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structural biology

A Lean, Mean DNA Packaging Machine

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Three views of bacteriophage T4

Credit: Victor Padilla-Sanchez, The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

All plants and animals are susceptible to viral infections. But did you know that’s also true for bacteria? They get nailed by viruses called bacteriophages, and there are thousands of them in nature including this one that resembles a lunar lander: bacteriophage T4 (left panel). It’s a popular model organism that researchers have studied for nearly a century, helping them over the years to learn more about biochemistry, genetics, and molecular biology [1].

The bacteriophage T4 infects the bacterium Escherichia coli, which normally inhabits the gastrointestinal tract of humans. T4’s invasion starts by touching down on the bacterial cell wall and injecting viral DNA through its tube-like tail (purple) into the cell. A DNA “packaging machine” (middle and right panels) between the bacteriophage’s “head” and “tail” (green, yellow, blue spikes) keeps the double-stranded DNA (middle panel, red) at the ready. All the vivid colors you see in the images help to distinguish between the various proteins or protein subunits that make up the intricate structure of the bacteriophage and its DNA packaging machine.

Cryo-EM Images Capture Key Enzyme Tied to Cancer, Aging

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Each time your cells divide, telomeres—complexes of specialized DNA sequences, RNA, and protein that protect the tips of your chromosomes—shorten just a bit.  And, as the video shows, that shortening renders the genomic information on your chromosomes more vulnerable to changes that can drive cancer and other diseases of aging.

Consequently, over the last few decades, much research has focused on efforts to understand telomerase, a naturally occurring enzyme that helps to replace the bits of telomere lost during cell division. But there’s been a major hitch: until recently, scientists hadn’t been able to determine telomerase’s molecular structure in detail—a key step in figuring out exactly how the enzyme works. Now, thanks to better purification methods and an exciting technology called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), NIH-funded researchers and their colleagues have risen to the challenge to produce the most detailed view yet of human telomerase in its active form [1].

This structural biology advance is a critical step toward learning more about the role of telomerase in cancers, as well as genetic conditions linked to telomerase deficiencies. It’s also an important milestone in the quest for drugs targeting telomerase in different ways, perhaps to slow the growth of cancerous cells or to boost the proliferative capacity of life-giving adult stem cells.

One reason telomerase has been so difficult to study in humans is that the enzyme isn’t produced at detectable levels in the vast majority of our cells. To get around this problem, the team led by Eva Nogales and Kathleen Collins at the University of California, Berkeley, first coaxed human cells in the lab to produce larger quantities of active telomerase. They then used fluorescent microscopy, along with extensive knowledge of the enzyme’s biochemistry, to develop a multi-step purification process that yielded relatively homogenous samples of active telomerase.

The new study is also yet another remarkable example of how cryo-EM microscopy has opened up new realms of scientific possibility. That’s because, in comparison to other methods, cryo-EM enables researchers to solve complex macromolecular structures even when only tiny amounts of material are available. It can also produce detailed images of molecules, like telomerase, that are extremely flexible and hard to keep still while taking a picture of their structure.

As described in Nature, the researchers used cryo-EM to capture the structure of human telomerase in unprecedented detail. Their images reveal two lobes, held together by a flexible RNA tether. One of those lobes contains the highly specialized core enzyme. It uses an internal RNA template as a guide to make the repetitive, telomeric DNA that’s added at the tips of chromosomes. The second lobe, consisting of a complex of RNA and RNA-binding proteins, plays important roles in keeping the complex stable and properly in place.

This new, more-detailed view helps to explain how mutations in particular genes may lead to telomerase-related health conditions, including bone marrow failure, as well as certain forms of anemia and pulmonary fibrosis. For example, it reveals that a genetic defect known to cause bone marrow failure affects an essential protein in a spot that’s especially critical for telomerase’s proper conformation and function.

This advance will also be a big help for designing therapies that encourage telomerase activity. For example, it could help to boost the success of bone marrow transplants by rejuvenating adult stem cells. It might also be possible to reinforce the immune systems of people with HIV infections. While telomerase-targeted treatments surely won’t stop people from growing old, new insights into this important enzyme will help to understand aging better, including why some people appear to age faster than others.

As remarkable as these new images are, the researchers aren’t yet satisfied. They’ll continue to refine them down to the minutest structural details. They say they’d also like to use cryo-EM to understand better how the complex attaches to chromosomes to extend telomeres. Each new advance in the level of atomic detail will not only make for amazing new videos, it will help to advance understanding of human biology in health, aging, and disease.


[1] Cryo-EM structure of substrate-bound human telomerase holoenzyme. Nguyen THD, Tam J, Wu RA, Greber BJ, Toso D, Nogales E, Collins K. Nature. 2018 April 25. [Epub ahead of publication]


High Resolution Electron Microscopy (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Nogales Lab (University of California, Berkeley)

Collins Lab (University of California, Berkeley)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences   

An Architectural Guide to the Nuclear Pore Complex

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Credit: The Rockefeller University, New York

Sixty years ago, folk singer Pete Seeger recorded a song about helping those in need. The song starts like this: “Oh, had I a golden thread/And a needle so fine/I’d weave a magic strand/Of rainbow design.” In this brief animation, it seems like a golden thread and a needle are fast at work. But this rainbow design helps to answer a longstanding need for cell biologists: a comprehensive model of the thousands of pores embedded in the double-membrane barrier, or nuclear envelope, that divides the nucleus and its DNA from the rest of the cell.

These channels, called nuclear pore complexes (NPCs), are essential for life, tightly controlling which large macromolecules get in or out of the nucleus. Such activities include allowing vital proteins to enter the nucleus, blocking out harmful viruses, and shuttling messenger RNAs from the nucleus to the cytoplasm, where they are translated into proteins.

This computer simulation starts with an overhead view of the fully formed NPC structure. From this angle, the pore membrane (gray) appears to be at the base and is embroidered in four rings that are the channel’s main architectural support beams. There’s the cytoplasmic outer ring (yellow), the inner rings (purple, blue), the membrane ring (brown), and the nucleoplasmic outer ring (yellow). Each color represents different protein complexes, not rings per se, and the hole in the middle is the central channel through which molecules are transported. Filling the hole is a selective gating mechanism made of disordered protein (anchored to green) that helps to get the right molecules in and out.

Cool Videos: Insulin from Bacteria to You

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If you have a smartphone, you’ve probably used it to record a video or two. But could you use it to produce a video that explains a complex scientific topic in 2 minutes or less? That was the challenge posed by the RCSB Protein Data Bank last spring to high school students across the nation. And the winning result is the video that you see above!

This year’s contest, which asked students to provide a molecular view of diabetes treatment and management, attracted 53 submissions from schools from coast to coast. The winning team—Andrew Ma, George Song, and Anirudh Srikanth—created their video as their final project for their advanced placement (AP) biology class at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, Princeton Junction, NJ.

Merry Microscopy and a Happy New Technique!

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Color EM WreathSeasons Greetings! What looks like a humble wreath actually represents an awe-inspiring gift to biomedical research: a new imaging technique that adds a dash of color to the formerly black-and-white world of electron microscopy (EM). Here the technique is used to visualize the uptake of cell-penetrating peptides (red) by the fluid-filled vesicles (green) of the endosome (gray), a cellular compartment involved in molecular transport. Without the use of color to draw sharp contrasts between the various structures, such details would not be readily visible.

This innovative technique has its origins in a wonderful holiday story. In December 2003, Roger Tsien, a world-renowned researcher at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), decided to give himself a special present. With the lab phones still and email traffic slow for the holidays, Tsien decided to take advantage of the peace and quiet to spend two weeks alone at the research bench, pursuing an intriguing, yet seemingly wacky, idea. He wanted to find a way to deposit ions of a rare earth metal, called lanthanum, directly into cells as the vital first step in creating a new imaging technique designed to infuse EM with some much-needed color. After the holidays, when the lab returned to its usual hustle and bustle, Tsien handed off his project to Stephen Adams, a research scientist in his lab, thereby setting in motion a nearly 13-year quest to perfect the colorful new mode of EM.

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