Perfectionism on part of proteins in cargo delivery could save lives

August 2015

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.

 

Decoding transmembrane communication in living cells

April 24th, 2015

Living cells aren’t self-sufficient; they need to interact with their environment in order to survive. But these interactions are extensively controlled by the barrier called the cell membrane, a dynamic entity made up of lipids and proteins. Molecules are constantly passing in and out of the cell through the semi-permeable cell membrane, their movement often orchestrated by different forces and membrane components. This was the level of understanding of this barrier’s structure and function, posited by the ‘fluid mosaic’ model developed by Singer and Nicholson in 1972. Little was known then about minute details of the driving forces at the nano scale.

Until now, the nitty-gritty of how information traverses the membrane had been left to cell biologists’ countless hypotheses. Fast-forward to the 21st century, some of those assumptions have been put to rest by a recent study at NCBS. An interdisciplinary team has used living cells, synthetic lipid analogs and molecular dynamic simulations to understand transbilayer communication between molecules on either side of the bilayered cell membrane. The team consists of cell biologist Satyajit Mayor along with soft matter physicist Madan Rao and their teams at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, and synthetic chemists Ram Viswakarma (IIIM, Jammu) and Zhongwu Guo (Wayne State University, USA).

The team’s studies at the nanoscale have revealed that Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a key component that mediates the communication between the lipids on the inner leaflet, and actin and lipid-anchored proteins on the outer leaflet. PS gets the message across because of the presence of long chain-containing lipids such as those found in ‘solid fats’. That’s how the components on inner and outer leaflets communicate.  These studies show how integral PS is to signalling pathways of the cell, and therefore when absent results in irreparable damage.

“The uniqueness of the study lies in discovering a specific role for PS in nanocluster formation, a building block of ‘lipid rafts’ and how the chemistry of both the outer and inner leaflet facilitate this process. For this we have adopted an array of methods which combines biology, genetics, chemistry and physics to provide an explanation for the formation of nanoclusters” says Anupama Ambika Anilkumar, one of the first authors of the paper published online on 23 April, 2015, in the journal Cell.

Lipid rafts are microenvironments in the membrane made up of clusters of lipids and protein receptors, and are involved in molecule trafficking and assembly. Refuting early theories on the random combination of lipids to construct these lipid rafts, this study shows that the formation of these “nanoclusters” of lipids is an active process templated by the actin cytoskeleton on the inner leaflet. This understanding also points to further clues about the role of these clusters. They have been hypothesized to function as a ‘sorting station’ for components to be recruited for signalling events on the cell surface.

The discovery of PS as a vital component in the transmembrane communication would advance our understanding of the cell membrane’s microenvironment. It would also help scientists understand how these nanoclusters function and what proteins are involved in their assembly. Additional experiments in Mayor’s lab are underway to draw the complete picture of the cell’s communications and the anchors of the PS species. These entities also play an important role in various other cell functions and are hence important problems to pursue.

“There is no earlier evidence of how these clusters are formed by lipidic interactions. My colleague and co-first author, Riya Raghupathy established methods to assay the role of long-acyl chain lipid species, and along with Parvinder Pal Singh, developed the synthetic analogues used in this study. Anirban Polley, working with Madan, conducted molecular dynamic simulations; both of these are an integral part of this study and I am grateful for having such terrific collaborators,” said Anupama Anilkumar.

Decrypting this communication could help explain how signals are both read and interpreted by the cell, with implications for a number of diseases caused by alteration in lipid balance or composition. Understanding how these lipids, the “gatekeepers” of the cell, function might also help deter the progression of viral diseases, by potentially disrupting the interaction of membrane components with the viruses.

The paper can be accessed at:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2015.03.048