Tag Archives: CryoEM

A few Thanksgiving thankyou’s

The following was published 5 years ago, but with time and ever more research our organization seems even more miraculous (see last paragraph).  It’s amazing that it lasts as long as it does, and for that we should be thankful.   Call this prayer if you wish.

As CEO of a very large organization, it’s time to thank those unsung divisions that make it all possible.  Fellow CEOs should take note and act appropriately regardless of the year it’s been for them.

First: thanks to the guys in shipping and receiving.  Kinesin moves the stuff out and Dynein brings it back home.  Think of how far they have to go.  The head office sits in area 4 of the cerebral cortex and K & D have to travel about 3 feet down to the motorneurons in the first sacral segment of the spinal cord controlling the gastrocnemius and soleus, so the boss can press the pedal on his piano when he wants. Like all good truckers, they travel on the highway.  But instead of rolling they jump.  The highway is pretty lumpy being made of 13 rows of tubulin dimers.

Now chemists are very detail oriented and think in terms of Angstroms (10^-10 meters) about the size of a hydrogen atom. As CEO and typical of cell biologists, I have to think in terms of the big picture, so I think in terms of nanoMeters (10^-9 meters).  Each tubulin dimer is 80 nanoMeters long, and K & D essentially jump from one to the other in 80 nanoMeter steps.  Now the boss is shrinking as he gets older, but my brothers working for players in the NBA have to go more than a meter to contract the gastrocnemius and soleus (among other muscles) to help their bosses jump.  So split the distance and call the distance they have to go one Meter.  How many jumps do Kinesin and Dynein have to make to get there? Just 10^9/80 — call it 10,000,000. The boys also have to jump from one microtubule to another, as the longest microtubule in our division is at most 100 microns (.1 milliMeter).  So even in the best of cases they have to make at least 10,000 transfers between microtubules.  It’s a miracle they get the job done at all.

To put this in perspective, consider a tractor trailer (not a truck — the part with the motor is the tractor, and the part pulled is the trailer — the distinction can be important, just like the difference between rifle and gun as anyone who’s been through basic training knows quite well).  Say the trailer is 48 feet long, and let that be comparable to the 80 nanoMeters K and D have to jump. That’s 10,000,000 jumps of 48 feet or 90,909 miles.  It’s amazing they get the job done.

Second: Thanks to probably the smallest member of the team.  The electron.  Its brain has to be tiny, yet it has mastered quantum mechanics because it knows how to tunnel through a potential barrier.   In order to produce the fuel for K and D it has to tunnel some 20 Angstroms from the di-copper center (CuA) to heme a in cytochrome C oxidase (COX).  Is the electron conscious? Who knows?  I don’t tell it what to do.   Now COX is just a part of one of our larger divisions, the power plant (the mitochondrion).

Third: The power plant.  Amazing to think that it was once (a billion years or more ago) a free living bacterium.  Somehow back in the mists of time one of our predecessors captured it.  The power plant produces gas (ATP) for the motors to work.  It’s really rather remarkable when you think of it.   Instead of carrying a tank of ATP, kinesin and dynein literally swim in the stuff, picking it up from the surroundings as they move down the microtubule.  Amazingly the entire division doesn’t burn up, but just uses the ATP when and where needed.  No spontaneous combustion.

There are some other unsung divisions to talk about (I haven’t forgotten you ladies in the steno pool, and your incredible accuracy — 1 mistake per 100,000,000 letters [ Science vol. 328 pp. 636 – 639 ’10 ]).  But that’s for next time.

To think that our organization arose by chance, working by finding a slightly better solution to problems it face boggles this CEO’s mind (but that’s the current faith — so good to see such faith in an increasingly secular world).

Call the thankfulness of the CEO prayer if you wish.

Addendum 29 November ’22 — from a friend “We also have to thank all the tau molecules that stabilize the microtubules— until the misbehavior of ERK and JNK1 overdecorate them with holiday lighting (phosphates) and they fall apart. So after Thanksgiving, be careful not to overcommercialize the holiday season.”

The cryoEM work of the last 5 years has shown us the structure of large molecular machines made of multiple proteins, DNAs and RNAs which are even more impressive (to me) than single protein structure.   One example [ Nature vol. 609 pp. 630 – 639 ’22 ] shows the Holliday junction which allows strand migration between the strands of two DNA duplexes.   Pictured is the complex from bacteria which is confined in a rectangle with sides 220 and 120 Angstroms (not sure how thick it is).  The complex contains a molecular motor which slides the junction.  You could spend your life just studying this one structure.  It’s hard for me to see how it arose.

Brilliant structural work on the Arp2/3 complex with actin filaments and why it makes me depressed

The Arp2/3 complex of 5 proteins forms side branches on existing actin filaments.  The following paper shows its beautiful structure along with movies.  Have a look — it’s open access. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2202723119.

Why should it make me depressed? Because I could spend the next week studying all the ins and outs of the structure and how it works without looking at anything else.  Similar cryoEM studies of other multiprotein machines are coming out which will take similar amounts of time.  Understanding how single enzymes work is much simpler, although similarly elegant — see Cozzarelli’s early work on topoisomerase.

So I’m depressed because I’ll never understand them to the depth I understand enzymes, DNA, RNA etc. etc.

Also the complexity and elegance of these machines brings back my old worries about how they could possibly have arisen simply by chance with selection acting on them.  So I plan to republish a series of old posts about the improbability of our existence, and the possibility of a creator, which was enough to me get thrown off Nature Chemistry as a blogger.

Enough whining.

Here is why the Arp2/3 complex is interesting.  Actin filaments are long (1,000 – 20,000 Angstroms and thin (70 Angstroms).  It you want to move a cell forward by having them grow toward its leading edge, growing actin filaments would puncture the membrane like a bunch of needles, hence the need for side branches, making actin filaments a brush-like mesh which could push the membrane forward as it grows.

The Arp2/3 complex has a molecular mass of 225 kiloDaltons, or probably 2,250 amino acids or 16 thousand atoms.

Arp2 stands for actin related protein 2, something quite similar to the normal actin monomer so it can sneak into the filament. So can Arp3.  The other 5 proteins grab actin monomers and start them polymerizing as a branch.

But even this isn’t enough, as Arp2/3 is intrinsically inactive and multiple classes of nucleation promoting factors (NPFs) are needed to stimulate it.  One such NPF family is the WASP proteins (for Wiskott Aldrich Syndrome Protein) mutations of which cause the syndrome characterized by hereditary thrombocytopenia, eczema and frequent infections.

The paper’s pictures do not include WASP, just the 7 proteins of the complex snuggling up to an actin filament.

In the complex the Arps are in a twisted conformation, in which they resemble actin monomers rather than filamentous actin subunits which have a flattened conformation.  After activation arp2 and arp3 mimic the arrangement of two consecutive subunits along the short pitch helical axis of an actin filament and each arp transitions from a twisted (monomerLike) to a flattened (filamentLike) conformation.

So look at the pictures and the movies and enjoy the elegance of the work of the Blind Watchmaker (if such a thing exists).

Amyloid Structure at Last ! – 2 Birefringence

This was the state of the art 19 years ago in a PNAS paper (vol. 99 pp. 16742 – 16747 ’02).  “Amyloid fibrils are filamentous structures with typical diameters of 10 nanoMeters and lengths up to several microns.  No high resolution molecular structure of an amyloid fibril has yet been determined experimentally because amyloid fibrils are noncrystalline solid materials and are therefore incompatible with Xray crystallography and liquid state NMR.”

Well solid state NMR and cryo electron microscopy have changed all that and we now have structures for many amyloids at near atomic resolution.  It’s probably behind a pay wall but look at Cell vol. 184 pp. 4857 – 4873 ’21 if you have a chance.  I’ve spent the last week or so with it, and a series of posts on various aspects of the paper will be forthcoming.  The paper contains far too much to cram into a single post.

So lacking an Xray machine to do diffraction, what did we have 57 years ago when I started getting seriously interested in neurology?  To find amyloid we threw a dye called Congo Red on a slide, found that it bound amyloid and became birefringent when it did so.

Although the Cell paper doesn’t even mention Congo Red, the structure of amyloid they give explains why this worked.

What is birefringence anyway?  It means that light moving through a material travels at different speeds in different directions.  The refractive index of a material is the relative speed of light through that material versus the speed of light in a vacuum.   Stand in a shallow pool.  Your legs look funny because light travels slower in water than in air (which is nearly a vacuum).

Look at the structure of Congo Red — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congo_red.  It’s a long thin planar molecule, containing 6 aromatic rings, kept planar with each other by pi electron delocalization.

The previous post contained a more detailed description of amyloid — but suffice it to say that instead of wandering around in 3 dimensional space, the protein backbone in amyloid is confined to a single plane 4.8 Angstroms thick — here’s a link — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2021/10/11/amyloid-structure-at-last/

Plane after plane stacks on top of each other in amyloid.  So a micron (which is 10,000 Angstroms) can contain over 5,000 such planes, and an amyloid fibril can be several microns long.

It isn’t hard to imagine the Congo Red molecule slipping between the sheets, making it’s orientation fixed.  Sounds almost pornographic doesn’t it? This orients the molecule and clearly light moving perpendicular to the long axis of Congo Red will move at a different speed than light going parallel to the long axis of Congo Red, hence its birefringence when the dye binds amyloid.

Well B-DNA (the form we all know and love as the double helix) has its aromatic bases stacked on top of each other every 3.4 Angstroms.  So why isn’t it birefringent with Congo Red?  It has a persistence length of 150 basePairs or about .05 microns, which means that the average orientation is averaged out, unlike the amyloid in a senile plaque

There is tons more to come.  The Cell paper is full of fascinating stuff.

How flat can a 100 amino acid protein be?

Alpha-synuclein is of interest to the neurologist because several mutations cause Parkinson’s disease or Lewy Body dementia.  The protein accumulates in the Lewy Bodies of these diseases.  These are concentric hyaline inclusions over 15 microns in diameter found in pigmented brain stem nuclei (substantia nigra, locus coeruleus).

The protein contains 140 amino acids.  It is ‘natively unfolded’ meaning that it has no ordered secondary structure (alpha helix, beta sheet).  No one is sure what it does.  Mouse knockouts are normal, so the mutations must produce something new.

Alpha-synuclein can form amyloid fibrils, which are basically stacks of pancakes made of flattened segments of proteins one on top of the other.

Would you believe that the 100 amino terminal amino acids of alpha-synuclein can form an absolutely flat structure.  Well it does and there are pictures to prove it in PNAS vol. 117 pp. 20305 – 20315 ’20.  Here’s a link if you or your institution has a subscription — https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/117/33/20305.full.pdf.

This isn’t the usual alpha-synuclein, as it was chemically synthesized with phosphorylated tyrosine at amino acid #39.  Who would have ever predicted that 100 amino acids could form a structure like this?  I wouldn’t. The structure was determined by cryoEM and all the work was done in China.  Very state of the art world class work.  Bravo.

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.

 

 

Antibodies without antibodies

If you knew exactly how an important class of antibodies interacted with its target, could you design a (relatively) small molecule to act the same way.  These people did, and the work has very exciting implications for infectious disease [ Science vol. 358 pp. 450 – 451, 496 – 502 ’17 ].

The influenza virus is a very slippery target.  Its genome is made of RNA, and copying it is quite error prone, so that mutants are formed all the time.  That’s why the vaccines of yesteryear are useless today.   However there are things called broadly neutralizing antibodies which work against many strains of the virus.  It attacks a vulnerable site on the hemagglutinin protein (HA) of the virus.  It is in the stem of the virus, and binding of the antibody here prevents the conformational change required for the virus to escape the endosome, a fact interesting in itself in that it implies that it only works after the virus enters the cell, although the authors do not explicitly state this.

Study of one broadly neutralizing antibody showed that binding to the site was mediated by a single hypervariable loop.  So the authors worked with a cyclic peptide mimicking the loop.  This has several advantages, in particular the fact that the entropic work of forcing a floppy protein chain into the binding conformation is already done before the peptide meets its target.

The final cyclic peptide contained 11 amino acids, of which 5 weren’t natural. It neutralized pandemic H1 and avaian H5 influenza A strains at nanoMolar concentration.

It’s important that crystal structures of the broadly neutralizing antibody binding to HA were available — this requires atomic level resolution.  I’m not sure cryoEM is there yet.

Abeta42 at last

It’s easy to see why cryoEM got the latest chemistry Nobel.  It is telling us so much.  Particularly fascinating to me as a retired neurologist is the structure of the Abeta42 fibril reported in last Friday’s Science (vol. 358 pp. 116 – 119 ’17).  

Caveats first.  The materials were prepared using an aqueous solution at low pH containing an organic cosolvent — so how physiologic could the structure actually be?  It probably is physiologic as the neurotoxicity of the fibrils to neurons in culture was the same as fibrils grown at neutral pH.  This still isn’t the same as fibrils grown in the messy concentrated chemical soup known as the cytoplasm.  Tending to confirm their findings is the fact that NMR and Xray diffraction on the crystals produced the same result.

The fibrils were unbranched and microns long (implying at least 2,000 layers of the beta sheets to be described).  The beta sheets stack in parallel and in register giving the classic crossBeta sheet structure.  They were made of two protofilaments winding around each other.  Each protofilament contains all 42 amino acids of Abeta42 and all of them form a completely flat beta sheet structure.

Feast your eyes on figure 2 p. 117.  In addition to showing the two beta sheets of the two protofilaments, it shows how they bind to each other.  Aspartic acid #1 of one sheet binds to lysine #28 of the other.  Otherwise the interface is quite hydrophobic.  Alanine2 of one sheet binds to alanine42 of the other, valine39 of one sheet binds to valine 39 of the other.  Most importantly isoLeucine 41 of one sheet binds to glycine38 of the other.

This is important since the difference between the less toxic Abeta40 and the toxic Abeta 42 are two hydrophobic amino acids Isoleucine 41 and Alanine 42.  This makes for a tighter, longer, more hydrophobic interface between the protofilaments stabilizing them.

That’s just a guess.  I can’t wait for work on Abeta40 to be reported at this resolution.

A few other points.  The beta sheet of each protomer is quite planar, but the planes of the two protomers are tilted by 10 degrees accounting for the helicity of the fibril. The fibril is a rhombus whose longest edge is about 70 Angstroms.

Even better the structure explains a mutation which is protective against Alzheimer’s.  This remains the strongest evidence (to me at least) that Abeta peptides are significantly involved in Alzheimer’s disease, therapeutic failures based on this idea notwithstanding.  The mutation is a change of alanine2 to threonine which can’t possibly snuggle up hydrophobically to isoleucine nearly as well as alanine did. This should significantly weaken the link between the two protofilaments and make fibril formation more difficult.

The Abeta structure of the paper also explains another mutation. This one increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease (like many others which have been discovered).  It involves the same amino acid (alanine2) but this time it is changed to the more hydrophobic valine, probably resulting in a stronger hydrophobic interaction with isoLeucine41 (assuming that valine’s greater bulk doesn’t get in the way sterically).

Wonderful stuff to think and speculate about, now that we actually have some solid data to chew on.

Baudelaire comes to Chemistry

Could an evil molecule be beautiful? In Les Fleurs du Mal, a collection of poems, Baudelaire argued that there was a certain beauty in evil. Well, if there ever was an evil molecule, it’s the Abeta42 peptide, the main component of the senile plaque of Alzheimer’s disease, a molecule whose effects I spent my entire professional career as a neurologist ineffectually fighting. And yet, in a recent paper on the way it forms the fibrils constituting the plaque I found the structure compellingly beautiful.

The papers are Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 113 pp. 9398 – 9400, E4976 – E4984 ’16. People have been working on the structure of the amyloid fibril of Alzheimer’s for decades, consistently stymied by its insolubility. The authors solved it not by Xray crystallography, not by cryoEM, but by solid state NMR. They basically looked at the distance constraints between pairs of isotopically labeled atoms, and built their model that way. Actually they built a bouquet of models using computer aided energy minimization of the peptide backbone. Another independent study produced nearly the same set.

The root mean square deviation of backbone atoms of the 10 lowest energy models of the bouquets in the two studies was small (.89 and .71 Angstroms). Even better the model bouquets of the two papers resemble each other.

There are two chains of Abeta42, EACH shaped like a double horseshoe (similar to the letter S). The two S’s meet around a twofold axis. The interface between the two S’s is form by two noncontiguous areas on each monomer (#15 – #17) and (#34 – #37).

The hydrophilic amino terminal residues (#1 – #14) are poorly ordered, but amino acids #15 – #42 are arranged into 4 short beta strands (I only see 3 obvious ones) that stack up and down the fibril into parallel in register beta-sheets. Each stack of double horseshoes forms a thread and the two threads twist around each other to form a two stranded protofilament.

Glycines allow sharp turns at the corners of the horseshoes. Hydrogen bonds between amides link the two layers of the fibrils. Asparagine side chains form ladders of hydrogen bonds up and down the fibrils. Water isn’t present between the layers because the beta sheets are so close together (counterintuitively this decreases the entropy, because water molecules don’t have to align themselves just so to solvate the side chains).

Each of the horseshoes is stabilized by hydrophobic interactions among the hydrophobic side chains buried in the core. Charged residues are solvent exposed. The interface between the two horsehoes is a hydrophobic interface.

Many of the famlial mutations are on the outer edges of double S structure — they are K16N, A21G, D23N, E22A, E22K, E22G, E22Q.

The surface hydrophobic patch formed by V40 and A42 may explain the greater rate of secondary nucleation by Abeta42 vs. Abeta40.

The cryoEM structures we have of Abeta42 are different showing the phenomenon of amyloid polymorphism.

The PNAS paper used reombinant Abeta and prepared homogenous fibrils by repeated seeding of dissolved Abeta42 with preformed fibrils. The other study used chemically synthesized Abeta and got fibrils without seeding. Details of pH, peptide concentration, salt concentration differed, and yet the results are the same, making both structures more secure.

The new structure doesn’t immediately suggest the toxic mechanism of Abeta.

To indulge in a bit of teleology — the structure is so beautiful and so intricately designed, that the aBeta42 peptide has probably been evolutionarily optimized to perform an (as yet unknown) function in our bodies. Animals lacking Abeta42’s parent (the amyloid precursor protein) don’t form neuromuscular synapses correctly, but they are viable.