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Cryo-EM Scores Again

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Human Calcium Homeostasis Modulator (CALHMI) Pore protein in a membrane
Caption: Researchers recently published the near-atomic structure of the neuronal pore CALHMI. Credit: Donny Bliss, NIH

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 [1].

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 [2], 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 [2]. Keep in mind, this relatively large neuronal pore still measures approximately 50,000 times smaller than the width of a hair.

Cryo-Em image of human CALHM1 channel.
Caption: Human CALHM1 channel. It has an eight-protein assembly pattern. Note the different colored arm-like structures above. White dot (center) is ruthenium red, a chemical that blocks off the channel. Credit: Furkawa lab/Cryo-EM Facility/Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, NY

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 [3], 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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

The Amazing Brain: Zooming Through the Globus Pallidus Externa

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative continues to find new ways to visualize neurons interconnecting into the billions of circuits that control our thoughts, feelings, and movements. This video, another winner in the initiative’s “Show Us Your Brain!” contest, offers a beautiful example of how these imaging techniques are getting better all the time.

The video features a millimeter-thick block of fixed tissue from a part of the mouse brain that’s known for its role in controlling voluntary movement. It’s called the globus pallidus externa (GPE). The video takes us inside the 3D landscape of the GPE, zooming in on the many neural cell bodies (yellow) and their arm-like extensions (red) that receive or transmit information. There’s also another class of neural cells called interneurons (blue) that act only within the circuit.

The video comes from the lab of Kwanghun Chung, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, in collaboration with Byungkook Lim’s group at the University of California, San Diego, and showcases a technique called SHIELD [1]. Brain tissue is extremely delicate to work with and prone to damage. SHIELD, developed in the Chung lab, offers a new way around this longstanding problem.

SHIELD uses polyepoxides, which are epoxy resins often used to produce glues. The researchers’ polyepoxide of choice has a flexible backbone and five branches, which bind to proteins and other molecules in place, including DNA and RNA. The molecule’s flexibility allows it to bind in multiple places along a single biomolecule and form supportive cross-links with other nearby molecules.

All of this support renders the tissue and its biological information extremely stable, even when exposed to heat and other harsh conditions. This makes it possible for researchers to label proteins, RNA, and various other biomolecules of interest simultaneously, as you see shown here in this remarkable video. SHIELD even allowed them to trace the many projections of multiple neural cell types and their connections within the GPE at once.

In the future, the team hopes to learn whether differences in the projection patterns of these neurons or in their molecular details may influence Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses that affect motor control. With this imaging advance and others through the BRAIN Initiative, mapping the biocircuitry of the brain just keeps getting better all the time.


[1] Protection of tissue physicochemical properties using polyfunctional crosslinkers. Park YG, Sohn CH, Chen R, McCue M, Yun DH, Drummond GT, Ku T, Evans NB, Oak HC, Trieu W, Choi H, Jin X, Lilascharoen V, Wang J, Truttmann MC, Qi HW, Ploegh HL, Golub TR, Chen SC, Frosch MP, Kulik HJ, Lim BK, Chung K. Nat Biotechnol. 2018 Dec 17.


Brain Basics: Know Your Brain (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Chung Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

Show Us Your Brain! (BRAIN Initiative/NIH)

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering

Huntington’s Disease: Gene Editing Shows Promise in Mouse Studies

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Cas9 clipping the Huntington's repeatsMy father was a folk song collector, and I grew up listening to the music of Woody Guthrie. On July 14th, folk music enthusiasts will be celebrating the 105th anniversary of Guthrie’s birth in his hometown of Okemah, OK. Besides being renowned for writing “This Land is Your Land” and other folk classics, Guthrie has another more tragic claim to fame: he provided the world with a glimpse at the devastation caused by a rare, inherited neurological disorder called Huntington’s disease.

When Guthrie died from complications of Huntington’s a half-century ago, the disease was untreatable. Sadly, it still is. But years of basic science advances, combined with the promise of innovative gene editing systems such as CRISPR/Cas9, are providing renewed hope that we will someday be able to treat or even cure Huntington’s disease, along with many other inherited disorders.

Snapshots of Life: A Colorful Look Inside the Retina

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Mapping neurons in the retina

Credit: Amy Robinson, Alex Norton, William Silversmith, Jinseop Kim, Kisuk Lee, Aleks Zlasteski, Matt Green, Matthew Balkam, Rachel Prentki, Marissa Sorek, Celia David, Devon Jones, and Doug Bland, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA; Sebastian Seung, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

This eerie scene might bring back memories of the computer-generated alien war machines from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds thriller. But what you’re seeing is a computer-generated depiction of a quite different world—the world inside the retina, the light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye. The stilt-legged “creatures” are actually ganglion nerve cells, and what appears to be their long “noses” are fibers that will eventually converge to form the optic nerve that relays visual signals to the brain. The dense, multi-colored mat near the bottom of the image is a region where the ganglia and other types of retinal cells interact to convey visual information.

What I find particularly interesting about this image is that it was produced through the joint efforts of people who played EyeWire, an internet crowdsourcing game developed in the lab of computational neuroscientist Sebastian Seung, now at Princeton University in New Jersey.  Seung and his colleagues created EyeWire using a series of high-resolution microscopic images of the mouse retina, which were digitized into 3D cubes containing dense skeins of branching nerve fibers. It’s at this point where the crowdsourcing came in. Online gamers—most of whom aren’t scientists— volunteered for a challenge that involved mapping the 3D structure of individual nerve cells within these 3D cubes. Players literally colored-in the interiors of the cells and progressively traced their long extensions across the image to distinguish them from their neighbors. Sounds easy, but the branches are exceedingly thin and difficult to follow.

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