A minor fault in any member of the team of proteins carrying structural elements for melanin pigment maturation could deprive us of not just our colour, but could be fatal when combined with few other factors.
Trucks and lorries rule the world of cargo delivery. Any malfunction in them affects the timely delivery of the cargo at the destination and where and how they are used in the further processes. This chain of events is not very different at a cellular level. Our cells also have their own transport pathways responsible for the cargo delivery at the right destination at the right time. Any variations to that system shows up as symptoms to fatal diseases. Dr. Subba Rao and team from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, unravel the nitty gritties of one such transport pathway in animal cells where failure to deliver the cargo, in this case melanin synthesizing enzymes, could result in fatalities.
Melanin pigments are responsible for the colour of our skin and also play an important role in protection against radiations and any other damage from light. Melanin pigment is produced in cellular organelles called melanosomes which need melanin synthesizing enzymes transported from other organelles. The enzymes transported into premature melanosomes facilitate the maturation into fully pigmented melanosomes. The transport pathway is completed with the help of four multi subunit protein complexes, BLOC 1, 2, 3 and Adaptor protein 3 complex.
BLOC 1 consists of 8 subunits, functioning in the upstream of the pathway while BLOC 2, a 3-subunit protein complex, functions towards the end of the pathway in directing the transfer of molecules towards maturing melanosomes for subsequent reactions. It does so by the specific method of “tethering” or by stabilizing the intermediate molecules that need to be transported.
Mutations in BLOC 1 or BLOC 2 proteins result in inefficient delivery of melanin synthesizing proteins to melanosomes and thus failure in full expression of the melanin pigment. This malfunction manifests in the form of albinism of skin, ear and eye, also referred to as oculocutaneous albinism. This is one of the primary symptoms in Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome (HPS). The other symptoms are lung infections, which are mistaken as Tuberculosis in most cases in India. Both the lung pathology and albinism put together result in HPS but the confirmatory diagnosis is genetic sequencing of the patient and the parents. HPS generally shows up in children within the age group of 4-6. Out of the 16 possible genetic mutations that can result in HPS, only 9 are known so far. Three out of those nine subtypes are a result of mutations to the BLOC 2 protein.
Even though BLOC 1 and 2 play their respective roles in the overall transport pathway, their molecular functions are not yet clear. There are additional proteins that are responsible for membrane trafficking throughout the cell in most transport pathways. These proteins are called Soluble NSF (N-ethylmaleimide sensitive fusion proteins) Attachment Protein REceptor (SNARE). SNARE proteins, a family of about 60 proteins has been known for their role in membrane fusion during transfer of information. For the first time, the team from IISc has identified two members from the SNARE family that are involved in the transport pathway to melanosome. Immortal melanocyte cell lines from mice, both wild type and mutated, were used for the experiments. The expression of these cell lines were estimated by their absorbance at certain wavelengths and compared with levels of protein expressions found in healthy cells. The team concluded that not only do SNAREs play a vital role in the endosome and melanosome membrane trafficking but are also responsible for maintaining the melanosomal proteins in their stable states until delivered to the maturing melanosomes. Very strong interactions between the SNARE proteins and BLOC 1 has been reported in the initial steps of the transport pathway.
Dr. Subba Rao and team intends to further work on uncovering the details of the interactions between the SNAREs and BLOC 1 and 2 complexes. It is important to understand the specific roles that BLOC 2 plays in the cell and would help in filling the gaps in the transport pathway. How and what delivers the cargo at the destination is yet to be understood. Whether the membranes actually fuse for the transport of the proteins or only the proximity of molecules with the opposite membrane to the surface completes the transport? What are the guiding proteins? If the SNAREs go back to their respective states after the transfer is completed? These are few questions the team is looking forward to resolve in their future research.