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structural biology

Battling Malaria at the Atomic Level

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Cryo-EM Image of P. falciparum Protein
Credit: Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York

Tropical medicine has its share of wily microbes. Among the most clever is the mosquito-borne protozoan Plasmodium falciparum, which is the cause of the most common—and most lethal—form of malaria. For decades, doctors have used antimalarial drugs against P. falciparum. But just when malaria appeared to be well on its way to eradication, this parasitic protozoan mutated in ways that has enabled it to resist frontline antimalarial drugs. This resistance is a major reason that malaria, one of the world’s oldest diseases, still claims the lives of about 400,000 people each year [1].

This is a situation with which I have personal experience. Thirty years ago before traveling to Nigeria, I followed directions and took chloroquine to prevent malaria. But the resistance to the drug was already widespread, and I came down with malaria anyway. Fortunately, the parasite that a mosquito delivered to me was sensitive to another drug called Fansidar, which acts through another mechanism. I was pretty sick for a few days, but recovered without lasting consequences.

While new drugs are being developed to thwart P. falciparum, some researchers are busy developing tools to predict what mutations are likely to occur next in the parasite’s genome. And that’s what is so exciting about the image above. It presents the unprecedented, 3D atomic-resolution structure of a protein made by P. falciparum that’s been a major source of its resistance: the chloroquine-resistance transporter protein, or PfCRT.

In this cropped density map, you see part of the protein’s biochemical structure. The colorized area displays the long, winding chain of amino acids within the protein as helices in shades of green, blue and gold. These helices enclose a central cavity essential for the function of the protein, whose electrostatic properties are shown here as negative (red), positive (blue), and neutral (white). All this structural information was captured using cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). The technique involves flash-freezing molecules in liquid nitrogen and bombarding them with electrons to capture their images with a special camera.

This groundbreaking work, published recently in Nature, comes from an NIH-supported multidisciplinary research team, led by David Fidock, Matthias Quick, and Filippo Mancia, Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York [2]. It marks a major feat for structural biology, because PfCRT is on the small side for standard cryo-EM and, as Mancia discovered, the protein is almost featureless.

These two strikes made Mancia and colleagues wonder at first whether they would swing and miss at their attempt to image the protein. With the help of coauthor Anthony Kossiakoff, a researcher at the University of Chicago, the team complexed PfCRT to a bulkier antibody fragment. That doubled the size of their subject, and the fragment helped to draw out PfCRT’s hidden features. One year and a lot of hard work later, they got their homerun.

PfCRT is a transport protein embedded in the surface membrane of what passes for the gut of P. falciparum. Because the gene encoding it is highly mutable, the PfCRT protein modified its structure many years ago, enabling it to pump out and render ineffective several drugs in a major class of antimalarials called 4-aminoquinolines. That includes chloroquine.

Now, with the atomic structure in hand, researchers can map the locations of existing mutations and study how they work. This information will also allow them to model which regions of the protein to be on the lookout for the next adaptive mutations. The hope is this work will help to prolong the effectiveness of today’s antimalarial drugs.

For example, the drug piperaquine, a 4-aminoquinoline agent, is now used in combination with another antimalarial. The combination has proved quite effective. But recent reports show that P. falciparum has acquired resistance to piperaquine, driven by mutations in PfCRT that are spreading rapidly across Southeast Asia [3].

Interestingly, the researchers say they have already pinpointed single mutations that could confer piperaquine resistance to parasites from South America. They’ve also located where new mutations are likely to occur to compromise the drug’s action in Africa, where most malarial infections and deaths occur. So, this atomic structure is already being put to good use.

Researchers also hope that this model will allow drug designers to make structural adjustments to old, less effective malarial drugs and perhaps restore them to their former potency. Perhaps this could even be done by modifying chloroquine, introduced in the 1940s as the first effective antimalarial. It was used worldwide but was largely shelved a few decades later due to resistance—as I experienced three decades ago.

Malaria remains a constant health threat for millions of people living in subtropical areas of the world. Wouldn’t it be great to restore chloroquine to the status of a frontline antimalarial? The drug is inexpensive, taken orally, and safe. Through the power of science, its return is no longer out of the question.


[1] World malaria report 2019. World Health Organization, December 4, 2019

[2] Structure and drug resistance of the Plasmodium falciparum transporter PfCRT. Kim J, Tan YZ, Wicht KJ, Erramilli SK, Dhingra SK, Okombo J, Vendome J, Hagenah LM, Giacometti SI, Warren AL, Nosol K, Roepe PD, Potter CS, Carragher B, Kossiakoff AA, Quick M, Fidock DA, Mancia F. Nature. 2019 Dec;576(7786):315-320.

[3] Determinants of dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine treatment failure in Plasmodium falciparum malaria in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam: a prospective clinical, pharmacological, and genetic study. van der Pluijm RW, Imwong M, Chau NH, Hoa NT, et. al. Lancet Infect Dis. 2019 Sep;19(9):952-961.


Malaria (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Fidock Lab (Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York)

Video: David Fidock on antimalarial drug resistance (BioMedCentral/YouTube)

Kossiakoff Lab (University of Chicago)

Mancia Lab (Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

Matthias Quick (Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

MicroED: From Powder to Structure in a Half-Hour

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MicroED determines structure in 30 min

Credit: Adapted from Jones et al.

Over the past few years, there’s been a great deal of excitement about the power of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) for mapping the structures of large biological molecules like proteins and nucleic acids. Now comes word of another absolutely incredible use of cryo-EM: determining with great ease and exquisite precision the structure of the smaller organic chemical compounds, or “small molecules,” that play such key roles in biological exploration and drug development.

The new advance involves a cryo-EM technique called microcrystal-electron diffraction (MicroED). As detailed in a preprint on [1] and the journal Angewandte Chemie [2], MicroED has enabled researchers to take the powdered form of commercially available small molecules and generate high-resolution data on their chemical structures in less than a half-hour—dramatically faster than with traditional methods!

A Ray of Molecular Beauty from Cryo-EM

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Credit: Subramaniam Lab, National Cancer Institute, NIH

Walk into a dark room, and it takes a minute to make out the objects, from the wallet on the table to the sleeping dog on the floor. But after a few seconds, our eyes are able to adjust and see in the near-dark, thanks to a protein called rhodopsin found at the surface of certain specialized cells in the retina, the thin, vision-initiating tissue that lines the back of the eye.

This illustration shows light-activating rhodopsin (orange). The light photons cause the activated form of rhodopsin to bind to its protein partner, transducin, made up of three subunits (green, yellow, and purple). The binding amplifies the visual signal, which then streams onward through the optic nerve for further processing in the brain—and the ability to avoid tripping over the dog.

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   

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