Category Archives: Molecular Biology

Homework assignment

Design a protein to capture cholesterol and triglycerides and insert them between the two leaflets of the standard biological membrane similar but not identical to the plasma membrane. Answer Sunday night 14 March ’21 

I don’t think we fully grasp the chemical ingenuity of Nature when we discover one of its solutions.   Thinking on your homework assignment will give you a chance to appreciate  just how  chemically clever Nature/Evolution/God actually is. 

Proteins (and amyloids) still have some tricks up their sleeves

We all know that amyloids are made of beta sheets stacked on top of each other. Not all of them, says Staph Aureus according to PNAS e2014442118 ’21. In fact one protein they produce (Phenol Soluble Modulin alpha 3 (PSMα3)– PSMalpha3 ) which is toxic to human immune cells forms amyloid made of alpha helices.  PSMalpha3 forms cross-α amyloid fibrils that are composed entirely of amphipathic α-helices. The helices stack perpendicular to the fibril axis into mated “sheets”

However other members of the family namely PSMα1 and PSMα4 adopt the classic amyloid ultrastable cross-β architecture and are likely to serve as a scaffold rendering the biofilm a more resistant barrier.

It gets worse.

Consider an antimicrobial peptide (AMP) called uperin 3.5, secreted on the skin of a frog which also forms amyloid fibrils made of alpha helices.  The amyloid is  essential for uperin 3.5’s  toxic activity against the Gram-positive bacterium Micrococcus luteus.

It gets even worse.  

When secreted onto the frog skin uperin 3.5. has a disordered structure. Uperin 3.5 requires bacterial membranes to form the toxic amyloid made of alpha helices.   When no membranes are around, uperin 3.5. still forms amyloid, but this time the amyloid is of the classic beta sheet.  So one protein can form two types of amyloid.  Go figure

Uperin 3.5 is a classic example of a chameleon protein. 

Virus 1 Astra Zenica vaccine 0

It’s already happened. A mutated pandemic virus has rendered a vaccine useless. This is serious — the game of cat and mouse with the mutating pandemic virus (otherwise known as natural selection) has begun. You can read all about it here

For a leisurely stroll through the background needed to understand the Science and Nature articles I’m going to essentially republish (and refurbish) a very recent  post — trying to make things as accessible as possible. 

The human species as a culture medium for the pandemic virus

Creationists or not, we are all about to get an unwanted lesson in natural selection and evolution, courtesy of the current pandemic virus (SARS-CoV-2).  This is going to be a long post, which will contain an incredible case of meningitis, thoughts on selfish genes in viruses, evolution, natural selection and why we’re in for a very, very long haul with the pandemic virus.

As you probably know, mutant pandemic viruses (all different) have emerged (in England, South Africa, Brazil).  Even worse they appear to be more infectious, and some are more resistant to our vaccines (all of which were made before they appeared).  

Here is lesson #1 in natural selection.  Viruses have no brains, they barely have a genome.  The human genome contains 3 billion positions, the pandemic virus 30,000.  So we have 100,000 times more information in our genome than the virus does. 100,000 is about the number of inches in a mile and half.  

So how is the virus outsmarting us?  Simply by reproducing like mad.  The molecular machines that copy our genome are very accurate, making about 1 mistake per 100,000,000 positions copied — that’s still enough for the average newborn to have 30 new mutations (more if the parents are older).  The viral machine is much less accurate.  So lots of genome mutations are made (meaning that the viral proteins made from the genome change slightly).  Those that elude the vaccines and antibodies we’re throwing at them survive and reproduce, most don’t.  This is natural selection in action. Survival of the fittest.  Darwin wasn’t kidding.

What is so remarkable about the British and the South African variants, is that they contain multiple mutations (23 in the British variant, at least 3 in the South African variant).  Usually its just one or two.

 You’ve probably heard about the mutation changing just one of the 147 amino acids  in hemoglobin to cause sickle cell anemia. Here’s another.  APOE is a 299 amino acid protein.  It comes in 3 variants  — due to changes at 2 positions.  One variant greatly increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, another decreases it.  So even single mutations can be quite powerful. 

So how did these multiple mutations come about?  We likely now have an answer due to one very well studied case [ Cell vol. 183 pp. 1901 – 1912 ’20 ] in an immunocompromised patient with chronic lymphatic leukemia (CLL). She shed the virus for 70 days.  Even so, she wasn’t symptomatic, but because the patient had enough immune system to fight the virus to a draw, it persisted, and so its genome was always changing.  The authors were smart enough to continually sequence the viral genome throughout the clinical course and watch it change.  So that’s very likely how the virus accumulates mutations, it lived for a long time in a patient who lived a long time with a weakened immune system allowing the virus to merrily mutate without being killed and allowing the weakened immune system to effectively select viruses it can’t kill. 

Could this happen again? Of course.   There are some 60,000 new cases of CLL each year in the USA.  Many of them have abnormal immune systems even before chemotherapy begins.

Here is an example from my own practice. The patient was a 40 year old high school teacher who presented with severe headache, stiff neck and drowsiness.  I did a spinal tap to get cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) for culture so we could find the best possible antibiotic to treat the organism.  This was 30+ years ago, and we had no DNA testing to tell us immediately what to do.  We had to wait 24 hours  while the bugs grew in culture to form enough that we could identify the species and determine  the antibiotics it was sensitive to. . 

As the fluid came out, I had a sinking feeling; as it was cloudy, implying lots of white cells fighting the infection. Enough white cells to make CSF cloudy (it normally looks like water) is a very bad sign. So after starting the standard antibiotic to be used in the first 24 hours before the cultures came back, I called the lab for the cell count.  They said there weren’t any.  I thought they’d seriously screwed up maybe losing what I’d sent or mislabeling it and looking at the wrong sample, and I unpleasantly stormed down to the lab (as only an angry physician can do) to see the spinal fluid.  They were right.  The cloudiness of the CSF was produced by hordes of bacteria not white cells.  This was even worse as clearly the bacteria were winning and the patient’s immune system was losing, and I never expected the patient to survive.  But survive he did and even left the hospital.  

Unfortunately, the meningitis turned out to be  the first symptom of an abnormal immune system due to a blood malignancy — multiple myeloma. 


Addendum 2 February — I sent this post to an old friend and college classmate who is now a hematology professor at a major med school.  He saw a similar case —

“When I was a medical student I saw a pediatric sickle anemia patient (asplenic) with fever and obtundation. When I looked at the methylene-blue stained CSF, I thought that stain had precipitated. So I obtained a fresh bottle of stain and it looked the same. Only this time, I looked more closely and what I thought was precipitated stain were TNTC pneumococci.

I urge all my immunosuppressed patient to get vaccinated for covid-19. I worry that if many people don’t get vaccinated,  those who do will not be that better off.”

Addendum 3 February– I asked him if his patient had survived like mine —


“Unfortunately, no. With the pneumococcus, If antibiotics are not started within 4 hours after recognition, the train has left the station.”



So there are millions of active cases of the pandemic, and tons of people with medical conditions (leukemia, multiple myeloma, chemotherapy for other cancer) with abnormal immune systems, just waiting for the pandemic virus to find a home and proliferate for days to weeks.  Literally these people are culture media for the virus. Not all of them have been identified, so don’t try to prevent this by withholding vaccination from the immunocompromised — they’re the ones who need it the most. 

I think we’re in for a very long haul with the pandemic.  We’re just gearing up to stay on top of the viral sequence du jour.   Genome sequencing is not routine (it should be).  The South African and British mutations were picked up because a spike in cases led people to sequence the virus from these patients.  Viral genome sequencing and surveillance should be routine in most countries and should not wait for an infection spike to occur. 

You may come across the terms B.1.351 and  507Y.V2 — they are different names for the South African virus which beat Astra Zenica.  The British variant is also called B.1.1.7

Life at the edge of foldability

Insulin has contains 51 amino acids, split into two chains held together by disulfide bonds. The two chains come from a single gene and a single mRNA. Clearly a lot of processing is required. There is an A chain containing 21 amino acids and a B chain containing 30.

Mutations of phenylalanine at position #24 on the B chain results in MODY (Maturity Onset Diabetes of the Young) in which not enough insulin is made. Every known vertebrate insulin contains phenylalanine at B#24.

A fascinating paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 117 pp. 29618 – 29628 ’20 ] explains why.

The reason is that having phenylalanine at B#24 appears to be crucial in folding of the insulin into its final form. We have 20 amino acids, and changing phenylalanine at B#24 to any of the other 19 amino acids results in poor insulin production.

Well we can now make any protein this long by automated peptide synthesis. Which amino acid is closest in shape and structure to phenylalanine? Tyrosine clearly. So the authors made insulin with tyrosine at B#24 (outside the cell).

Guess what — insulin synthesized (outside the cells) B#24 tyrosine bound to the insulin receptor almost as well (20 fold less well), but in terms of biological activity there was no difference. The 3 dimensional structures of B#24 tyrosine and B#24 phenylalanine were nearly identical.

The problem was in the processing of the parent protein (proinsulin) with something other than B#24 phenylalanine to insulin, which involves breaking the chain and forming 3 disulfide bonds between 6 cysteines. So it isn’t structures which evolution is conserving by B#24 phenylalanine but the ability to be processed and folded correctly.

Time to let the authors speak for themselves “Our results suggest that sequences required for insulin’s bioactivity (similar in all vertebrates) are frozen at the edge of nonfoldability.”



Force in physics is very different from the way we think of it

I’m very lucky (and honored) that a friend asked me to read and comment on the galleys of a his book. He’s trying to explain some very advanced physics to laypeople (e.g. me). So he starts with force fields, gravitational, magnetic etc. etc. The physicist’s idea of force is so far from the way we usually think of it. Exert enough force long enough and you get tired, but the gravitational force never does, despite moving planets stars and whole galaxies around.

Then there’s the idea that the force is there all the time whether or not it’s doing something a la Star Wars. Even worse is the fact that force can push things around despite going through empty space where there’s nothing to push on, action at a distance if you will.

You’ve in good company if the idea bothers you. It bothered Isaac Newton who basically invented action at a distance. Here he is in a letter to a friend.

“That gravity should be innate inherent & {essential} to matter so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of any thing else by & through which their action or force {may} be conveyed from one to another is to me so great an absurdity that I beleive no man who has in philosophical matters any competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it. “

So physicists invented the ether which was physical, and allowed objects to push each other around by pushing on the ether between them. 

But action at a distance without one atom pushing on the next etc. etc. is exactly what an incredible paper found [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 117 pp. 25445 – 25454 ’20 ].

Allostery is an abstract concept in protein chemistry, far removed from everyday life. Far removed except if you like to breathe, or have ever used a benzodiazepine (Valium, Librium, Halcion, Ativan, Klonopin, Xanax) for anything. Breathing? Really? Yes — Hemoglobin, the red in red blood cells is really 4 separate proteins bound to each other. Each of the four can bind one oxygen molecule. Binding of oxygen to one of the 4 proteins produces a subtle change in the structure of the other 3, making it easier for another oxygen to bind. This produces another subtle change in structure of the other making it easier for a third oxygen to bind. Etc. 

This is what allostery is, binding of molecule to one part of a protein causing changes in structure all over the protein. 

Neurologists are familiar with the benzodiazepines, using them to stop continuous seizure activity (status epilepticus), treat anxiety (Xanax), or seizures (Klonopin). They all work the same way, binding to a complex of 5 proteins called the GABA receptor, which when it binds Gamma Amino Butyric Acid (GABA) in one place causes negative ions to flow into the neuron, inhibiting it from firing. The benzodiazepines bind to a completely different site, making the receptor more likely to open when it binds GABA. 

The assumption about all allostery is that something binds in one place, pushing the atoms around, which push on other atoms which push on other atoms, until the desired effect is produced. This is the opposite of action at a distance, where an effect is produced without the necessity of physical contact.

The paper studied TetR, a protein containing 203 amino acids. If you’ve ever thought about it, almost all the antibiotics we have come from bacteria, which they use on other bacteria. Since we still have bacteria around, the survivors must have developed a way to resist antibiotics, and they’ve been doing this long before we appeared on the scene. 

TetR helps bacteria resist tetracycline, an antibiotic produced by bacteria. When tetracycline binds to TetR it causes other parts of the protein to change so it binds DNA causing the bacterium, among other things, to make a pump which moves tetracyline out of the cell. Notice that site where tetracycline binds on TetR is not the business end where TetR binds DNA, just as where the benzodiazepines bind the GABA receptor is not where the ion channel is. 

This post is long enough already without describing the cleverness which allowed the authors to do the following. They were able to make TetRs containing every possible mutation of all 203 positions. How many is that — 203 x 19 = 3838 different proteins. Why 19? Because we have 20 amino acids, so there are 19 possible distinct changes at each of the 203 positions in TetR.  

Some of the mutants didn’t bind to DNA, implying they were non-functional. The 3 dimensional structure of TetR is known, and they chose 5 of nonfunctional mutants. Interestingly these were distributed all over the protein. 

Then, for each of the 5 mutants they made another 3838 mutants, to see if a mutation in another position would make the mutant functional again. You can see what a tremendous amount of work this was. 

Here is where it gets really interesting. The restoring mutant (revertants if you want to get fancy) were all over the protein and up to 40 – 50 Angstroms away from the site of the dead mutation. Recall that 1 Angstrom is the size of a hydrogen atom, a turn of the alpha helix is 5.4 Angstroms and contains 3.5 amino acids per turn.The revertant mutants weren’t close to the part of the protein binding tetracycline or the part binding to DNA. 

Even worse the authors couldn’t find a contiguous path of atom pushing atom pushing atom, to explain why TetR was able to bind DNA again. So there you have it — allosteric action at a distance.

There is much more in the paper, but after all the work they did it’s time to let the authors speak for themselves. “Several important insights emerged from these results. First, TetR exhibits a high degree of allosteric plasticity evidenced by the ease of disrupting and restoring function through several mutational paths. This suggests the functional landscape of al- lostery is dense with fitness peaks, unlike binding or catalysis where fitness peaks are sparse. Second, allosterically coupled residues may not lie along the shortest path linking allosteric and active sites but can occur over long distances “

But there is still more to think about, particularly for drug development. Normally, in developing a drug for X, we have a particular site on a particular protein as a target, say the site on a neurotransmitter receptor where a neurotransmitter binds. But the work shows that sites far removed from the actual target might have the same effect

Neuroscience can no longer ignore phase separation

As a budding organic chemist, I always found physical chemistry rather dull, particularly phase diagrams. Organic reactions give you a very clear and intuitive picture of energy and entropy without the math.

In past few years cell biology has been finding phase changes everywhere. Now it comes to neuroscience as the synaptic active zone (where vesicles are released) is an example of a phase change (macromolecular condensation, liquid liquid phase separation, biomolecular condensates — it goes by a lot of names as the field is new). If you are new to the field, have a look at an excerpt from an earlier post before proceeding further — it is to be found after the ****

Although the work [ Nature vol. 588 pp. 454 – 458 ’20 ] was done in C. elegans with proteins SYD2 (aka liprinAlpha) and ELKS1, humans have similar proteins.

Phase separation accounts for a variety of cellular organelles not surrounded by membranes. The best known example is the nucleolus, but others include Cajal bodies, ProMyelocytic Leukemia Bodies (PML bodies), gemline P granules, processing bodies, stress granules.

These nonmembranous organelles have 3 properties in common

l. They arise as a phase separation from the surrounding milieu

2. They remain in a liquid state, but with properties distinct from those in the surrounding cellular material

3. They are dynamic. Proteins move in and out of them in seconds (rather than minutes, hours or longer as is typical for stable complexes.

They are usually made of proteins and RNA, and proteins in them usually have low complexity sequences (one example contains 60 amino acids of which 45 are one of alanine, serine, proline and arginine)

Back to the synaptic active zone. The ELKS1 and SYD2 both have phase separation regions (which aren’t of low complexity but they both have lots of amino acids capable of making pi pi contacts). They undergo phase separation during an early stage of synapse development. Later they solidify and bind other proteins found in the active presynaptic zone. You can make mutant ELKS1 and SYD2 lacking the low complexity regions, but the synapses they form are abnormal.

The liquid phase scaffold formed by SYD2 and ELK1 can be reconstituted in vitro. It binds and incorporates downstream synaptic components. Both proteins are large (SYD2 has 1,139 amino acids, ELKS1 has 836).

What is remarkable is that you can take a phase separation motif from human proteins (FUS which when mutated can cause ALS, or from hnRNPA2) put them into SYD2 and ELK1 mutants lacking their low complexity region and have the proteins form a normal presynaptic active zone.

This is remarkable and exciting stuff


Advances in cellular biology have largely come from chemistry.  Think DNA and protein structure, enzyme analysis.  However, cell biology is now beginning to return the favor and instruct chemistry by giving it new objects to study. Think phase transitions in the cell, liquid liquid phase separation, liquid droplets, and many other names (the field is in flux) as chemists begin to explore them.  Unlike most chemical objects, they are big, or they wouldn’t have been visible microscopically, so they contain many, many more molecules than chemists are used to dealing with.

These objects do not have any sort of definite stiochiometry and are made of RNA and the proteins which bind them (and sometimes DNA).  They go by any number of names (processing bodies, stress granules, nuclear speckles, Cajal bodies, Promyelocytic leukemia bodies, germline P granules.  Recent work has shown that DNA may be compacted similarly using the linker histone [ PNAS vol.  115 pp.11964 – 11969 ’18 ]

The objects are defined essentially by looking at them.  By golly they look like liquid drops, and they fuse and separate just like drops of water.  Once this is done they are analyzed chemically to see what’s in them.  I don’t think theory can predict them now, and they were never predicted a priori as far as I know.

No chemist in their right mind would have made them to study.  For one thing they contain tens to hundreds of different molecules.  Imagine trying to get a grant to see what would happen if you threw that many different RNAs and proteins together in varying concentrations.  Physicists have worked for years on phase transitions (but usually with a single molecule — think water).  So have chemists — think crystallization.

Proteins move in and out of these bodies in seconds.  Proteins found in them do have low complexity of amino acids (mostly made of only a few of the 20), and unlike enzymes, their sequences are intrinsically disordered, so forget the key and lock and induced fit concepts for enzymes.

Are they a new form of matter?  Is there any limit to how big they can be?  Are the pathologic precipitates of neurologic disease (neurofibrillary tangles, senile plaques, Lewy bodies) similar.  There certainly are plenty of distinct proteins in the senile plaque, but they don’t look like liquid droplets.

It’s a fascinating field to study.  Although made of organic molecules, there seems to be little for the organic chemist to say, since the interactions aren’t covalent.  Time for physical chemists and polymer chemists to step up to the plate.

Maybe the backbone is more important than the side chains

I’m really embarrassed that I was unaware of the following work on protein design from Japan. Apparently, they were able to design proteins stable at 100 Centigrade using a methodology of which I was completely in the dark (N. Koga et al., Principles for designing ideal protein structures. Nature 491, 222–227 (2012), Y. R. Lin et al., Control over overall shape and size in de novo designed proteins. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 112, E5478–E5485 (2015)). I read those journals but must have skipped the articles — I’ll have to go back and have a look.

A recent article (PNAS 117 31149 – 31156 ’20) brought it to my attention. Here’s what they say they’ve done.

“We proposed principles for designing ideal protein structures stabilized by completely consistent local and nonlocal interactions , based on a set of rules relating local backbone structures to preferred tertiary motifs (7, 10 — given above). These design rules describe the relation of the lengths or torsion patterns of two secondary structure elements and the connecting loop to favorable packing geometries . The design principles enable to encode strongly funneled energy landscapes into amino acid sequences, by the stabilization of folded structures (positive design) and by the destabilization of nonnative conformations (negative design) due to the restriction of folding conformational space by the rules”

Hard to believe but it works apparently. The paper also stands an idea about protein structure and stability on its head — the hydrophobic core of a compact protein, in this case a designed protein with a Rossmann fold (two pairs of alpha helices sandwiching a beta sheet is absolutely crucial to the ultimate 3 dimensional conformation of the protein backbone.

The protein is quite stable, not denaturing at 100 C. So then they mutated 10 of the large hydrophobic amino acids (leucine, isoleucine) to a small one (valine) so that 30 of the 34 amino acids in the core were valine and watched what happened.

What’s your guess? Mine would have been that the core was in a molten globule state and that backbone structure was lost.

That’s not what happened at all. The resulting protein was still stable over 100 C (although not quite as much by 5 KCal/mole)

To quote the authors again — “This result indicates that hydrophobic tight core packing may not be quite important for designed proteins: The folding ability and extremely high stability may arise from the restriction of conformational space to be searched during folding by the local backbone structures. This can lead to an exceptionally stable protein even in the absence of precise core packing.”

Astounding. However, this may not be true for proteins ‘designed’ by natural selection.
It’s time to try the same trick on some of them.

Maybe there really is junk DNA

Until about 20 years ago, molecular biology was incredibly protein-centric.  Consider the following terms — nonsense codon, noncoding DNA, junk DNA.  All are pejorative and arose from the view that all the genome does is code for protein.  Nonsense codon means one of the 3 termination codons, which tells the ribosome to stop making protein.  Noncoding DNA means not coding for protein (with the implication that DNA not coding for protein isn’t coding for anything).

The term Junk DNA goes back to the 60s, a time of tremendous hubris as the grand biochemical plan of life was being discovered. People were not embarrassed to use the term ‘central dogma’ which was DNA makes RNA makes protein. It therefore came as a shock once we had a better handle on the size of the genome to discover that less than 2% of it coded for protein. Since much of it was made of repetitive sequences it was called junk DNA.

I never bought it, thinking it very dangerous to dismiss as unimportant what you did not understand or could not measure. Probably this was influenced by my experience as an Air Force M.D. ’68 – ’70 during the Vietnam war.

But now comes a sure to be contentious but well reasoned paper arguing that junk DNA does exist, even though it is occasionally transcribed [ Cell vol. 183 pp. 1151 – 1161 ’20 ]. The paper discusses all RNAs in the cell not part of the ribosome, or small nucleolar RNAs (snoRNAs) or microRNAs.

They note that no enzyme is perfect acting on only the substrate we think evolution optimized it for — they call this promiscuous behavior. So a transcription factor which binds to a particular promoter sequence will also bind to near miss sequence. Moreover such near misses are constantly being generated in our genome by random mutation. This is why they think that the ENCODE (ENCyopedia Of Dna Elements) found that the entire genome is transcribed into RNA. The implication made by many is that this must be functional.

However many random pieces of DNA can activate transcription [ Genes Dev. vol. 30 pp. 1895 – 1907 ’16 ] producing what the authors call transcriptional noise.

There is evidence that the cell has evolved a way to stop some of this. U1 snRNP recognizes the 5′ splice site motif. It is present in nuclei at an order of magnitude higher than other spliceosomal subcomplexes, so it monitors for RNAs which have a 5′ splice site motif but which lack the 3′ splice site. These RNAs are subsequently destroyed, never making it out of the nucleus.

They think the primary function of lncRNA is chromatin remodeling affecting gene expression — this is certainly true of XIST which silences one of the two X chromosomes females carry.

There is a lot more very technical molecular biology and close reasoning in the paper, but this should be enough to whet your interest. It is well worth reading. Probably, like me, you’ll be mentally arguing with the authors as you read it, but that’s the sign of a good paper.

Now for a question which has always puzzled me. Consider the leprosy organism. It’s a mycobacterium (like the organism causing TB), but because it essentially is confined to man, and lives inside humans for most of its existence, it has jettisoned large parts of its genome, first by throwing about 1/3 of it out (the genome is 1/3 smaller than TB from which it is thought to have diverged 66 million years ago), and second by mutation of many of its genes so protein can no longer be made from them. Why throw out all that DNA? The short answer is that it is metabolically expensive to produce and maintain DNA that you’re not using

If you want a few numbers here they are:
Genome of M. TB 4,441,529 nucleotides
Genome of M. Leprae 3,268,203 nucleotides

Clearly microorganisms are under high selective pressure, and the paper says that humans are under almost none, but it seems to me that multicellular organisms would have found a way to get rid of DNA it doesn’t need.

It may well be that all this DNA and the RNA transcribed from it is evolutionary potting soil, waiting for some new environmental stress to put it to use.

Maybe the senile plaque really is a tombstone

“Thinking about pathologic changes in neurologic disease has been simplistic in the extreme.  Intially both senile plaques and neurofibrillary tangles were assumed to be causative for Alzheimer’s.  However there are 3 possible explanations for any microscopic change seen in any disease.  The first is that they are causative (the initial assumption).  The second is that they are a pile of spent bullets, which the neuron uses to defend itself against the real killer.  The third is they are tombstones, the final emanations of a dying cell.” I’ve thought this way for years, and the quote is from 2012:

We now have some evidence that the senile plaque may be just a tombstone marking a dead neuron. Certainly attempts to remove the plaques haven’t helped patients despite billions spent in the attempt.

A recent paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 117 pp. 28625–28631 ’20 – ] not only provides a new way to look at Alzheimer’s disease, but immediately suggests (to me at least) a way to test the idea. If the test proves correct, it will turn the focus of Alzheimer disease research on its ear.

Not to leave anyone behind, the senile plaque is largely made of a small fragment (the aBeta peptide 40 or 42 amino acids) from a much larger protein (the amyloid precursor protein [ APP ] — with well over 800 amino acids). Mutations in APP with the net effect of producing more aBeta are associated with familial Alzheimer’s disease, as are mutations in the enzymes chopping up APP to form Abeta (presenilin1, etc.).

The paper summarizes some evidence that the real culprit is neuronal uptake of the Abeta peptide either as a monomer, or a collection of monomers (an oligomer) or even the large aggregate of monomers seen under the microscope as the senile plaque.

The paper gives clear evidence that a 30 amino acid fragment of Abeta by itself without oligomerization can be taken up by neurons. Not only that but they found the protein on neuronal cell surface that Abeta binds to as well.

Ready to be shocked?

The protein taking Abeta into the neuron is the prion protein (PrPC) which can cause mad cow disease, wasting disease of elk and all sorts of horrible neurologic diseases among them Jakob Creutzfeldt disease.

Now to explain a bit of the jargon which follows. The amino acids making up our proteins come in two forms which are mirror images of each other. All our amino acids are of the L form, but the authors were able to synthesize the 42 amino acid Abeta peptide (Abeta42 below) using all L or all D amino acids.

It’s time to let the authors speak for themselves.

“In previous experiments we compared toxicity of L- and D-Aβ42. We found that, under conditions where L-Aβ42 reduced cell viability over 50%, D-Aβ42 was either nontoxic (PC12) or under 20% toxic . We later showed that L-Aβ is taken up approximately fivefold more efficiently than D-Aβ (28), suggesting that neuronal Aβ uptake and toxicity are linked.”

Well, if so, then the plaque is the tombstone of a neuron which took up too much Abeta.

Well how could you prove this? Any thoughts?

Cell models are nice, but animal models are probably better (although they’ve never resulted in useful therapy for stroke despite decades of trying).

Enter the 5xFAD mouse — it was engineered to have 3 mutations in APP known to cause Familial Alzheimer’s Disease + 2 more in Presenilin1 (which also cause FAD). The poor mouse starts getting Abeta deposition in its brain under two months of age (mice live about two years).

Now people aren’t really sure just what the prion protein (PrPC) actually does, and mice have been made without it (knockout mice). They are viable and fertile, and initially appear normal, but abnormalities appear as the mouse ages if you look hard enough. But still . . .

So what?

Now either knock out the PrPC gene in the 5xFAD mouse or mate the two different mouse strains.

The genes (APP, presenilin1 and PrPC) are on different chromosomes (#21, #14 and #20 respectively). So the first generation (F1) will have a normal counterpart of each of the 3 genes, along with a pathologic gene (e.g. they will be heterozygous for the 3 genes).

When members of F1 are bred with each other we’d expect some of them to have all mutant genes. If it were only 2 genes on two chromosomes, we’d expect 25% of he offspring (F2 generation) to have all abnormal genes. I’ll leave it for the mathematically inclined to figure out what the actual percentage of homozygous abnormal for all 3 would be).

What’s the point? Well, it’s easy to measure just what genes a mouse is carrying, so it’s time to look at mice with a full complement of 5xFAD genes and no PrPC.

If these mice don’t have any plaques in their brains, it’s game, set and match. Alzheimer research will shift from ways to remove the senile plaque, to ways to prevent it by inhibiting cellular uptake of the abeta peptide.

What could go wrong? Well, their could be other mechanisms and other proteins involved in getting Abeta into cells, but these could be attacked as well.

If the experiment shows what it might, this would be the best Thanksgiving present I could imagine.

So go to it. I’m an 80+ year old retired neurologist with no academic affiliation. I’d love to see someone try it.

Natural selection yes, but for what?

Groups across the political spectrum don’t like the idea that natural selection operates on us. The left because of the monstrosities produced by social Darwinism and eugenics. The devout because we have supposedly been formed by the creator in his image and further perfection is blasphemous.

Like it or not, there is excellent evidence for natural selection occurring in humans. One of the best is natural selection for the lactase gene.

People with lactose intolerance have nothing wrong with the gene for lactase which breaks down the sugar lactose found in milk.  Babies have no problem with breast milk.  The enzyme (lactase)  produced from the gene is quite normal in all of us; no mutations are found in the lactose protein.  However 10,000 years ago and earlier, cattle were not domesticated, so there was no dietary reason for a human weaned from the breast to make the enzyme.  In fact continuing to use energy to make the enzyme something it would never get to act on is wasteful. The genomes of our ancient ancestors had figured this out.   The control region (lactase enhancer) for the lactase gene is 14,000 nucleotides upstream from the gene itself, and back then it shut off after age 8.  After domestication of cattle 10,000 or so years ago, so that people could digest milk their entire lives a mutation arose changing cytosine to thymine in the enhancer. It spread like wildfire because back then our ancestors were in a semi-starved state most of the time, and carriers of the mutation had better nutrition.

Well that was the explanation until a recent paper [ Cell vol. 183 pp. 684 – 701 ’20 ]. It was thought that lacking the mutation you couldn’t use milk past age 8 or so. However sequencing of sites of the herdsmen of the steppes showed that they were using milk a lot (making cheese and yogurt) 8,000 years ago. Our best guess is that the mutation arose 4,000 years ago.

So possibly, the reason it spread wasn’t milk digestion, but something else. Nothing has changed the million nucleotide segment of our genome since the mutation arose — this implies that it was under strong positive natural selection. But for what?

Well, a million nucleotides codes for a lot of stuff, not just the lactase enzyme. Also there is evidence that people with the mutation is linked to metabolic abnormalities and diseases associated with decreased energy expenditure, such as obesity and type II diabetes, as well as abnormal blood metabolites and lipids.

The region codes for a microRNA (miR-128-1). Knocking it out in mice results in increases energy expenditure and improvement in high fat diet obesity. Glucose tolerance is also improved.

So it is quite possible that what was being selected for was the ‘thrifty gene’ miR-128-1 which would our semi-starved ancestors expend less energy and store whatever calories they met as fat.

In cattle a similar (syntenic) genomic region near miR-128-1 has also been under positive selection (by breeders) for feed efficiency and intramuscular fat.

So a mutation producing a selective advantage in one situation is harmful in another.

Another example —

The mutation which allows Tibetans to adapt to high altitude causes a hereditary form of blindness (Leber’s optic atroxpy) in people living at sea level. 25% of Tibetans have the mutation. Another example of natural selection operating on man.