SEP 19, 2019 5:33 PM PDT

How Proteins Send Instant Messages

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Our cells use proteins to carry out many critical cellular functions and are required for life. They function as messengers that send or receive signals and catalysts for chemical reactions, for example. Dysfunctional proteins can cause disease, whether it’s an error in an individual protein or a broader problem with signaling between proteins. Scientists at the University of Göttingen have now learned more about the basis of protein signaling on an atomic level.

Lisa-Marie Funk, co-first author, analysing the mechanism of a protein using specialist biophysical methods in the lab./  Credit: Nora Eulig

Reporting in Nature, researchers led by Professors Kai Tittmann and Ricardo Mata created ultra-high-resolution protein crystals of a human protein. This can reveal the positions of the atoms within the protein by exposing the crystals to a particle accelerator. Using the DESY particle accelerator, the researchers observed positively-charged subatomic particles called protons moving in and around the protein. Parts of the protein that were physically far apart could thus signal to one another instantaneously.

"The proton movements we observed closely resemble the toy known as a Newton's cradle, in which the energy is instantly transported along a chain of suspended metal balls. In proteins, these mobile protons can immediately connect other parts of the protein," explained Tittmann, who is also a Max Planck Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen.

The research team also generated high-resolution structural data for some other proteins, which showed how two heavy atoms share a proton in a type of bond called low-barrier hydrogen bonding. This resolved an old scientific controversy; we now know that this type of hydrogen bond exists in proteins and is essential to their function.

Quantum chemical calculations helped to model the process and generate a new mechanism for proton communication in proteins. "We have known for quite some time that protons can move in a concerted fashion, like in water for example. Now it seems that proteins have evolved in such a way that they can actually use these protons for signaling."

The researchers suggested that this work can help advance our understanding of protein signaling and how it goes wrong in disease. That may help the development of new therapeutics like adaptable proteins that can be used in a variety of applications, which are more environmentally friendly.

Learn more about the DESY particle accelerator from the video above, and X-ray crystallography from the video below.

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via University of Göttingen, Nature

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
APR 23, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
APR 23, 2020
Do Organisms Have to Pass Down More Than Just DNA?
A new theory of heredity is proposed, which takes into account more than just genes in a genome.
APR 26, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
APR 26, 2020
Does Poor Sleep Lead to Obesity, or is the Opposite True?
For many years, researchers have been aware of the link between obesity and poor sleep or a lack of sleep. But what come ...
MAY 13, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
MAY 13, 2020
Combined with Fasting-Mimicking Diet, Vitamin C May Have Anti-Cancer Effect
People have long been searching for natural ways to treat cancer in an effort to avoid some of the harmful side effects ...
JUN 15, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
JUN 15, 2020
Genetic Variant Study Links Brain Cells to Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disorder, in which the immune system attacks an insulating sheath that coats ne ...
JUN 29, 2020
Drug Discovery & Development
JUN 29, 2020
Staring into Deep Red Light Improves Eyesight
Researchers from UCL have found that staring into a deep red light for just three minutes per day can significantly impr ...
JUL 06, 2020
Microbiology
JUL 06, 2020
SARS-CoV-2 Makes Cells Sprout Infectious Tentacles
The pandemic coronavirus has caused a wide range of different symptoms, and as time goes on, we may find that it can hav ...
Loading Comments...