Tag Archives: corticobasal degeneration

Amyloid Structure At Last ! 4 Polymorphs

Henry J. Heinz claimed to have 57 varieties of pickles in 1896, but Cell [ vol. 184 pp. 4857 – 4873 ’21  ] Page 4862 claims that 24 amyloid polymorphs of alpha-synuclein have been found and structurally characterized.

What does this actually mean in English? The previous 3 articles in this series have discussed the structure of amyloid — the most relevant being https://luysii.wordpress.com/2021/10/11/amyloid-structure-at-last/

Basically, in amyloid some of the protein backbone flattens out so it lies in a single plane, and thousands of the planes stack on top of each other producing the amyloid fiber.  In the case of alpha-synuclein some 56 of the 144 amino acids comprising the protein flatten out.   Just as throwing a chain with 56 links on the floor will give different conformations of the chain,  the conformation of alpha-synuclein is different in each of the polymorphs.

So what?

Well, different polymorphs of another protein, the tau protein which forms the neurofibrillary tangle in Alzheimer’s give rise to at least 25 clinically distinct neurological diseases called tauopathies (3 more are chronic traumatic encephalopathy, corticobasal degeneration, and Pick’s disease).  In each of the these four diseases, a different conformation of tau is seen.

Then Nature [ vol. 598,  pp. 359 – 363 ’21] blows the field wide open, finding 19 different conformations of tau in clinically distinct diseases. Each clinical disease appears to be associated with a distinct polymorphism.  This is also true for the polymorphisms of alpha-synuclein, with distinct conformations being seen in each of Parkinsonism, multiple system atrophy and Lewy body dementia.

In none of the above diseases is there a mutation (change in amino acid sequence) in the protein

Back to alpha-synuclein.  How did they get the 24 different conformations?  They incubated the protein under different conditions (e.g. different salt concentrations, different alpha-synuclein concentrations, different salts).

Why is this incredibly good news? 

Because it moves us past amyloid itself, to the conditions which cause amyloid to form.  Certainly, removing amyloid or attacking it hasn’t resulted in any clinical benefit for the Alzheimer patient despite billions being spent by Big Pharma to do so.

We will start to study the ‘root causes’ of amyloid formation.   The amino acid sequence of each protein is identical despite the different conformations of the chain in the amyloid. Clearly the causes must be different for each of the different polymorphs of the protein.  This just has to be true.

Some cynic said that people who talk about the root causes of crime never get their hands dirty.  Hopefully neuroscience is about to take off its gloves.

This is why alternative approaches to Alzheimer’s disease, such as Cassava Biosciences manipulation of filamin A, might bear fruit.   For details please see — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2021/03/25/the-science-behind-cassava-sciences-sava/

Just got this back from one of the authors of the Nature paper

“Yes, studying the conditions that lead to all these different structures
is certainly high on our to-do list now.”



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.