, as no such site is known in any of the other GPCRs studied.

Most GPCRs have some basal (constitutive) activity where they spontaneously couple to their G proteins, but the constitutive activity of GPR52 is quite high, so c17 only slightly increases the rise in CAMP that GPR52 normally produces.

This might be an explanation for other orphan GPCRs — like a hermaphrodite they could be self-fertilizing.

How can it be like that?

The following quote is from an old book on LISP programming (Let’s Talk LISP) by Laurent Siklossy.“Remember, if you don’t understand it right away, don’t worry. You never learn anything, you only get used to it.”

Unlike quantum mechanics, where Feynman warned never to ask ‘how can it be like that’, those of us in any area of biology should always  be asking ourselves that question.  Despite studying the brain and its neurons for years and years and years, here’s a question I should have asked myself (but didn’t, and as far as I can tell no one has until this paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 117 pp. 4368 – 4374 ’20 ] ).

It’s a simple enough question.  How does a neuron know what receptor to put at a given synapse, given that all neurons in the CNS have both excitatory and inhibitory synapses on them. Had you ever thought about that?  I hadn’t.

Remember many synapses are far away from the cell body.  Putting a GABA receptor at a glutamic acid synapse would be less than useful.

The paper used a rather bizarre system to at least try to answer the question.  Vertebrate muscle cells respond to acetyl choline.  The authors bathed embryonic skeletal muscle cells (before innervation) with glutamic acid, and sure enough glutamic acid receptors appeared.

There’s a lot in the paper about transcription factors and mechanism, which is probably irrelevant to the CNS (muscle nuclei underly the neuromuscular junction).   Even if you send receptors for many different neurotransmitters everywhere in a neuron, how is the correct one inserted and the rest not at a given synapse.

I’d never thought of this.  Had you?

 

Amyloid

Amyloid goes way back, and scientific writing about has had various zigs and zags starting with Virchow (1821 – 1902) who named it because he thought it was made out of sugar.  For a long time it was defined by the way it looks under the microscope being birefringent when stained with Congo red (which came out 100 years ago,  long before we knew much about protein structure (Pauling didn’t propose the alpha helix until 1951).

Birefringence itself is interesting.  Light moves at different speeds as it moves through materials — which is why your legs look funny when you stand in shallow water.  This is called the refractive index.   Birefringent materials have two different refractive indexes depending on the orientation (polarization) of the light looking at it.  So when amyloid present in fixed tissue on a slide, you see beautiful colors — for pictures and much more please see — https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/iep.12330

So there has been a lot of confusion about what amyloid is and isn’t and even the exemplary Derek Lowe got it wrong in a recent post of his

“It needs to be noted that tau is not amyloid, and the TauRx’s drug has failed in the clinic in an Alzheimer’s trial.”

But Tau fibrils are amyloid, and prions are amyloid and the Lewy body is made of amyloid too, if you subscribe to the current definition of amyloid as something that shows a cross-beta pattern on Xray diffraction — https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Schematic-representation-of-the-cross-b-X-ray-diffraction-pattern-typically-produced-by_fig3_293484229.

Take about 500 dishes and stack them on top of each other and that’s the rough dimension of an amyloid fibril.  Each dish is made of a beta sheet.  Xray diffraction was used to characterize amyloid because no one could dissolve it, and study it by Xray crystallography.

Now that we have cryoEM, we’re learning much more.  I have , gone on and on about how miraculous it is that proteins have one or a few shapes — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/08/04/why-should-a-protein-have-just-one-shape-or-any-shape-for-that-matter/

So prion strains and the fact that alpha-synuclein amyloid aggregates produce different clinical disease despite having the same amino acid sequence was no surprise to me.

But it gets better.  The prion strains etc. etc may not be due to different structure but different decorations of the same structure by protein modifications.

The same is true for the different diseases that tau amyloid fibrils produce — never mind that they’ve been called neurofibrillary tangles and not amyloid, they have the same cross-beta structure.

A great paper [ Cell vol. 180 pp. 633 – 644 ’20 ] shows how different the tau protofilament from one disease (corticobasal degeneration) is from another (Alzheimer’s disease).  Figure three shows the side chain as it meanders around forming one ‘dish’ in the model above.  The meander is quite different in corticobasal degeneration (CBD) and Alzheimers.

It’s all the stuff tacked on. Tau is modified on its lysines (some 15% of all amino acids in the beta sheet forming part) by ubiquitination, acetylation and trimethylation, and by phosphorylation on serine.

Figure 3 is worth more of a look because it shows how different the post-translational modifications are of the same amino acid stretch of the tau protein in the Alzheimer’s and CBD.  Why has this not been seen before — because the amyloid was treated with pronase and other enzymes to get better pictures on cryoEM.  Isn’t that amazing.  Someone is probably looking to see if this explains prion strains.

The question arises — is the chain structure in space different because of the modifications, or are the modifications there because the chain structure in space is different.  This could go either way we have 500+ enzymes (protein kinases) putting phosphate on serine and/or threonine, each looking at a particular protein conformation around the two so they don’t phosphorylate everything — ditto for the enzymes that put ubiquitin on proteins.

Fascinating times.  Imagine something as simple as pronase hiding all this beautiful structure.

 

 

When is the AIDs virus really dead?

When should we regard an AIDs virus lurking in the genome of a white blood cell as dead (or at least harmless).  Such proviruses are called defective, and commonly formed, because the process of reverse transcription (of RNA into DNA) is quite error prone.

Most would say an HIV1 provirus in the genome is dead  if can’t reproduce and get outside the cell carrying it.  Not so fast says Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 117 pp. 3704 – 3710 ’20.  They show that such defective proviruses can be transcribed into RNA and these RNAs can produce proteins (when translated).

There is some evidence for this as the Nef protein of HIV1 can be detected in cells and plasma even when HAART (Highly Active Anti Retroviral Therapy) has knocked plasma viremia down to a level of under   50 copies/milliLiter.

How could this cause trouble ? Easy.  This would be chronically stimulating the immune system and in effect wearing it out.

This is very new stuff, and the fate of white cells containing replication incompetent proviruses which are still producing proteins isn’t known (but I’m sure this isn’t far off).

4 Interesting papers

Here are brief summaries of 4 recent very interesting papers, each of which may be the subject of a future post (now that I’m not as worried about the effects of the Wuhan flu on family members over in Hong Kong).  They are likely behind a pay wall unfortunately

l. Watching an endoplasmic reticulum extruded tubule cut a P-body in half. Very significant as we begin to appreciate the phase transitions going on in our cells — for an overview of this see — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2018/12/16/bye-bye-stoichiometry/.

The paper(s) itself [ Science vol. 367 pp. 507 – 508, 537, eaay7108 ’20 ]

2. Watching microglia caress the cell body (soma) of neurons [ Science vol. 367 pp. 510 – 511, 528 – 537 ’20 ].  They’re actually rather creepy, extending processes and feeling up neurons, removing synapses from processes.  They use receptors for ATP and ADP to detect when a neuron is in trouble.  A new cellular specialization is described — Somatic Purinergic Junctions — a combination of mitochondria, reticular membrane structures, vesicle-like membrane structures and clusters of a particular voltage gated potassium channel (Kv2.1)

3. The ubiquitin wars inside a macrophage invaded by TB [ Nature vol. 577 pp. 682 – 688 ’20 ]  Ubiquitin initially was thought to be a tag marking a protein for destruction.  It’s much more complicated than that.  A host E3 ubiquitin ligase (ANAPC2, a core subunit of the anaphase promoting complex/cyclosome) promotes the attachment of lysine #11 linked ubiquitin chains to lysine #76 of the TB protein Rv0222.  In some way this helps Rv022 to suppress the expression of proinflammatory cytokines.

4. FACT (FAcilitates Chromatin Transcription)  is a heterodimer of two proteins which form a heterodimer [ Nature vol. 577 pp. 426 – 431 ’20 ].  If you’ve ever wondered how the monstrously large holoenzyme of RNA polymerase II, manages to work its way around the nucleosome copying one strand, you need to know about FACT, which basically grabs the disclike nucleosome with DNA wrapped around it twice, grabs both H2A-H2B dimers and holds them outside while pol II passes.  You have to wonder which came first the nucleosome or FACT. Neither would be of much use by themselves.  Probably they both grew up together, but it’s hard to envision the intermediate stages.

Watching the double helix form

Have you ever wished you would watch a movie of the double helix forming from two DNA single strands?  Well you can in this paper from a sociology major and college dropout, now a professor in Korea.  I am not making this up.

It’s all in Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 117 pp. 1283 – 1292 ’20 probably behind a paywall, so hopefully you or your institution has a subscription.  Here’s a link — https://www.pnas.org/content/117/3/1283

Here’s how they did it.  They designed and synthesized DNA sequences 90 nucleotides long — either random, pentablock (whose definition I can’t find in the paper, or palindromic so a double helix could be formed.  Then they used something called liquid cell transmission electron microscopy, which fires electrons through a sample to form an image on film.  The sample is prepared in phosphate buffered saline in D2O (not H2O — this to limit bubbles formed by the energy of the electrons.  The sample is then placed between two atomically thin graphene multilayers, and imaged.

Each image didn’t use a lot of electrons and took some 300 milliseconds to acquire.  Transient absorption of the DNA to the graphene slowed their motion so they could be ‘seen’ in the imaging frames.

There are several movies in the paper which must be seen to be believed.  For some reason they can’t be seen in the PDF version, so just go to the article and view them.

Junk that isn’t

The more we understand, the more we realize how little we’ve understood what we thought we understood.   Here is a double example.

We have 1,400,000 Alu elements in our genome.  They are about 300 nucleotides long, meaning that there is over 1 every 3,000 nucleotides in our 3,200,000,000 nucleotide genome.  They don’t code for protein, and were widely thought to be junk, selfish genes whose only role was to ensure that the organism carrying them, kept them along as they reproduced.

This post contains a heavy dose of contemporary molecular biology.  If you’re a little shaky on some of it have a look at — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/molecular-biology-survival-guide-for-chemists-i-dna-and-protein-coding-gene-structure/ — and follow the links.

Not so says Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 117 pp. 415 – 425  ’20.  They are part of several important physiologic processes (1) T lymphocyte activation (2) heat shock stress (3) endoplasmic reticulum stress.  All 3 cause transcription of Alu’s by RNA polymerase III (pol III).

All RNA levels increase with heat shock, including RNAs made from Alu elements.  They bind directly and tightly (nanoMolar affinity) to RNA polymerase II (which transcribes protein coding genes) and co-occupy the promoters of repressed genes, preventing transcription of these genes and protein synthesis of them.  At least that was the state of play 11 years ago (PNAS 105 5569 – 5574 ’09)

This paper notes that Alu is not passive, but actually a self-cleaving ribozyme (an enzyme made of RNA), an entirely new role.  When complexed with another protein EZH2 (a polycomb protein thought to be a transcriptional repressor using its lysine methylation activity), the rate of Alu self-cleavage increases by 40%.

So what?

In addition to stoping transcription, Alu also retards transcription elongation.  So stress increases in EZH2 causes Alu to cleave itself faster, turning off  repression and improving the responses to the 3 types of stresses above.

So we really didn’t understand both Alu which has been studied for years, or EZH2 a polycomb protein (ditto).  Alu is a self-cleaving ribozyme, and EZH2 doesn’t just turn off genes by its enzymatic activity (lysine trimethylation), but binds to an RNA so it can cleave itself faster (e.g. its a cofactor).

Fascinating and humbling to see how much there is to know about things we thought we knew.  But it’s also exciting.  Who knows what else is out there to discover about the known, never mind the known unknowns.