Category Archives: Molecular Biology

Cellular senescence (again, again)

As well as being involved in normal cellular function, wound healing, embryology, and warding off cancer, cellular senescence may be involved in one form of neurodegeneration according to [ Nature vol. 562 pp. 503 – 504, 578 – 582 ’18 ]

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by two findings visible with only a light microscope — the senile plaque which occurs outside neurons, and the neurofibrillary tangle (which occurs inside them).  The latter is due to accumulation of excessively phosphorylated tau protein.  A few mutations in the tau protein are known to cause neurodegeneration.  One such is the substitution of serine (S) for proline (P) at position #301 in tau (e. g. the P301S mutation).

Transgenic expression of the mutant tau in mice mimics the human illness.  Long before neurofibrillary tangles appear in neurons, glial cells (which don’t express much tau and never have neurofibrillary tangles) develop cellular senescence.  Neurons don’t show this.

p16^INK4a is a transcription factor which turns on cellular senescence, leading to expression of a bunch of proteins known as the Senescence Associated Secretory Phenotype (SASP).  It was elevated in glia.  The authors were able to prevent the neurodegeneration using another genetic tool, which produced cell death in cells expression p16^INK4a.  There was fewer neurofibrillary tangles in the animals.

The nature of the neural signal to glia causing senescence isn’t known at this point.  How glia signal back also isn’t known.

So are drugs killing senescence cells (senolytics) a possible treatment of neurodegeneration?  Stay tuned.

As readers of this blog well know, I’ve been flogging an idea of mine — that excessive cellular senescence with release of SASP products is behind the faatigue of chronic fatigue syndrome.   I’d love it if someone would measure p16^INK4a in these people — it’s so easy to do, and if the idea is correct would lead to a rational treatment for some with the disorder.

Neurodegeneration is a far larger fish to fry than CFS, and I hope people with it don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Here’s the idea again

Not a great way to end 2017

2017 ended with a rejection of the following letter to PNAS.

As a clinical neurologist with a long standing interest in muscular dystrophy(1), I was referred many patients who turned out to have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) . Medicine, then and now, has no effective treatment for CFS.

A paper (2) cited In an excellent review of cellular senescence (3) was able to correlate an intracellular marker of senescence (p16^INK4a) with the degree of fatigue experienced by patients undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Chemotherapy induces cellular senescence, and the fatigue was thought to come from the various cytokines secreted by senescent cells (Senescence Associated Secretory Phenotype—SASP) It seems logical to me to test CFS patients for p16^INK4a (4).
I suggested this to the senior author; however, he was nominated as head of the National Cancer Institute just 9 days later. There the matter rested until the paper of Montoya et al. (5) appeared in July. I looked up the 74 individual elements of the SASP and found that 9 were among the 17 cytokines whose levels correlated with the degree of fatigue in CFS. However, this is not statistically significant as Montoya looked at 51 cytokines altogether.

In October, an article(6) on the possibility of killing senescent cells to prevent aging contained a statement that Judith Campisi’s group (which has done much of the work on SASP) had identified “hundreds of proteins involved in SASPs”. (These results have not yet been published.) It is certainly possible that many more of Montoya’s 17 cytokines are among them.

If this is the case, a rational therapy for CFS is immediately apparent; namely, the senolytics, a class of drugs which kills senescent cells. A few senolytics are currently available clinically and many more are under development as a way to attack the aging process (6).

If Montoya still has cells from the patients in the study, measuring p16^INK4a could prove or disprove the idea. However, any oncology service could do the test. If the idea proves correct, then there would be a way to treat the debilitating fatigue of both chemotherapy and CFS—not to mention the many more medical conditions in which severe fatigue is found.
Chemotherapy is a systemic process, producing senescent cells everywhere, which is why DeMaria (2) was able to use circulating blood cells to measure p16^INK4a. It is possible that the senescent cells producing SASP in CFS are confined to one tissue; in which case testing blood for p16^INK4a would fail. (That would be similar to pheochromocytoma cells, in which a few localized cells produce major systemic effects.)

Although senolytics might provide symptomatic treatment (something worthwhile having since medicine presently has nothing for the CFS patient), we’d still be in the dark about what initially caused the cells to become senescent. But this would be research well worth pursuing.

Anyone intrigued by the idea should feel free to go ahead and test it. I am a retired neurologist with no academic affiliation, lacking the means to test it.

1 Robinson, L (1979) Split genes and musclar dystrophy. Muscle Nerve 2: 458 – 464

2. He S, Sharpless N (2017) Senescence in Health and Disease. Cell 170: 1000 – 1011

3. Demaria M, et al. (2014) Cellular senescence promotes adverse effects of chemotherapy and cancer relapse. Cancer Discov. 7: 165 – 176


5. Montoya JG, et al., (2017) Cytokine signature associated with disease severity in chronic fatigue syndrome patients, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 114: E7150-E7158

6. Scudellari M, (2017) To stay young, kill zombie cells Nature 551: 448 – 450

Is a rational treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome at hand?

If an idea of mine is correct, it is possible that some patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) can be treated with specific medications based on the results of a few blood tests. This is precision medicine at its finest.  The data to test this idea has already been acquired, and nothing further needs to be done except to analyze it.

Athough the initial impetus for the idea happened only 3 months ago, there have been enough twists and turns that the best way explanation is by a timeline.

First some background:

As a neurologist I saw a lot of people who were chronically tired and fatigued, because neurologists deal with muscle weakness and diseases like myasthenia gravis which are associated with fatigue.  Once I ruled out neuromuscular disease as a cause, I had nothing to offer then (nor did medicine).  Some of these patients were undoubtedly neurotic, but there was little question in my mind that many others had something wrong that medicine just hadn’t figured out yet — not that it hasn’t been trying.

Infections of almost any sort are associated with fatigue, most probably caused by components of the inflammatory response.  Anyone who’s gone through mononucleosis knows this.    The long search for an infectious cause of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) has had its ups and downs — particularly downs — see

At worst many people with these symptoms are written off as crazy; at best, diagnosed as depressed  and given antidepressants.  The fact that many of those given antidepressants feel better is far from conclusive, since most patients with chronic illnesses are somewhat depressed.

The 1 June 2017 Cell had a long and interesting review of cellular senescence by Norman Sharpless [ vol. 169 pp. 1000 – 1011 ].  Here is some background about the entity.  If you are familiar with senescent cell biology skip to the paragraph marked **** below

Cells die in a variety of ways.  Some are killed (by infections, heat, toxins).  This is called necrosis. Others voluntarily commit suicide (this is called apoptosis).   Sometimes a cell under stress undergoes cellular senescence, a state in which it doesn’t die, but doesn’t reproduce either.  Such cells have a variety of biochemical characteristics — they are resistant to apoptosis, they express molecules which prevent them from proliferating and — most importantly — they secrete a variety of proinflammatory molecules collectively called the Senescence Associated Secretory Phenotype — SASP).

At first the very existence of the senescent state was questioned, but exist it does.  What is it good for?  Theories abound, one being that mutation is one cause of stress, and stopping mutated cells from proliferating prevents cancer. However, senescent cells are found during fetal life; and they are almost certainly important in wound healing.  They are known to accumulate the older you get and some think they cause aging.

Many stresses induce cellular senescence of which mutation is but one.  The one of interest to us is chemotherapy for cancer, something obviously good as a cancer cell turned senescent has stopped proliferating.   If you know anyone who has undergone chemotherapy, you know that fatigue is almost invariable.


One biochemical characteristic of the senescent cell is increased levels of a protein called p16^INK4a, which helps stop cellular proliferation.  While p16^INK4a can easily be measured in tissue biopsies, tissue biopsies are inherently invasive. Fortunately, p16^INK4a can also be measured in circulating blood cells.

What caught my eye in the Cell paper was a reference to a paper about cancer [ Cancer Discov. vol. 7 pp. 165 – 176 ’17 ] by M. Demaria, in which the levels of p16^INK4a correlated with the degree of fatigue after chemotherapy.  The more p16^INK4a in the blood cells the greater the fatigue.

I may have been the only reader of both papers with clinical experience wth chronic fatigue syndrome.  It is extremely difficult to objectively measure a subjective complaint such as fatigue.

As an example of the difficulty in correlating subjective complaints with objective findings, consider the nearly uniform complaint of difficulty thinking in depression, with how such patients actually perform on cognitive tests — e. g. there is  little if any correlation between complaints and actual performance — here’s a current reference — Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 3901(2017) —  doi:10.1038/s41598-017-04353.

If the results of the Cancer paper could be replicated, p16^INK4 would be the first objective measure of a patient’s individual sense of fatigue.

So I wrote both authors, suggesting that the p16^INK4a test be run on a collection of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) patients. Both authors replied quickly, but thought the problem would be acquiring patients.  Demaria said that Sharpless had a lab all set up to do the test.

Then fate (in the form of Donald Trump) supervened.  A mere 9 days after the Cell issue appeared, Sharpless was nominated to be the head of the National Cancer Institute by President Trump.  This meant Dr. Sharpless had far bigger fish to fry, and he would have to sever all connection with his lab because of conflict of interest considerations.

I also contacted a patient organization for chronic fatigue syndrome without much success.  Their science advisor never responded.

There matters stood until 22 August when a paper and an editorial about it came out [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 114 pp. 8914 – 8916, E7150 – E7158 ’17 ].  The paper represented a tremendous amount of data (and work).  The blood levels of 51 cytokines (measures of inflammation) and adipokines (hormones released by fat) were measured in both 192 patients with CFS (which can only be defined by symptoms) and 293 healthy controls matched for age and gender.

In this paper, levels of 17 of the 51 cytokines correlated with severity of CFS. This is a striking similarity with the way the p16^INK4 levels correlated with the degree of fatigue after chemotherapy).  So I looked up the individual elements of the SASP (which can be found in Annu Rev Pathol. 21010; 5: 99–118.)  There are 74 of them. I wondered how many of the 51 cytokines measured in the PNAS paper were in the SASP.  This is trickier than it sounds as many cytokines have far more than one name.  The bottom line is that 20 SASPs are in the 51 cytokines measured in the paper.

If the fatigue of CFS is due to senescent cells and the SASPs  they release, then they should be over-represented in the 17 of the 51 cytokines correlating with symptom severity.  Well they are; 9 out of the 17 are SASP.  However although suggestive, this increase is not statistically significant (according to my consultants on Math Stack Exchange).

After wrote I him about the new work, Dr. Sharpless noted that CFS is almost certainly a heterogeneous condition. As a clinician with decades of experience, I’ve certainly did see some of the more larcenous members of our society who used any subjective diagnosis to be compensated, as well as a variety of individuals who just wanted to withdraw from society, for whatever reason. They are undoubtedly contaminating the sample in the paper. Dr. Sharpless thought the idea, while interesting, would be very difficult to test.

But it wouldn’t at all.  Not with the immense amount of data in the PNAS paper.

Here’s how. Take each of the 9 SASPs and see how their levels correlate with the other 16 (in each of the 192 CSF patients). If they correlate better with SASPs than with nonSASPs, than this would be evidence for senescent cells being the cause some cases of CFS. In particular, patients with a high level of any of the 9 SASPs should be studied for such correlations.  Doing so should weed out some of the heterogeneity of the 192 patients in the sample.

This is why the idea is testable and, even better, falsifiable, making it a scientific hypothesis (a la Karl Popper).  The data to refute it is in the possession of the authors of the paper.

Suppose the idea turns out to be correct and that some patients with CFS are in fact that way because, for whatever reason, they have a lot of senescent cells releasing SASPs.

This would mean that it would be time to start trials of senolyic drugs which destroy senescent cells on the group with elevated SASPs. Fortunately, a few senolytics are currently inc linical use.  This would be precision medicine at its finest.

Being able to alleviate the symptoms of CFS would be worthwhile in itself, but SASP levels could also be run on all sorts of conditions associated with fatigue, most notably infection. This might lead to symptomatic treatment at least.  Having gone through mono in med school, I would have loved to have been able to take something to keep me from falling asleep all the time.

Thomas Gold lives !

Thomas Gold was a scientific jack of all trades being involved in physics, cosmology and geochemistry, the latter of interest to us here.  He thought petroleum and other hydrocarbons were actually produced by micro-organisms below the surface of the earth, providing us with a replenishable supply (how ecological !)  Here’s part of a Wiki article about him —  Hydrocarbons are not biology reworked by geology (as the traditional view would hold), but rather geology reworked by biology.–

Why bring him up now?  Because [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 115 pp. 10702 – 10707 ’18 ] ( showed that 600 meters below the surface (where light and molecular oxygen never go) Cyanobacteria were found.  They use the electrons stripped from hydrogen (which is said to be produced in the subsurface by several (unspecified) abiotic mechanisms) as an energy source.  The electrons have to go somewhere, and they postulate that the electron acceptors are iron or manganese oxides. Wherever microorganisms have been found in deep continental settings hydrogen concentration decreases.

Basically life acts as the middleman, taking an energy cut from the flow of electrons from reductant to oxidant.

Seriously, life may have actually arisen in such situations.

Has the holy grail for Parkinson’s disease been found?

Will the horribly named SynuClean-D treat Parkinsonism?  Here is the structure described  verbally.  Start with pyridine.  In the 2 position put benzene with a nitrogroup in the meta position, position 3 on pyridine NO2, position 4 CF3, position 5 CN (is this trouble?) position 6 OH.  That’s it.  Being great chemists you can immediately see what it does.

Back up a bit.  One of the pathologic findings in parkinsonism in the 450,000 dopamine neurons we have in the pars compacta at birth, is the Lewy body, which is largely made of the alpha-synuclein protein.  This is thought to kill the neurons in some way (just which form of alpha-synuclein is the culprit is still under debate — the monomer, the tetramer etc. etc).  Even the actual conformation of the monomer is still under debate (intrinsically disordered) etc. etc.

The following paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vo. 115 pp. 10481 – 10486 ’18 ] claims that SynuClean-D inhibits alpha-synuclein aggregation, disrupts mature amyloid fibrils made from it, prevents fibril propagation and abolishes the degeneration of dopamine neurons in an animal model of Parkinsonism.  Wow ! ! !

Time for some replication — look at the disaster from Harvard Med School about cardiac stem cells, with 30+ papers retracted.  Ghastly.

Triplets and TADs

Neurologists have long been interested in triplet diseases —  The triplet is made of a string of 3 nucleotides.  Example —  cytosine adenosine guanosine or CAG — which accounts for a lot of them.  We have lots of places in our genome where such repeats normally occur, with the triplets repeated up to 42 times.  However in diseases like Huntington’s chorea the repeats get to be as many as 250 CAGs in a row.  You normally are quite fine as long as you have under 36 of them, and no one has fewer than 6 at this particular location.

Subsequently, expansions of 4, 5, and 6 nucleotide repeats have also been shown to cause disease, bring the total of repeat expansion diseases to over 40.  Why more than half of them should affect the nervous system entirely or for the most part is a mystery.  Needless to say there are plenty of theories.

This leads to three questions (1) there are repeats all over the genome, why do only 40 or so of them expand (2) since we all have repeats in front of the genes where they cause disease why don’t we all have the diseases (3) why do the number of repeats expand with each succeeding generation — the phenomenon is called anticipation.  I saw one such example where a father brought his son to my muscular dystrophy clinic.  The boy had moderately severe myotonic dystrophy.  When I shook the father’s hand, it was clear that he had mild myotonia, which had in no way impaired his life (he was a successful banker).

A recent paper in Cell may help answer the first question and has a hint about the second [ Cell vol. 175 pp. 38 – 40, 224 – 238 ’18 ].  21 of 27 disease associated short tandem repeats (daSTRs) localize to something called a topologically associated domain (TAD) or subdomain (subTAD) boundary. These are defined as contiguous intervals in the genome in which every pair has an elevated interaction frequency compared to loci out side the domain.  TADs and subTADs are measured using chromosome conformation capture assays (acronyms for them include 3C, CCC, 4C, 5C, Hi-C).

Briefly they are performed as follows.  Intact nuclei are isolate from live cel cultures.  These are subjected to paraformaldehye crosslinking to fix segment of genome in close physical proximity. The crosslinked genomic DNA is digested with a restriction endonuclease, and the products expanded by PCR using primers in all possible combinations.  Then having a complete genome sequence in hand, you see what regions of the genome got close enough together to show up in the assay.

This may help explain question one, and the paper gives some speculation about question two — we don’t all have these diseases, because unlike the unfortunates with them, we don’t have problems in our genes for DNA replication, repair and recombination.  There is some evidence for this;  studies in model organisms with these mutations do have short tandem repeat instability.

Unfortunately the paper doesn’t discuss anticipation, because no clinicians appear to be among the authors, even though they’re from Penn which 50+ years ago was very strong in clinical neurology.

None of this work discusses the fascinating questions of how the expanded repeats cause disease, or why so many of them affect the nervous system.

The Kavanaugh Ford confrontation will be to this decade what the Patty Hearst kidnapping was to a previous one  —  Since I suffered 4 episodes of physical (not sexual) abuse as a kid, and dealt with this extensively as a neurologist, I’m trying to decide whether to write about it.  Emotions are high and there are a lot of nuts out there on the net. There is even a reasonable possibility that both Ford and Kavanaugh are right and not lying.

The chemical ingenuity of the AIDs virus

Pop quiz:  You are a virus with under 10,000 nucleotides in your genome.  To make the capsid enclosing your genome, you need to make 250 hexamers of a particular protein.  How do you do it?


Give up?


You grab a cellular metabolite with a mass under 1,000 Daltons to bind the 6 monomers together.  The metabolite occurs at fairly substantial concentrations (for a metabolite) of 10 – 40 microMolar.

What is the metabolite?

Give up?


It has nearly perfect 6 fold symmetry.


Still give up?

[ Nature vol. 560 pp. 509 – 512 ’18 ] says that it’s inositol hexakisphosphate (IP6)  — nomenclature explained at the end.

Although IP6 looks like a sugar (with 6 CHOH groups forming a 6 membered ring), it is not a typical one because it is not an acetal (no oxygen in the ring).  All 6 hydroxyls of IP6 are phosphorylated.  They bind to two lysines on a short (21 amino acids) alpha helix found in the protein (Gag which has 500 amino acids).  That’s how IP6 binds the 6 Gag proteins together. The paper has great pictures.

It is likely that IP6 is use by other cellular proteins to form hexamers (but the paper doesn’t discuss this).

IP6 is quite symmetric, and 5 of the 6 phosphorylated hydroxyls can be equatorial, so this is likely the energetically favored conformation, given the bulk (and mass) of the phosphate group.

I think that the AIDS virus definitely has more chemical smarts than we do.  Humility is definitely in order.

Nomenclature note:  We’re all used to ATP (Adenosine TriPhosphate) and ADP (Adenosine DiPhosphate) — here all 3 or 2 phosphates form a chain.  Each of the 6 hydroxyls of inositol can be singly phosphorylated, leading to inositol bis, tris, tetrakis, pentakis, hexakis phosphates.  Phosphate chains can form on them as well, so IP7 and IP8 are known (heptakis?, Octakis??)

Will acyclovir be a treatment for Alzheimer’s ?

When I was a first year medical student my aunt died of probable acute herpes simplex encephalitis at Columbia University Hospital in New York City.  That was 55 years ago and her daughters (teenagers at the time) still bear the scars.  Later, as a neurologist I treated it, and after 1977, when acyclovir, which effectively treats herpes encephalitis came out, I would always wonder if acyclovir would have saved her.

The drug is simplicity itself.  It’s just guanosine ( with two of the carbons of the ribose missing.  Herpesviruses have an enzyme which forms the triphosphate incorporating it into its DNA killing the virus.  Well, actually we have the same enzyme, but the virus’s enzyme is 3,000,000 times more efficient than ours, so acyclovir is relatively nontoxic to us.  People with compromised renal function shouldn’t take it.

What does this have to do with Alzheimer’s disease?  The senile plaque of Alzheimers is mostly the aBeta peptide (39 – 43 amino acids) from the amyloid precursor protein (APP).  This has been known for years, and my notes on various papers about over the years contain 150,000 characters or so.

Even so, there’s a lot we don’t understand about APP and the abeta peptide — e.g. what are they doing for us?  You can knockout the APP gene in mice and they appear normal and fertile.  The paper cited below notes that APP has been present in various species for the past 400,000,000 years of evolutionary time remaining pretty much unchanged throughout, so it is probably doing something useful

A recent paper in Neuron (vol. 99 pp. 56 – 63 ’18) noted that aBeta is actually an antimicrobial peptide.  When exposed to herpes simplex it binds to glycoproteins on its surface and then  oligomerizes forming amyloid (just like in the senile plaque) trapping the virus.  Abeta will protect mice against herpes simplex 1 (HSV1) encephalitis.  Even more important — infection of the mice with HSV1 induced abeta production in their brains.

People have been claiming infections as the cause of just about every neurodegeneration since I’ve been a neurologist, and papers have been written about HSV1 and Alzheimer’s.

Which brings me to the second paper (ibid. pp. 64 – 82) that looked for the viral RNAs and DNAs in over 900 or so brains, some with and some without Alzheimer’s.  They didn’t find HSV but they found two other herpes viruses known to infect man (HHV6, HHV7 — which cause roseola infantum).  Humans are subject to infection with 8 different herpes virus (Epstein Barr — mononucleosis, H. Zoster — chickenpox etc. etc.).   Just about everyone of us has herpes virus in latent form in the trigeminal ganglion — which gets sensory information from our faces.

So could some sort of indolent herpesvirus infection be triggering abeta peptide production as a defense with the senile plaque as a byproduct?  That being the case, given the minimal benefits of any therapy we have for Alzheimer’s disease so far, why not try acyclovir (Zovirax) on Alzheimer’s.

I find it remarkable that neither paper mentioned this possibility, or even discussed any of the antivirals active against herpesviruses.

Catching God’s dice being thrown

Einstein famously said “Quantum theory yields much, but it hardly brings us close to the Old One’s secrets. I, in any case, am convinced He does not play dice with the universe.”  Astronomers have caught the dice being thrown (at least as far as the origin of life is concerned).

This post will contain a lot more background than most, as I expect some readers won’t have much scientific background.  The technically inclined can read the article on which this is based —

To cut to the chase — astronomers have found water, a simple sugar, and a compound containing carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen around newly forming stars and planets.  You need no more than these 4 atoms to build the bases making up the DNA of our genes, all our sugars and carbohydrates, and 18 of the 20 amino acids that make up our proteins. Throw in sulfur and you have all 20 amino acids.  Add phosphorus and you have DNA and its cousin RNA (neither has been found around newly forming stars so far).

These are the ingredients of life itself. Here’s a quote from the article — “What I can definitively say is that the ingredients needed to make biogenic molecules like DNA and RNA are found around every forming protostar. They are there at an early stage, incorporating into bodies at least as large as comets, which we know are the building blocks of terrestrial planets. Whether these molecules survive or are delivered at the late stage of planet formation, that’s the part of it we don’t know very well.”

So each newly formed star and planetary system is a throw of God’s/Nature’s/Soulless physics’ dice for the creation of life.

As of 1 July 2018, there are 3,797 confirmed planets around 2,841 stars, with 632 having more than one (Wikipedia).  And that’s just in the stars close enough to us to study.  Our galaxy, the milky way, contains 400,000,000,000.

Current estimates have some 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe.  That’s a lot tosses for life to arise.

Suppose that some day life is found on one such planet.  Does this invalidate Genesis, the Koran?  Assume that they are the word of God somehow transmitted to man.  If the knowledge we have about astronomy (above), biology etc. etc. were imparted to Jesus, Mohammed, Abraham, Moses — it never would have been believed.  The creator had to start with something plausible.



How many more metabolites like this are out there?

3′ deoxy 3′ 4′ didehydro cytidine triphosphate — doesn’t roll’ tripgingly on the tongue’ does it? (Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 1–4).  Can you draw the structure?  It is the product of another euphoniously named enzyme — Viperin.  Abbreviated ddhCTP it is just cytidine triphosphate with a double bond between carbons 3 and 4 of the sugar.

Viperin is an enzyme induced by interferon which inhibits the replication of a variety of viruses. [ Nature vol. 558 pp. 610 – 614 ’18 ] describes a  beautiful sequence  of reactions for ddhCTP’s formation using S-Adenosyl Methionine (SAM).  ddhCTP acts as a chain terminator for the RNA dependent RNA polymerases of multiple members of Flaviviruses (including Zika).

However the paper totally blows it for not making the point that ddhCTP is extremely close to a drug (which has been used against AIDS for years — Zalcitabine (Hivid) — which is just ddC.  ddhCTP is almost the same as ddC — except that there is no triphosphate on the 5′ hydroxyl (which enzymes in the body add), and instead of a double bond between carbons 3 and 4 of the sugar, both carbons are fully reduced (CH2 and CH2).  So ddhCTP is Nature’s own Zalcitabine.

It is worth reflecting on just how many other metabolites are out there acting as ‘natural’ drugs that we just haven’t found yet.

Remember entropy – take III

Pop quiz.  How would you make an enzyme in a cold dwelling organism (0 Centrigrade) as catalytically competent as its brothers living in us at 37 C?

We know that reactions go faster the hotter it is, because there is more kinetic energy of the reactants to play with.  So how do you make an enzyme move more when it’s cold and there is less kinetic energy to play with.

Well for most cold tolerance enzymes (psychrophilic enzymes — a great scrabble word), evolution mutates surface amino acids to glycine.  Why glycine?  Well it’s lighter, and there is no side chain to get in the way  when the backbone moves.  The mutations aren’t in the active site but far away.   This means more wiggling of the backbone — which means more entropy of the backbone.

The following papers [ Nature vol. 558 pp. 195 – 196, 324 – 218 ’81 ] studied adenylate kinase, an enzyme found in most eukaryotes  which catalyzes

ATP + AMP < — > 2 ADP.

They studied the enzyme from E. Coli which happily lives within us at 37 C, and mutated a few surface valines and isoleucines to glycine, lowered the temperature and found the enzyme works as well (the catalytic rate of the mutated enzyme at 0 C is the same as the rate of the unmutated enzyme at 37).

Chemists have been studying transition state theory since the days of Eyring, and reaction rates are inversely proportional the the amount of free energy (not enthalpy) to raise the enzyme to the transition state.

F = H – TS (Free energy = enthalpy – Temperature * Entropy).

So to increase speed decrease the enthalpy of activation (deltaH) or increase the amount of entropy.

It is possible to separately measure enthalpy and entropies of activation, and the authors did just that (figure 4 p. 326) and showed that the enthalpy of activation of the mutated enzyme (glycine added) was the same as the unmutated enzyme, but that the free energy of activation of the mutated enzyme was less because of an increase in entropy (due to unfolding of different parts of the enzyme).

Determining these two parameters takes an enormous amount of work (see the story from grad school at the end). You have to determine rate constants at various temperatures, plot the rate constant divided by temperature and then measure the slope of the line you get to obtain the enthalpy of activation.   Activation entropy is determined by the intercepts of the straight line (which hopefully IS straight) with the X axis.  Determining the various data points is incredibly tedious and uninteresting.

So enzymes  of cold tolerant organisms are using entropy to make their enzymes work.

Grad school story — back in the day, studies of organic reaction mechanisms were very involved with kinetic measurements (that’s where Sn1 and Sn2 actually come from).  I saw the following happen several times, and resolved never get sucked in to having to actually do kinetic measurements.  Some hapless wretch would present his kinetic data to a seminar, only to have Frank Westheimer think of something else and suggest another 6 months of kinetic measurements, so back he went to the lab for yet more drudgery.



Molecular biology’s oxymoron

Dear reader.  What does a gene do?  It codes for something.  What does a nonCoding Gene do?  It also codes for something, just RNA instead of protein. It’s molecular biology’s very own oxymoron, a throwback to the heroic protein-centric early days of molecular biology. The term has been enshrined by usage for so long that it’s impossible to get rid of.  Nonetheless, the the latest work found even more nonCoding genes than genes actually coding for  protein.

An amusing article from Nature (vol. 558 pp. 354 – 355 ’18) has the current state of play.   The latest estimate is from GTex which sequenced 900 billion RNAs found in various human tissues, matched them to the sequence(s) of the human genome and used computer algorithms to determine which  of them were the product of genes coding for proteins and genes coding for something else.

The report from GTex  (Genotype Tissue expression Project) found 21,306 protein-coding genes and 21,856 non-coding genes — amazingly there are more nonCoding genes than protein coding ones.  This  is many more genes than found in the two most widely used human gene databases. The GENCODE gene set, maintained by the EBI, includes 19,901 protein-coding genes and 15,779 non-coding genes. RefSeq, a database run by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), lists 20,203 protein-coding genes and 17,871 non-coding genes.

Stay tuned.  The fat lady hasn’t sung.