The journey of a marathon sleeper

A marathon sleeper who got away left some clues for Emory and University of Florida scientists to Read more

A push for reproducibility in biomedical research

At Emory, several scientists are making greater efforts to push forward to improve scientific research and combat what is being called “the reproducibility crisis.” Guest post from Erica Read more

Exosomes as potential biomarkers of radiation exposure

Exosomes = potential biomarkers of radiation in the Read more

X-ray crystallography

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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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.

Read more

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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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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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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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