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Christine Dunham

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 Ray Ban outlet 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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