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.
To make progress in structural biology, look millions of years into the past. Emory biochemist Eric Ortlund and his colleagues have been taking the approach of “resurrecting” ancient proteins to get around difficulties in probing their structures.
Steroid receptor evolution
Ortlund’s laboratory recently published a paper in Journal of Biological Chemistry describing the structure of a protein that is supposed to have existed 450 million years ago, in a complex with an anti-inflammatory drug widely used today. MSP graduate student Jeffrey Kohn is the first author.
Mometasone furoate is the active ingredient of drugs used to treat asthma, allergies and skin irritation. It is part of a class of drugs known as glucocorticoids, which can have a host of side effects such as reduced bone density and elevated blood sugar or blood pressure with long-term use.
One reason for these side effects is because the steroid receptor proteins that allow cells to detect and respond to hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, aldosterone and cortisol are all related. Mometasone is a good example of how glucocorticoids cross-react, Ortlund says. That made it an ideal test of the technique of mixing ancient receptors with modern drugs.
“We used this structure to determine why mometasone cross reacts with the progesterone receptor, which regulates fertility, and why it inhibits the mineralocorticoid receptor, which regulates blood pressure,” he says.
Mometasone furoate in complex with the ancient receptor
Scientists have examined the sequences of the genes that encode these proteins at several points on the evolutionary tree, and used the information to reconstruct what the ancestral receptor looked like. This helps solve some problems that biochemists studying these proteins have had to deal with. One of these is: changing one amino acid in the protein sometimes means that the whole protein malfunctions.
“The ancestral receptors are more tolerant to mutation, and they are more promiscuous with respect to activation,” Ortlund says. “That is, they tend to respond to a wider array of endogenous steroid hormones, which makes sense in an evolutionary context. This enhanced activation profile and tolerance to mutation is what we feel makes them ideally suited to structure-function studies.”
Biochemist Paul Doetsch’s recent appearance in a Science magazine feature on laboratory leadership led to a conversation with him about the challenges of graduate school.
He emphasized that scientific research is a team sport, and brilliance on the part of the lab head may not yield fruit without a productive relationship with the people in the lab. Doetsch suggested talking with Lydia Morris, a graduate student in the Genetics and Molecular Biology graduate program. Morris has been working in Doetsch’s lab for several years and is about to complete her degree. She has been examining the in vivo distribution of DNA repair proteins.
In this video, Morris and Doetsch talk about the differences between turn-the-crank and blue-sky projects, and the importance of backup projects, communications, high expectations and perseverance.