A Drug-Making Enzyme in Motion

Mutated enzyme, LovD9. Credit: Silvia Osuna and Gonzalo Jiménez-Osés, University of California, Los Angeles.
The movement of this mutated enzyme, LovD9, facilitates rapid production of the cholesterol reducing-drug simvastatin. Credit: Silvia Osuna and Gonzalo Jiménez-Osés, University of California, Los Angeles.

LovD9, a mutated version of an enzyme extracted from mold growing in soil, produces the cholesterol-reducing drug simvastatin 1,000 times faster than its natural predecessor. But scientists didn’t understand why because the enzyme’s mutations are far from the active site, where the drug is actually made. Now they do.

Yi Tang of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in partnership with the pharmaceutical company Codexis, generated LovD9 by repeatedly inducing random mutations, each time selecting the mutated versions of the enzyme with the most promise for industrial simvastatin production.

Then, the team collaborated with UCLA colleagues Kendall Houk and Todd Yeates to unlock the secret of the enzyme’s speed. Using ANTON, a special-purpose supercomputer at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, they simulated how different parts of the enzyme rotate and twist when synthesizing the drug. The scientists discovered that as LovD9 moves, it forms shapes that facilitate simvastatin production more often than the natural enzyme does.

With their better understanding of how mutations far from an active site may affect an enzyme’s motion, the researchers hope to one day directly engineer enzymes with precise mutations that enhance drug production.

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Raking the Family Tree for Disease-Causing Variations

Silhouettes of people with nucleic acid sequences and a stethoscope.
A new software tool analyzes disease-causing genetic variations within a family. Credit: NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute.

Changes in your DNA sequence occur randomly and rarely. But when they do happen, they can increase your risk of developing common, complex diseases, such as cancer. One way to identify disease-causing variations is to study the genomes of family members, since the changes typically are passed down to subsequent generations.

To rake through a family tree for genetic variations with the highest probabilities of causing a disease, researchers combined several commonly-used statistical methods into a new software tool called pVAAST. The scientific team, which included Mark Yandell and Lynn Jorde of the University of Utah and Chad Huff of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, used the tool to identify the genetic causes of a chronic intestinal inflammation disease and of developmental defects affecting the heart, face and limbs.

The results confirmed previously identified genetic variations for the developmental diseases and pinpointed a previously unknown variation for the intestinal inflammation. Together, the findings confirm the ability of the tool to detect disease-causing genetic changes within a family. Another research team has already used the software tool to discover rare genetic changes associated with family cases of breast cancer. These studies are likely just the beginning for studying genetic patterns of diseases than run in a family.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Cancer Institute; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and National Institute of Mental Health.

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Dormant Viruses Reactivate, Signaling Effect of Lingering Sepsis

Doctors with a patient
A new study finds that people with lingering sepsis may have suppressed immune systems. Credit: Stock image.

Each year, more than 200,000 people in the United States die from sepsis, a condition caused by an overwhelming immune response that can quickly lead to organ failure. While many people with sepsis survive this immediate threat, they may die days or even months later from secondary infections.

A research team that included Richard Hotchkiss, Jonathan Green and Gregory Storch of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suspected that when sepsis lasts for more than a few days, it compromises the immune system. To test this hypothesis, the scientists compared viral activity in sepsis patients, other critically ill patients and healthy individuals. They looked for viruses like Epstein-Barr and herpes-simplex that are often dormant and innocuous in healthy people but can reactivate and cause problems in those with suppressed immune systems.

Of the three study groups, sepsis patients had much higher levels of these viruses, suggesting that their immune responses may be hindered. Immune suppression could make it difficult to defend against the reactivated viruses as well as new infections like pneumonia. The team now plans to test whether immune-boosting drugs can prevent deaths in people with lingering sepsis.

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Meet Rhiju Das

Rhiju Das
Rhiju Das
Fields: Biophysics and Biochemistry
Works at: Stanford University
Born and raised in: The greater Midwest (Texas, Indiana and Oklahoma)
Studied at: Harvard University, Stanford University
When he’s not in the lab he’s: enjoying the California outdoors with his wife and 3-year-old daughter
If he could recommend one book about science to a lay reader, it would be: “The Eighth Day of Creation,” about the revolution in molecular biology in the 1940s and 50s.
Credit: Rhiju Das

At the turn of the 21st century, Rhiju Das saw a beautiful picture that changed his life. Then a student of particle physics with a focus on cosmology, he attended a lecture unveiling an image of the ribosome—the cellular machinery that assembles proteins in every living creature. Ribosomes are enormous, complicated machines made up of many proteins and nucleic acids similar to DNA. Deciphering the structure of a ribosome—the 3-D image Das saw—was such an impressive feat that the scientists who accomplished it won the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Das, who had been looking for a way to apply his physics background to a research question he could study in a lab, had found his calling.

“It was an epiphany—it was just flabbergasting to me that a hundred thousand atoms could find their way into such a well-defined structure at atomic resolution. It was like miraculously a bunch of nuts and bolts had self-assembled into a Ferrari,” recounted Das. “That inspired me to drop everything and learn everything I could about nucleic acid structure.”

Das focuses on the nucleic acid known as RNA, which, in addition to forming part of the ribosome, plays many roles in the body. As is the case for most proteins, RNA folds into a 3-D shape that enables it to work properly.

Das is now the head of a lab at Stanford University that unravels how the structure and folding of RNA drives its function. He has taken a unique approach to uncovering the rules behind nucleic acid folding: harnessing the wisdom of the crowd.

Together with his collaborator, Adrien Treuille of Carnegie Mellon University, Das created an online, multiplayer video game called EteRNA Exit icon. More than a mere game, it does far more than entertain. With its tagline “Played by Humans, Scored by Nature,” it’s upending how scientists approach RNA structure discovery and design.

Das’ Findings

Treuille and Das launched EteRNA after working on another computer game called Foldit Exit icon, which lets participants play with complex protein folding questions. Like Foldit, EteRNA asks players to assemble, twist and revise structures—this time of RNA—onscreen.

But EteRNA takes things a step further. Unlike Foldit, where the rewards are only game points, the winners of each round of EteRNA actually get to have their RNA designs synthesized in a wet lab at Stanford. Das and his colleagues then post the results—which designs resulted in a successful, functional RNAs and which didn’t—back online for the players to learn from.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Exit icon, Das and his colleagues showed how effective this approach could be. The collective effort of the EteRNA participants—which now number over 100,000—was better and faster than several established computer programs at solving RNA design problems, and even came up with successful new structural rules never before proposed by scientists or computers.

“What was surprising to me was their speed,” said Das. “I had just assumed that it would take a year or so before players were really able to analyze experimental data, make conclusions and come up with robust rules. But it was one of the really shocking moments of my life when, about 2 months in, we plotted the performance of players against computers and they were out-designing the computers.”

“As far as I can tell, none of the top players are academic scientists,” he added. “But if you talk to them, the first thing they’ll tell you is not how many points they have in the game but how many times they’ve had a design synthesized. They’re just excited about seeing whether or not their hypotheses were correct or falsified. So I think the top players truly are scientists—just not academic ones. They get a huge kick out of the scientific method, and they’re good at it.”

To capture lessons learned through the crowd-sourcing approach, Das and his colleagues incorporated successful rules and features into a new algorithm for RNA structure discovery, called EteRNABot, which has performed better than older computer algorithms.

“We thought that maybe the players would react badly [to EteRNABot], that they would think they were going to be automated out of existence,” said Das. “But, as it turned out, it was exciting for them to have their old ideas put into an algorithm so they could move on to the next problems.”

You can try EteRNA for yourself at http://eternagame.org Exit icon. Das and Treuille are always looking for new players and soliciting feedback.

Cool Video: How a Microtubule Builds and Deconstructs

A microtubule, part of the cell’s skeleton, builds and deconstructs. Credit: Eva Nogales lab, University of California, Berkeley.

In this animation, tubulin proteins snap into place like Lego blocks to build a microtubule, part of the cell’s skeleton. When construction ends, this long hollow cylinder falls to pieces from its top end. The breakdown is critical for many basic biological processes, including cell division, when rapidly shortening microtubules pull chromosomes into each daughter cell.

Until recently, scientists didn’t know exactly what drove microtubules to fall apart. A research team led by Eva Nogales of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, now has an explanation.

Using high-powered microscopy, the scientists peered into the structure of a microtubule and found how a chemical reaction puts the stacking tubulin proteins under intense strain. The only thing keeping the proteins from springing apart is the pressure from the addition of more tubulin. So when assembly stops, the microtubule deconstructs.

The team also learned that Taxol, a common cancer drug, relieves this tension and allows microtubules to remain intact indefinitely. With microtubules frozen in place, a cancer cell cannot divide and eventually dies.

Because of this research, scientists now better understand both the success behind a common cancer drug and the molecular basis underlying the workings of microtubules.

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Carbohydrates as Bacterial Camouflage: How Our Immune System Responds

bacteria
Although invisible to our immune system’s antibodies, strains of a pneumonia-causing bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa (orange), are easily detected by galectins. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When harmful strains of bacteria invade our bodies, our immune system produces antibodies that identify the intruders by the specific carbohydrate structures coating them. Some strains, however, have coatings that mimic the carbohydrate structures found on our own cells, and this disguise allows them to evade detection by antibodies.

A team of scientists led by Richard Cummings of Emory University found that galectins, a class of proteins naturally produced by our bodies, can identify and kill these concealed bacteria without damaging our own mimicked cells. To make this discovery, the team used glass slides covered with more than 300 different carbohydrates extracted from the surface of bacterial cells. After testing the ability of galectins and antibodies to bind to specific carbohydrates on these slides, the researchers observed that the galectins easily detected the mammalian-like carbohydrates that the antibodies failed to recognize.

These findings provide a clearer understanding of the complementary roles played by galectins and antibodies in protecting us from a broad range of infections.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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New Compound Improves Insulin Levels in Preliminary Studies

compound
A new compound (chemical structure shown here) blocks the activity of an enzyme involved in glucose regulation.

The discovery of a compound that slows the natural degradation of insulin in mice opens up a new area of investigation in the search for drugs to treat diabetes. The research team, which included David Liu Exit icon and Alan Saghatelian Exit icon of Harvard University, Markus Seeliger Exit icon of Stony Brook University School of Medicine, and Wei-Jen Tang Exit icon of the University of Chicago focused on insulin-degrading enzyme, or IDE. Using a method called DNA-templated synthesis, the scientists made 14,000 small molecules and found one that bound to the enzyme, suggesting it might modulate the enzyme’s activity. Work in test tubes and in animal models confirmed this—and showed that blocking IDE activity improved insulin levels and glucose tolerance. The researchers also learned that the enzyme is misnamed: In addition to insulin, it degrades two other hormones involved in glucose regulation.

NIGMS’ Peter Preusch says, “This is a very interesting fusion of chemical methods and biology that has uncovered new basic science findings about insulin processing with potential clinical impact.”

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Cancer Institute and the Office of the Director.

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Revealing a Key Player in Cancer Metastasis

Invadopodia
A newly designed fluorescent biosensor shows where Rac1, a molecule involved in cancer metastasis, is active in this cell. Warmer colors show greater Rac1 activity. Credit: Yasmin Moshfegh, Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Most of the more than half-a-million deaths caused by cancer each year in the United States result not from the original tumor but from the spread of cancer to new parts of the body, or metastasis. Cancer cells travel from a primary tumor using invadopodia, foot-like protrusions that break through surrounding connective tissue. Invadopodia are driven by protein filaments that repeatedly grow and disassemble. Exactly what guides this cycle was unclear, but scientists suspected a molecule called Rac1 might be involved. A new tool now sheds light on the details.

Researchers led by Louis Hodgson of Albert Einstein College of Medicine developed a fluorescent biosensor that glows wherever Rac1 is active in a cell, and they used it to study highly invasive breast cancer cells taken from rodents and humans. The scientists observed invadopodia form when Rac1 activity was low and disappear when it was high. They then confirmed their findings when they shut down the gene that encodes Rac1 and saw the invadopodia remain intact indefinitely.

This discovery suggests that targeting Rac1 activity with drugs could stop the spread of cancer cells. But a major hurdle remains: Healthy cells, including those that make up our immune system, also rely on the molecule for normal activity. Researchers must find a way to turn off Rac1 in cancer cells without disrupting its function in the rest of the body.

This work also was funded by NIH’s National Cancer Institute.

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Cell Migration: Right and Wrong Moves Article from Inside Life Science

An Insider’s Look at Life: Magnified, an Airport Exhibit of Stunning Microscopy Images

Bubonic plague bacteria on part of the digestive system in a rat flea
What looks like pollen on petals is actually bubonic plague bacteria on the digestive spines of a flea, viewed through a powerful microscope. Credit: B. Joseph Hinnebusch, Elizabeth Fischer and Austin Athman, NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Science. Art. Airports. I’ve never used those three words together before. But I’ve been doing it a lot lately while working on Life: Magnified, an exhibit of 46 striking scientific images created by scientists around the country using state-of-the-art microscopes.

The show is at Washington Dulles International Airport, where more than a million travelers will see it over its 6-month run. As our director said in a recent post on another NIGMS blog, “What a great way to share the complexity and beauty of biomedical science with such a large public audience!”

We’ve also set up an online gallery, where the colorful images can be viewed and freely downloaded for research, educational and news media purposes.

The project itself was quite an adventure. When we asked scientists to send us images, our fears of not getting enough attractive, high-resolution options were drowned by a deluge of more than 600 submissions. Then we worried how to sort through them all and make final selections. Doing so required several rounds of online viewing, various ranking systems and a panel of experts. Then the images were printed as large, digital negatives on transparency film.

Artist's rendition of a network diagram. Credit: Allison Kudla, Institute for Systems Biology.
The midnight installation of Life: Magnified involved five people (that’s me in pink), a ladder and lots of rags and glass cleaner. Credit: Woody Machalek.

Dulles is a pretty busy place, so we set up the exhibit when it was quietest—the middle of the night (10 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., to be exact). We swapped out images from the previous photography exhibit and installed the Life: Magnified ones in LED lightboxes mounted in the airport’s Gateway Gallery. It was an eerie and exhilarating feeling to be in a noiseless, nearly empty airport without heavy bags and a long walk to a departure gate.

Less than 12 hours later, I was surprised to receive an e-mail from someone who had passed through the exhibit and sent a few photos. He called the images “stunning.” Similar sentiments were expressed by Science Exit icon, NBC News online Exit icon, The Atlantic Exit icon, The Washington Post Exit icon, National Geographic Exit icon and other publications.

Now I’m being asked about next steps, including whether the exhibit will travel. We’re investigating a variety of options. For now, I hope you’re able to see the exhibit in person. If not, take a look at the images online and see which ones you enjoy most.

Meet Elizabeth Grice

Elizabeth Grice
Elizabeth Grice
First job: Detasseling corn
Favorite food: Chocolate
Pets: An adopted shelter cat, Dolce
Favorite city: Athens, Greece
Hidden talent: Baking creative desserts
Credit: Bill Branson, NIH

Imagine a landscape with peaks and valleys, folds and niches, cool, dry zones and hot, wet ones. Every inch is swarming with diverse communities, but there are no cities, no buildings, no fields and no forests.

You’ve probably thought little about the inhabitants, but you see their environment every day. It’s your largest organ—your skin.

Elizabeth Grice, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the skin microbiome to learn how and why bacteria colonize particular places on the body. Already, she’s found that the bacterial communities on healthy skin are different from those on diseased skin.

She hopes her work will point to ways of treating certain skin diseases, especially chronic wounds. “I like to think that I am making discoveries that will impact the way medicine is practiced,” she says.

Grice’s Findings

To investigate what role bacteria play in diabetic wounds, Grice and her colleagues took skin swabs from both diabetic and healthy mice, and then compared the two. They found that diabetic mice had about 40 times more bacteria on their skin, but it was concentrated into few species. A more diverse array of bacteria colonized the skin of healthy mice.

The researchers then gave each mouse a small wound and spent 28 days swabbing the sites to collect bacteria and observing how the skin healed. They found that wounds on diabetic mice started to increase in size at the same time as wounds on healthy mice began to heal. In about 2 weeks, most healthy mice looked as good as new. But most of the wounds on diabetic mice had barely healed even after a month.

Interestingly, bacterial communities in the wounds became more diverse in both groups of mice as they healed—although the wounds on diabetic mice still had less diversity than the ones on healthy mice.

“Bacterial diversity is probably a good thing, especially in wounds,” says Grice. “Often, potentially infectious bacteria are found on normal skin and are kept in check by the diversity of bacteria surrounding them.”

Grice and her colleagues also found distinctly different patterns of gene activity between the two groups of mice. As a result, the diabetic mice put out a longer-lasting immune response, including inflamed skin. Scientists believe prolonged inflammation might slow the healing process.

Grice’s team suspects that one of the main types of bacteria found on diabetic wounds, Staphylococcus, makes one of the inflammation-causing genes more active.

Now that they know more about the bacteria that thrive on diabetic wounds, Grice and her colleagues are a step closer to looking at whether they could reorganize these colonies to help the wounds heal.

Content adapted from the NIGMS Findings magazine article Body Bacteria.