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Department of Biochemistry

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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Resurrecting an ancient receptor to understand a modern drug

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.”

The blog Panda’s Thumb has an interesting discussion of this area of research, in relation to the larger question of how proteins evolve.

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The challenges of graduate school

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.

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