Tag Archives: Cholesterol

Answer to Friday’s homework problem

2 days ago you were tasked with the following homework problem: 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.

Why not just tell you Nature/God/Evolution’s solution to the problem?  Because unless you’ve thought about how you’d do it, you won’t appreciate the elegance (and beauty to a chemist) of the solution. 

Lipid droplets are how your cells store cholesterol and triglycerides (neutral fats).  Cholesterol and most fats are made in the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum.  Then they move through the homework protein and accumulate between the two leaflets of the endoplasmic reticulum membrane, growing into lens-like structures with diameters of 400 to 600 Angstroms before they leave to enter the cytoplasm.  

Well clearly to get them between the sheets so to speak a hole must be formed in the membrane leaflet closest to the lumen, and the hole must have open sides so the cholesterol and triglyceride can escape.  

The protein must also catch the lipids in the lumen.  This is accomplished by an 8 stranded beta sandwich.  The protein must also cross the endoplasmic reticulum membrane so the lipids its caught can escape the sides.  

Like a lot of pores in the membrane (such as ion channels), several copies of the protein must come together to form the hole.  In this case the protein contains two transmembrane alpha helices.  Its hard to count just how many monomers make up the power, but my guess is 11 or so. 

Here’s a picture


The transmembrane (TM)alpha helices are in purple, the beta sandwiches are in blue-greem.

8 nm is 8 nanoMeters or 800 angstroms.  The hole looks to be around 30 Angstroms across — plenty of room to allow cholesterol and triglycerides to enter.  When you look at the top view you see that there is plenty of room between the alpha helices within the membrane for the lipids to escape out the side.  

Here’s the reference https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/118/10/e2017205118.full.pdf

and the citation Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 118 pp. e2017205118 ’21.  It’s a beautiful paper

The protein itself is called seipin, and mutations cause a variety of lipodystrophies, some of which have mental retardation.  The paper has some nice molecular dynamics simulations of seipin in action (if you believe that sort of thing). 

Were you smart enough to figure all this out on your own.  Nature/God/Evolution was.  I wasn’t.

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. 

Should pregnant women smoke pot?

Well, maybe this is why college board scores have declined so much in recent decades that they’ve been normed upwards. Given sequential MRI studies on brain changes throughout adolescence (with more to come), we know that it is a time of synapse elimination. (this will be the subject of another post). We also know that endocannabinoids, the stuff in the brain that marihuana is mimicking, are retrograde messengers there, setting synaptic tone for information transmission between neurons.

But there’s something far scarier in a paper that just came out [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 112 pp. 3415 – 3420 ’15 ]. Hedgehog is a protein so named because its absence in fruitflies (Drosophila) causes excessive bristles to form, making them look like hedgehogs. This gives you a clue that Hedgehog signaling is crucial in embryonic development. A huge amount is known about it with more being discovered all the time — for far more details than I can provide see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedgehog_signaling_pathway.

Unsurprisingly, embryonic development of the brain involves hedgehog, e,g, [ Neuron vol. 39 pp. 937 – 950 ’03 ] Hedgehog (Shh) signaling is essential for the establishment of the ventral pattern along the whole neuraxis (including the telencephalon). It plays a mitogenic role in the expansion of granule cell precursors during CNS development. This work shows that absence of Shh decreases the number of neural progenitors in the postnatal subventricular zone and hippocampus. Similarly conditional inactivation of smoothened results in the formation of fewer neurospheres from progenitors in the subventricular zone. Stimulation of the hedgehog pathway in the mature brain results in elevated proliferation in telencephalic progenitors. It’s a lot of unfamiliar jargon, but you get the idea.

Of interest is the fact that the protein is extensively covalently modified by lipids (cholesterol at the carboxy terminal end and palmitic acid at the amino terminal end. These allow hedgehog to bind to its receptor (smoothened). It stands to reason that other lipids might block this interaction. The PNAS work shows this is exactly the case (in Drosophila at least). One or more lipids present in Drosophila lipoprotein particles are needed in vivo to keep Hedgehog signaling turned off in wing discs (when hedgehog ligand isn’t around). The lipids destabilize Smoothtened. This work identifies endocannabinoids as the inhibitory lipids from extracts of human very low density lipoprotein (VLDL).

It certainly is a valid reason for women not to smoke pot while pregnant. The other problem with the endocannabinoids and exocannabinoids (e.g. delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol), is that they are so lipid soluble they stick around for a long time — see https://luysii.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/why-marihuana-scares-me/

It is amusing to see regulatory agencies wrestling with ‘medical marihuana’ when it never would have gotten through the FDA given the few solid studies we have in man.