Life-saving predictions from the ICU

Similar to the “precogs” who predict crime in the movie Minority Report, but for sepsis, the deadly response to infection. Read more

Five hot projects at Emory in 2017

Five hot projects at Emory in 2017: CRISPR gene editing for HD, cancer immunotherapy mechanics, memory enhancement, Zika immunology, and antivirals from Read more

Shaking up thermostable proteins

Imagine a shaker table, where kids can assemble a structure out of LEGO bricks and then subject it to a simulated earthquake. Biochemists face a similar task when they are attempting to design thermostable proteins, with heat analogous to shaking. Read more

biochemistry

From the genetic code to new antibiotics

Biochemist Christine Dunham and her colleagues have a new paper in PNAS illuminating a long-standing puzzle concerning ribosomes, the factories inside cells that produce proteins.

Ribosomes are where the genetic code “happens,” because they are the workshops where messenger RNA is read out and proteins are assembled piece by piece. As a postdoc, Dunham contributed to Nobel Prize-winning work determining the molecular structure of the ribosome with mentor Venki Ramakrishnan.

Ribosomes are the workshops for protein synthesis and the targets of several antibiotics

The puzzle is this: how messenger RNA can be faithfully and precisely translated, when the interactions that hold RNA base pairs (A-U and G-C) together are not strong enough. There is enough “wobble” in RNA base pairing such that transfer RNAs that don’t match all three letters on the messenger RNA can still fit.

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Antiviral sugars in human milk

Biochemists Rick Cummings and David Smith have a paper in Journal of Biological Chemistry describing antiviral sugar molecules present in human milk. The first author is postdoctoral fellow Ying Yu.

Cummings and Smith are pioneers in the field of glycomics, studying the sugar molecules that decorate our proteins and coat our cells. They have found that human milk contains specialized glycans (carbohydrate linked to other molecules such as protein or lipid) that bind to influenza virus. This is separate from, and a supplement to, the adaptive immunity of antibodies and vaccines.

“The anti-flu glycans are not induced to our knowledge, but are part of a naturally occurring ‘liquid innate immune system’ in human milk,” Cummings says. “We’re very excited about this, and the availability of the human milk glycome in printed microarray formats will now allow screening for glycan binding to a wide variety of infant pathogens. This came from a single donor, so as to not complicate the matter yet, but work in progress shows that glycans from other donors have many related but also different glycans.”

He adds that his lab is finding that the glycans in human milk are different overall in complexity and makeup from those in other mammals.

Smith hypothesizes that the glycans may be functioning as “decoy receptors,” interfering with the molecules on the surfaces of human cells that viruses use to gain access.

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Creating tools for next-generation sequencing

Emory biochemist Eric Ortlund participated in a study that was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which involves tinkering with billions of years of evolution by introducing mutations into DNA polymerase.

What may soon be old-fashioned: next-generation sequencing combines many reactions like the one depicted above into one pot

DNA polymerases, enzymes that replicate and repair DNA, assemble individual letters in the genetic code on a template. The PNAS paper describes efforts to modify Taq DNA polymerase to get it to accept “reversible terminators.” (Taq = Thermus aquaticus, a variety of bacteria that lives in hot springs and thus has heat-resistant enzymes, a useful property for DNA sequencing)

Ortlund was involved because he specializes in looking at how evolution shapes protein structure. Along with co-author Eric Gaucher, Ortlund is part of the Fundamental and Applied Molecular Evolution Center at Emory and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

To sequence DNA faster and more cheaply, scientists are trying to get DNA polymerases to accept new building blocks. This could facilitate next-generation sequencing technology that uses “reversible terminators” to sequence many DNA templates in parallel.

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Look, don’t touch – noninvasive biochemistry

Much of the time in biochemistry, when you want to know what’s happening inside a cell you have to break them open.

Fluorescent proteins are a great tool and deserved their Nobel Prize. But you have to convince your favorite cells to make the fluorescent proteins first. It’s possible to think of specialized non-invasive probes too: dyes that change color when they encounter calcium, for example.

Now imagine being able to decipher what’s going on inside cells simply by looking at them and watching the proteins and organelles shift in response to signals. That’s essentially what Yuhong Du and Haian Fu at the Emory Chemical Biology Discovery Center have been able to do.

They use an “optical biosensor” which puts cells in front of a reflective grating. Depending on how the grating reflects light, they can measure mass redistribution inside the cells.

How the optical biosensor works

How the optical biosensor works

With this technology, they could watch for responses as cancer cells responded to signals from EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor).

Drugs such as gefitinib and erlotinib are supposed to block those growth signals in lung cancer cells, but not every cancer responds to them. These results suggest that the optical biosensor system could be used to screen for compounds that block EGFR and many other receptors, potentially speeding up the hunt for drugs against several diseases.

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Evolution doesn’t run backwards: Insights from protein structure

“The past is difficult to recover because it was built on the foundation of its own history, one irrevocably different from that of the present and its many possible futures.”

Whoa. This quote comes from a recent Nature paper. How did studying the protein that helps cells respond to the stress hormone cortisol inspire such philosophical language?

Biochemist Eric Ortlund at Emory and collaborator Joe Thornton at the University of Oregon specialize in “resurrecting”and characterizing ancient proteins. They do this by deducing how similar proteins from different organisms evolved from a common root, mutation by mutation. Sort of like a word ladder puzzle.

Ortlund and Thornton have been studying the glucocorticoid receptor, a protein that binds the hormone cortisol and turns on genes in response to stress. The glucocorticoid receptor is related to the mineralocorticoid receptor, which binds hormones such as aldosterone, a regulator of blood pressure and kidney function.

If these receptors have a common ancestor, you can model each step in the transformation that led from the ancestor to each descendant. But Ortlund says that protein evolution isn’t like a word ladder puzzle, which can be turned upside-down: “You can’t rewind the tape of life and have it take the same path.”

The reason: Mutations arise amidst a background of selective pressure, and mutations in one part of a protein set the stage for whether other ones will be viable. The researchers describe this as an “epistatic rachet”.

Mutations that occurred during the transformation between the ancestral protein (green) and its descendant (orange) would clash if put back to their original position.

Mutations that occurred during the transformation between the ancestral protein (green) and its descendant (orange) would clash if put back to their original position.

This work highlights the increasing number of structural biologists like Ortlund, Christine Dunham, Graeme Conn and Xiaodong Cheng at Emory. Structural biologists use techniques such as X-ray crystallography to figure out how the parts of biology’s machines fit together. Recently Emory has been investing in the specialized equipment necessary to conduct X-ray crystallography.

As part of his future plans, Ortlund says he wants to go even further back in evolution, to examine the paths surrounding the estrogen receptor, which is also related to the glucocorticoid receptor.

Besides giving insight into the mechanisms of evolution, Ortlund says his research could also help identify drugs that activate members of this family of receptors more selectively. This could address side effects of drugs now used to treat cancer such as tamoxifen, for example, as well as others that treat high blood pressure and inflammation.

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