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Deciphering Another Secret of Life

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Srivatsan Raman
Credit: Robin Davies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

In 1953, Francis Crick famously told the surprised customers at the Eagle and Child pub in London that he and Jim Watson had discovered the secret of life. When NIH’s Marshall Nirenberg and his colleagues cracked the genetic code in 1961, it was called the solution to life’s greatest secret. Similarly, when the complete human genome sequence was revealed for the first time in 2003, commentators (including me) referred to this as the moment where the book of life for humans was revealed. But there are many more secrets of life that still need to be unlocked, including figuring out the biochemical rules of a protein shape-shifting phenomenon called allostery [1].

Among those taking on this ambitious challenge is a recipient of a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Srivatsan Raman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If successful, such efforts could revolutionize biology by helping us better understand how allosteric proteins reconfigure themselves in the right shapes at the right times to regulate cell signaling, metabolism, and many other important biological processes.

What exactly is an allosteric protein? Proteins have active, or orthosteric, sites that turn the proteins off or on when specific molecules bind to them. Some proteins also have less obvious regulatory, or allosteric, sites that indirectly affect the proteins’ activity when outside molecules bind to them. In many instances, allosteric binding triggers a change in the shape of the protein.

Allosteric proteins include oxygen-carrying hemoglobin and a variety of enzymes crucial to human health and development. In his work, Raman will start by studying a relatively simple bacterial protein, consisting of less than 200 amino acids, to understand the basics of how allostery works over time and space.

Raman, who is a synthetic biologist, got the idea for this project a few years ago while tinkering in the lab to modify an allosteric protein to bind new molecules. As part of the process, he and his team used a new technology called deep mutational scanning to study the functional consequences of removing individual amino acids from the protein [2].

The screen took them on a wild ride of unexpected functional changes, and a new research opportunity called out to him. He could combine this scanning technology with artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge imaging and computational tools to probe allosteric proteins more systematically in hopes of deciphering the basic molecular rules of allostery.

With the New Innovator Award, Raman’s group will first create a vast number of protein mutants to learn how best to determine the allosteric signaling pathway(s) within a protein. They want to dissect out the properties of each amino acid and determine which connect into a binding site and precisely how those linkages are formed. The researchers also want to know how the amino acids tend to configure into an inactive state and how that structure changes into an active state.

Based on these initial studies, the researchers will take the next step and use their dataset to predict where allosteric pathways are found in individual proteins. They will also try to figure out if allosteric signals are sent in one direction only or whether they can be bidirectional.

The experiments will be challenging, but Raman is confident that they will serve to build a more unified view of how allostery works. In fact, he hopes the data generated—and there will be a massive amount—will reveal novel sites to control or exploit allosteric signaling. Such information will not only expand fundamental biological understanding, but will accelerate efforts to discover new therapies for diseases, such as cancer, in which disruption of allosteric proteins plays a crucial role.


[1] Allostery: an illustrated definition for the ‘second secret of life.’ Fenton AW. Trends Biochem Sci. 2008 Sep;33(9):420-425.

[2] Engineering an allosteric transcription factor to respond to new ligands. Taylor ND, Garruss AS, Moretti R, Chan S, Arbing MA, Cascio D, Rogers JK, Isaacs FJ, Kosuri S, Baker D, Fields S, Church GM, Raman S. Nat Methods. 2016 Feb;13(2):177-183.


Drug hunters explore allostery’s advantages. Jarvis LM, Chemical & Engineering News. 2019 March 10

Allostery: An Overview of Its History, Concepts, Methods, and Applications. Liu J, Nussinov R. PLoS Comput Biol. 2016 Jun 2;12(6):e1004966.

Srivatsan Raman (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Raman Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Common Fund

Fighting Parasitic Infections: Promise in Cyclic Peptides

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Cyclic peptide bound to iPGM

Caption: Cyclic peptide (middle) binds to iPGM (blue).
Credit: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, NIH

When you think of the causes of infectious diseases, what first comes to mind are probably viruses and bacteria. But parasites are another important source of devastating infection, especially in the developing world. Now, NIH researchers and their collaborators have discovered a new kind of treatment that holds promise for fighting parasitic roundworms. A bonus of this result is that this same treatment might work also for certain deadly kinds of bacteria.

The researchers identified the potential new  therapeutic after testing more than a trillion small protein fragments, called cyclic peptides, to find one that could disable a vital enzyme in the disease-causing organisms, but leave similar enzymes in humans unscathed. Not only does this discovery raise hope for better treatments for many parasitic and bacterial diseases, it highlights the value of screening peptides in the search for ways to treat conditions that do not respond well—or have stopped responding—to more traditional chemical drug compounds.

Creative Minds: Breaking Size Barriers in Cryo-Electron Microscopy

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Dmitry Lyumkis

Dmitry Lyumkis

When Dmitry Lyumkis headed off to graduate school at The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, he had thoughts of becoming a synthetic chemist. But he soon found his calling in a nearby lab that imaged proteins using a technique known as single-particle cryo-electron microscopy (EM). Lyumkis was amazed that the team could take a purified protein, flash-freeze it in liquid nitrogen, and then fire electrons at the protein, capturing the resulting image with a special camera. Also amazing was the sophisticated computer software that analyzed the raw 2D camera images, merging the data and reconstructing it into 3D representations of the protein.

The work was profoundly complex, but Lyumkis thrives on solving extremely difficult puzzles. He joined the Scripps lab to become a structural biologist and a few years later used single-particle cryo-EM to help determine the atomic structure of a key protein on the surface of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS. The protein had been considered one of the greatest challenges in structural biology and a critical target in developing an AIDS vaccine [1].

Now, Lyumkis has plans to take single-particle cryo-EM to a whole new level—literally. He wants to develop new methods that allow it to model the atomic structures of much smaller proteins. Right now, single-particle cryo-EM has worked with proteins as small as roughly 150 kilodaltons, a measure of a protein’s molecular weight (the approximate average mass of a protein is 53 kDa). Lyumkis plans to drop that number well below 100 kDa, noting that if his new methods work as he hopes, there should be very little, if any, lower size limit to get the technique to work. He envisions generating within a matter of days or weeks the precise structure of an average-sized protein involved in a disease, and then potentially handing it off as an atomic model for drug developers to target for more effective treatment.

Fighting Depression: Ketamine Metabolite May Offer Benefits Without the Risks

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Depressed Woman

Thinkstock/Ryan McVay

For people struggling with severe depression, antidepressants have the potential to provide much-needed relief, but they often take weeks to work. That’s why there is growing excitement about reports that the anesthetic drug ketamine, when delivered intravenously in very low doses, can lift depression and suicidal thoughts within a matter of hours. Still, there has been reluctance to consider ketamine for widespread treatment of depression because, even at low doses, it can produce very distressing side effects, such as dissociation—a sense of disconnection from one’s own thoughts, feelings, and sense of identity. Now, new findings suggest there may be a way to tap into ketamine’s depression-fighting benefits without the side effects.

In a mouse study published in the journal Nature, an NIH-funded research team found that the antidepressant effects of ketamine are produced not by the drug itself, but by one of its metabolites—a substance formed as the body breaks ketamine down. What’s more, the work demonstrates that this beneficial metabolite does not cause the risky dissociation effects associated with ketamine. While further development and subsequent clinical trials are needed, the findings are a promising step toward the development of a new generation of rapid-acting antidepressant drugs.

DNA Barcodes Could Streamline Search for New Drugs to Combat Cancer

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Cells labeled with barcodesA little more than a decade ago, researchers began adapting a familiar commercial concept to genomics: the barcode. Instead of the black, printed stripes of the Universal Product Codes (UPCs) that we see on everything from package deliveries to clothing tags, they used short, unique snippets of DNA to label cells. These biological “barcodes” enable scientists to distinguish one cell type from another, in much the same way that a supermarket scanner recognizes different brands of cereal.

DNA barcoding has already empowered single-cell analysis, including for nerve cells in the brain. Now, in a new NIH-supported study, DNA barcoding helps in the development of a new method that could greatly streamline an increasingly complex and labor-intensive process: screening for drugs to combat cancer.

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