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

Eric Ortlund

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. The objective is to design the most stable structure.

Biochemists face a similar task when they are attempting to design thermostable proteins, with heat analogous to shaking. Thermostable proteins, which do not become unfolded/denatured at high temperatures, are valuable for industrial processes.

Now imagine that these stable structures have to also perform a function. This is the two-part challenge of designing thermostable proteins. They have to maintain their physical structure, and continue to perform their function adequately, all at high temperatures. 

Eric Ortlund and colleagues, working with Eric Gaucher at Georgia Tech*, have a new paper published in Structure, in which they examine different ways to achieve this goal in a component of the protein synthesis machinery, EF-Tu. This protein exists in both mesophilic bacteria, which live at around human body temperature, and thermophilic organisms (think: hot springs).

A previous analysis by Gaucher used the ASR technique (ancestral sequence reconstruction) to resurrect ancient, extinct EF-Tus and characterize them. It was shown that that ancestral EF-Tus were thermostable and functional. EF-Tu’s thermostability declined along with the environmental temperature; ancestral bacteria started off living in hot environments and those environments cooled off over millions of years.

In the new paper, Ortlund and first author Denise Okafor show that stable proteins generated by protein engineering methods do not always retain their functional capabilities. However, the ASR technique has a unique advantage, Ortlund says. By accounting for the evolutionary history of the protein, it preserves the natural motions required for normal protein function. Their results suggest that ASR could be used to engineer thermostability in other proteins besides EF-Tu.

*Gaucher recently moved to Georgia State.

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Unlocking a liver receptor puzzle

Imagine a key that opens a pin tumbler lock.  A very similar key can also fit into the lock, but upside down in comparison to the first key.

Biochemist Eric Ortlund and colleagues have obtained analogous results in their study of how potential diabetes drugs interact with their target, the protein LRH-1. Their research, published in Journal of Biological Chemistry, shows that making small changes to LRH-1-targeted compounds makes a huge difference in how they fit into the protein’s binding pocket.

First author Suzanne Mays, a graduate student in Emory's MSP program

First author Suzanne Mays, a graduate student in Emory’s MSP program

This research was selected as “Paper of the Week” by JBC and is featured on the cover of the December 2 issue.

LRH-1 (liver receptor homolog-1) is a nuclear receptor, a type of protein that turns on genes in response to small molecules like hormones or vitamins.  LRH-1 acts in the liver to regulate metabolism of fat and sugar.

Previous research has shown that activating LRH-1 decreases liver fat and improves insulin sensitivity in mice. Because of this, many research teams have been trying to design synthetic compounds that activate this protein, which could have potential to treat diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. This has been a difficult task, because not much is known about how synthetic compounds interact with LRH-1 and switch it into the active state. Read more

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Ancient protein flexibility may drive ‘new’ functions

A mechanism by which stress hormones inhibit the immune system, which appeared to be relatively new in evolution, may actually be hundreds of millions of years old.

A protein called the glucocorticoid receptor or GR, which responds to the stress hormone cortisol, can take on two different forms to bind DNA: one for activating gene activity, and one for repressing it. In a paper published Dec. 28 in PNAS, scientists show how evolutionary fine-tuning has obscured the origin of GR’s ability to adopt different shapes.

“What this highlights is how proteins that end up evolving new functions had those capacities, because of their flexibility, at the beginning of their evolutionary history,” says lead author Eric Ortlund, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine.

GR is part of a family of steroid receptor proteins that control cells’ responses to hormones such as estrogen, testosterone and aldosterone. Our genomes contain separate genes encoding each one. Scientists think that this family evolved by gene duplication, branch by branch, from a single ancestor present in primitive vertebrates. Read more

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Unexpected mechanism for a longevity lipid

The idea that particular lipid components, such as omega-3 fatty acids, promote health is quite familiar, so the finding that the lipid oleoylethanolamide or OEA extends longevity in the worm C. elegans is perhaps not so surprising. However, a recent paper in Science is remarkable for what it reveals about how OEA exerts its effects.

Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine led by Meng Wang, with some help from biochemists Eric Ortlund and Eric Armstrong at Emory, discovered that OEA is a way one part of the cell, the lysosome, talks to another part, the nucleus. Lysosomes are sort of recycling centers/trash digesters (important for autophagy) and the nucleus is the control tower for the cell. The authors show that starting in lysosomes, OEA travels to the nucleus and activates nuclear hormone receptors (the Ortlund lab’s specialty). Read more

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No junk: long RNA mimics DNA, restrains hormone responses

It arises from what scientists previously described as “junk DNA” or “the dark matter of the genome,” but this gene is definitely not junk. The gene Gas5 acts as a brake on steroid hormone receptors, making it a key player in diseases such as hormone-sensitive prostate and breast cancer.

Unlike many genes scientists are familiar with, Gas5 does not encode a protein. It gets transcribed into RNA, like many other genes, but with Gas5 the RNA is what’s important, not the protein. The RNA accumulates in cells subjected to stress and soaks up steroid hormone receptors, preventing them from binding DNA and turning genes on and off.

Emory researchers have obtained a detailed picture of how the Gas5 RNA interacts with steroid hormone receptors. Their findings show how the Gas5 RNA takes the place of DNA, and give hints as to how it evolved.

The results were published Friday in Nature Communications.

Scientists used to think that much of the genome was “fly-over country”: not encoding any protein and not even accessed much by the cell’s gene-reading machinery. Recent studies have revealed that a large part of the genome is copied into lincRNAs (long intergenic noncoding RNAs), of which Gas5 is an example. Read more

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Why humans develop gout

Thanks to prolific UK science writer Ed Yong for picking up on a recent paper in PNAS from Eric Gaucher’s lab at Georgia Tech and Eric Ortlund’s at Emory.

Gaucher and Ortlund teamed up to “resurrect” ancient versions of the enzyme uricase, in search of an explanation for why humans develop gout. Yong explains:

The substance responsible for the condition [gout] is uric acid, which is normally expelled by our kidneys, via urine. But if there’s too much uric acid in our blood, it doesn’t dissolve properly and forms large insoluble crystals that build up in our joints. That explains the http://www.raybani.com/ painful swellings. High levels of uric acid have also been linked to obesity, diabetes, and diseases of the heart, liver and kidneys. Most other mammals don’t have this problem. In their bodies, an enzyme called uricase converts uric acid into other substances that can be more easily excreted.

Uricase is an ancient invention, one that’s shared by bacteria and animals alike. But for some reason, apes have abandoned it. Our uricase gene has mutations that stop us from making the enzyme at all. It’s a “pseudogene”—the biological version of a corrupted computer file. And it’s the reason that our blood contains 3 to 10 times more uric acid than that of other mammals, predisposing us to gout.

“Our role* on the project was to solve the three dimensional structure of this enzyme using X-ray crystallography to figure out how these ancient mutations led to a decline in uricase activity in humans and apes,” Ortlund says. “We were interested in how this enzyme lost function, and for the future, how we can restore function to this enzyme to create a more “human-like” (and thus less immunogenic) protein than the current available bacterial or baboon-pig uricase chimeras.”

(There’s even a patent on this ancient uricase as a potential treatment for gout, and a start-up company named General Genomics)

Their paper also explores what advantage humans might have gained from losing functional uricase. The proposal is: by disabling uricase, ancient primates became more efficient at Ray Ban outlet turning fructose, the sugar found in fruit, into fat. Their results provide some support for the “thrifty gene hypothesis:” the idea that humans are evolutionarily adapted to being able to survive an erratic food supply, which is not so great now that people in developed countries have access to lots of food. The authors write:

The loss of uricase may have provided a survival advantage by amplifying the effects of fructose to enhance fat stores, and by the ability of uric acid to stimulate foraging, while also increasing blood pressure in response to salt. Thus, the loss of uricase may represent the first example of a “thrifty gene” to explain the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes, except that it is the loss of a gene, and not the acquisition of a new gene, that has ray ban da sole outlet increased our susceptibility to these conditions. 

*Ortlund’s former postdoc Michael Murphy was involved in this part.

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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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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.

Read more

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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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