Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
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 .
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.
 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