Stage fright: don't get over it, get used to it

Many can feel empathy with the situation Banerjee describes: facing “a room full of scientists, who for whatever reason, did not look very happy that Read more

Beyond birthmarks and beta blockers, to cancer prevention

Ahead of this week’s Morningside Center conference on repurposing drugs, we wanted to highlight a recent paper in NPJ Precision Oncology by dermatologist Jack Arbiser. It may represent a new chapter in the story of the beta-blocker propranolol. Several years ago, doctors in France accidentally discovered that propranolol is effective against hemangiomas: bright red birthmarks made of extra blood vessels, which appear in infancy. Hemangiomas often don’t need treatment and regress naturally, but some can lead Read more

Drying up the HIV reservoir

Wnt is one of those funky developmental signaling pathways that gets re-used over and over again, whether it’s in the early embryo, the brain or the Read more

Christine Dunham

Tracking a frameshift through the ribosome

Ribosomes, the factories that assemble proteins in cells, read three letters of messenger RNA at a time. Occasionally, the ribosome can bend its rules, and read either two or four nucleotides, altering how downstream information is read: frameshifting.

This week, Christine Dunham’s lab in the Department of Biochemistry has a paper in PNAS on how ribosomal frameshifting works, one of several she has published on this topic. The first author is postdoc Samuel Hong, now at MD Anderson. A commentary in PNAS calls their paper a “major advance” and “culmination of a half-century quest.”

A suppressor tRNA can occupy more than one site on the ribosome. Adapted figure courtesy of Christine Dunham

Some antibiotics disrupt protein synthesis by encouraging frameshifting to occur, so a thorough understanding of frameshifting benefits antibiotic research. Also, scientists are aiming to use the process to customize proteins for industrial and pharmaceutical applications, by inserting amino acid building blocks not found in nature.

When mutations add or subtract a letter from a protein-coding gene, that usually turns the rest of the gene to nonsense. Compensatory mutations in the same gene can push the genetic letters back into the correct frame. However, others are separate, found within the machinery for translating the genetic code, namely transfer RNAs: the adaptors that bring amino acids into the ribosome. Suppressor tRNAs can compensate for a forward frameshift in another gene.

The Dunham lab’s new paper solves the structure of a bacterial ribosome undergoing “recoding” influenced by a suppressor tRNA. Her group had previously captured how the ribosomes decode this tRNA in one site of the ribosome, the aminoacyl or A site, in a 2014 PNAS paper. The new structures show how the tRNA moves through the ribosome out-of-frame to recode. The tRNA undergoes unusual rearrangements that cause the ribosome to lose its grip on the mRNA frame and allows the tRNA to form new interactions with the ribosome to shift into a new reading frame.

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Focus on antibiotic resistance at ASM Microbe 2018

We are excited that the ASM Microbe meeting will be at the Georgia World Congress Center from June 7 to June 11. If you are interested in antibiotic resistance, you can learn about how to detect it, how to (possibly) defeat it and how the bacteria fight back.

A host of Emory microbiologists are participating. In some cases, our scientists are presenting their unpublished data for discussion with their colleagues at other universities. Accordingly, we are not going to spill the beans on those results. However, please find below some examples of who’s talking and a bit of explanatory background. ASM Microbe abstracts are available online for posters, but not for some symposiums and plenary talks.

David Weiss labKlebsiella

Graduate student Jessie Wozniak is presenting her research on an isolate of Klebsiella that combines alarming properties. She will describe how the bacterial colonies behave (unappetizingly) like stretchy melted cheese in a “string test.”

June 9, 11 am to 1 pm, June 11, 11 am to 1 pm

Christine Dunham – toxin-antitoxin/persistence

Graduate student Sarah Anderson presenting her poster at ASM Microbe. She discussed a genetic connection between virulence switch and antibiotic resistance.

Dunham, a structural biologist, is giving a plenary talk June 11 on toxin-antitoxin pairs, which play a role in regulating bacterial persistence, a dormant state that facilitates antibiotic resistance. Two past papers from her lab.

Phil Rather labAcinetobacter baumannii

Rather’s lab recently published a Nature Microbiology paper on A. baumannii’s virulence/opacity switch. This type of bacteria is known for hospital-associated infections and for wound infections in military personnel. Poster talk by graduate student Sarah Anderson June 8. Read more

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Toe in the water for Emory cryo-EM structures

Congratulations to Christine Dunham and colleagues in the Department of Biochemistry for their first cryo-electron microscopy paper, recently published in the journal Structure.

The paper solves the structure of a bacterial ribosome bound to a messenger RNA containing a loop that regulates translation. This process is important for the study of several neurological diseases such as fragile X syndrome, for example.

Christine Dunham, PhD

Dunham writes: “We are focusing on establishing this in bacteria to understand frameshifting and protein folding as a consequence of codon preference. We will then build up our knowledge to potentially study eukaryotic translational control.”

The paper neatly links up with two Nobel Prizes: the 2017 Chemistry prize for cryo-electron microscopy and the 2009 Chemistry prize for ribosome structure, awarded in part to Dunham’s mentor Venki Ramakrishnan. Also, see this 2015 feature from Nature’s Ewen Callaway outlining how cryo-EM is a must have for structural biologists wanting to probe large molecules that are difficult to crystallize.

Construction now underway in the Biochemistry Connector will allow installation of microscopes (worth $6 million) necessary for Dunham and others to do cryo-EM here at Emory, although she advises that it will be several months until they are photo-op ready. For the Structure paper, Dunham collaborated with George Skiniotis at University of Michigan; he recently moved to Stanford. Read more

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A new frame of reference — on ribosome frameshifting

It’s a fundamental rule governing how the genetic code works. Ribosomes, the factories that assemble proteins in all types of living cells, read three letters (or nucleotides) of messenger RNA at a time.

In some instances, the ribosome can bend its rules, and read either two or four nucleotides, altering how downstream information is read. Biologists call this normally rare event ribosomal frameshifting. For an ordinary gene, the event of a frameshift turns the rest of the ensuing protein into nonsense. However, many viruses exploit frameshifting, because they can then have overlapping genes and fit more information into a limited space.

Regulated frameshifting takes place in human genes too, and understanding frameshifting is key to recent efforts to expand the genetic code. Researchers are aiming to use the process to customize proteins for industrial and pharmaceutical applications, by inserting amino acid building blocks not found in nature.

“Going back to the 1960s, when the genetic code was first revealed, there were many studies on ribosomal frameshifting, yet no-one really knows how it works on a molecular and mechanistic level,” says Christine Dunham, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine. “What we do know is that the ‘yardstick’ model that appears in a lot of textbooks, saying that the anticodon loop dictates the number of nucleotides decoded, while elegant, is probably incorrect.”

Dunham, who first studied the topic as a postdoc, and her colleagues published a paper this week in PNAS where they outline a model for how ribosomal frameshifting occurs, based on structural studies of the ribosome interacting with some of its helper machinery. Co-first authors of the paper are postdoctoral fellows Tatsuya Maehigashi, PhD and Jack Dunkle, PhD.

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Antibiotic resistance enzyme caught in the act

Resistance to an entire class of antibiotics – aminoglycosides — has the potential to spread to many types of bacteria, according to new biochemistry research.

A mobile gene called NpmA was discovered in E. coli bacteria isolated from a Japanese patient several years ago. Global spread of NpmA and related antibiotic resistance enzymes could disable an entire class of tools doctors use to fight serious or life-threatening infections.

Using X-ray crystallography, researchers at Emory made an atomic-scale snapshot of how the enzyme encoded by NpmA interacts with part of the ribosome, protein factories essential for all cells to function. NpmA imparts a tiny chemical change that makes the ribosome, and the bacteria, resistant to the drugs’ effects.

The results, published in PNAS, provide clues to the threat NpmA poses, but also reveal potential targets to develop drugs that could overcome resistance from this group of enzymes.

First author of the paper is postdoctoral fellow Jack Dunkle, PhD. Co-senior authors are assistant professor of biochemistry Christine Dunham, PhD and associate professor of biochemistry Graeme Conn, PhD. Read more

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Odd couples and persistence

When doctors treat disease-causing bacteria with antibiotics, a few bacteria can survive even if they do not have a resistance gene that defends them from the antibiotic. These rare, slow-growing or hibernating cells are called “persisters.”

Microbiologists see understanding persistence as a key to fighting antibiotic resistance and possibly finding new antibiotics. Persistence appears to be regulated by constantly antagonistic pairs of proteins called toxin-antitoxins.

Basically, the toxin’s job is to slow down bacterial growth by interfering with protein production, and the antitoxin’s job is to restrain the toxin until stress triggers a retreat by the antitoxin. Some toxins chew up protein-encoding RNA messages docked at ribosomes, but there are a variety of mechanisms. The genomes of disease-causing bacteria are chock full of these battling odd couples, yet not much was known about how they work in the context of persistence.

Biochemist Christine Dunham reports that several laboratories recently published papers directly implicating toxin-antitoxin complexes in both persistence and biofilm formation. Her laboratory has been delving into how the parts of various toxin-antitoxin complexes interact.HigBA smaller

BCDB graduate student Marc Schureck and colleagues have determined the structure of a complex of HigBA toxin-antitoxin proteins from Proteus vulgaris bacteria via X-ray crystallography. The results were recently published in Journal of Biological Chemistry.

While Proteus vulgaris is known for causing urinary tract and wound infections, the HigBA toxin-antitoxin pair is also found in several other disease-causing bacteria such as V. cholera, P. aeruginosa, M. tuberculosis, S. pneumoniae etc.

“We have been directly comparing toxin-antitoxin systems in E. coli, Proteus and M. tuberculosis to see if there are commonalities and differences,” Dunham says.

The P. vulgaris HigBA structure is distinctive because the antitoxin HigA does not wrap around and mask the active site of HigB, which has been seen in other toxin-antitoxin systems. Still, HigA clings onto HigB in a way that prevents it from jamming itself into the ribosome.

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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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