Cryo-EM Scores Again
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Human neurons are long, spindly structures, but if you could zoom in on their surfaces at super-high resolution, you’d see surprisingly large pores. They act as gated channels that open and close for ions and other essential molecules of life to pass in and out the cell. This rapid exchange of ions and other molecules is how neurons communicate, and why we humans can sense, think, move, and respond to the world around us .
Because these gated channels are so essential to neurons, mapping their precise physical structures at high-resolution has profound implications for informing future studies on the brain and nervous system. Good for us in these high-tech times that structural biologists keep getting better at imaging these 3D pores.
In fact, as just published in the journal Nature Communications , a team of NIH-supported scientists imaged the molecular structure of a gated pore of major research interest. The pore is called calcium homeostasis modulator 1 (CALHM1). Pictured below, you can view its 3D structure at near atomic resolution . Keep in mind, this relatively large neuronal pore still measures approximately 50,000 times smaller than the width of a hair.
The structure comes from a research team led by Hiro Furukawa, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, NY. He and his team relied on cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to produce the first highly precise 3D models of CALHM1.
Cryo-EM involves flash-freezing molecules in liquid ethane and bombarding them with electrons to capture their images with a special camera. When all goes well, cryo-EM can reveal the structure of intricate macromolecular complexes in a matter of weeks.
Furukawa’s team had earlier studied CALHM1 from chickens with cryo-EM , and their latest work reveals that the human version is quite similar. Eight copies of the CALHM1 protein assemble to form the circular channel. Each of the protein subunits has a flexible arm that allows it to reach into the central opening, which the researchers now suspect allows the channels to open and close in a highly controlled manner. The researchers have likened the channels’ eight flexible arms to the arms of an octopus.
The researchers also found that fatty molecules called phospholipids play a critical role in stabilizing and regulating the eight-part channel. They used simulations to demonstrate how pockets in the CALHM1 channel binds this phospholipid over cholesterol to shore up the structure and function properly. Interestingly, these phospholipid molecules are abundant in many healthy foods, such as eggs, lean meats, and seafood.
Researchers knew that an inorganic chemical called ruthenium red can block the function of the CALHM1 channel. They’ve now shown precisely how this works. The structural details indicate that ruthenium red physically lodges in and plugs up the channel.
These details also may be useful in future efforts to develop drugs designed to target and modify the function of these channels in helpful ways. For instance, on our tongues, the channel plays a role in our ability to perceive sweet, sour, or umami (savory) flavors. In our brains, studies show the abnormal function of CALHM1 may be implicated in the plaques that accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
There are far too many other normal and abnormal functions to mention here in this brief post. Suffice it to say, I’ll look forward to seeing what this enabling research yields in the years ahead.
 On the molecular nature of large-pore channels. Syrjanen, J., Michalski, K., Kawate, T., and Furukawa, H. J Mol Biol. 2021 Aug 20;433(17):166994. DOI: 10.1016/j.jmb.2021.166994. Epub 2021 Apr 16. PMID: 33865869; PMCID: PMC8409005.
 Structure of human CALHM1 reveals key locations for channel regulation and blockade by ruthenium red. Syrjänen JL, Epstein M, Gómez R, Furukawa H. Nat Commun. 2023 Jun 28;14(1):3821. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-39388-3. PMID: 37380652; PMCID: PMC10307800.
 Structure and assembly of calcium homeostasis modulator proteins. Syrjanen JL, Michalski K, Chou TH, Grant T, Rao S, Simorowski N, Tucker SJ, Grigorieff N, Furukawa H. Nat Struct Mol Biol. 2020 Feb;27(2):150-159. DOI: 10.1038/s41594-019-0369-9. Epub 2020 Jan 27. PMID: 31988524; PMCID: PMC7015811.
Brain Basics: The Life and Death of a Neuron (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Alzheimer’s Disease (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Furukawa Lab (Cold Spring Harbor Lab, Cold Spring Harbor, NY)
NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Mental Health