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1.  Resolving the paradox for protein aggregation diseases: NMR structure and dynamics of the membrane-embedded P56S-MSP causing ALS imply a common mechanism for aggregation-prone proteins to attack membranes 
F1000Research  2014;2:221.
Paradoxically, aggregation of specific proteins is characteristic of many human diseases and aging, yet aggregates have increasingly been found to be unnecessary for initiating pathogenesis. Here we determined the NMR topology and dynamics of a helical mutant in a membrane environment transformed from the 125-residue cytosolic all-β MSP domain of vesicle-associated membrane protein-associated protein B (VAPB) by the ALS-causing P56S mutation. Despite its low hydrophobicity, the P56S major sperm protein (MSP) domain becomes largely embedded in the membrane environment with high backbone rigidity. Furthermore it is composed of five helices with amphiphilicity comparable to those of the partly-soluble membrane toxin mellitin and α-synuclein causing Parkinson's disease. Consequently, the mechanism underlying this chameleon transformation becomes clear: by disrupting the specific tertiary interaction network stabilizing the native all-β MSP fold to release previously-locked amphiphilic segments, the P56S mutation acts to convert the classic MSP fold into a membrane-active protein that is fundamentally indistinguishable from mellitin and α-synuclein which are disordered in aqueous solution but spontaneously partition into membrane interfaces driven by hydrogen-bond energetics gained from forming α-helix in the membrane environments. As segments with high amphiphilicity exist in all proteins, our study successfully resolves the paradox by deciphering that the proteins with a higher tendency to aggregate have a stronger potential to partition into membranes through the same mechanism as α-synuclein to initially attack membranes to trigger pathogenesis without needing aggregates. This might represent the common first step for various kinds of aggregated proteins to trigger familiar, sporadic and aging diseases. Therefore the homeostasis of aggregated proteins in vivo is the central factor responsible for a variety of human diseases including aging. The number and degree of the membrane attacks by aggregated proteins may act as an endogenous clock to count down the aging process. Consequently, a key approach to fight against them is to develop strategies and agents to maintain or even enhance the functions of the degradation machineries.
doi:10.12688/f1000research.2-221.v2
PMCID: PMC4168755  PMID: 25254094
2.  Resolving the paradox for protein aggregation diseases: a common mechanism for aggregated proteins to initially attack membranes without needing aggregates 
F1000Research  2013;2:221.
Paradoxically, aggregation of specific proteins is characteristic of many human diseases and aging, yet aggregates have been found to be unnecessary for initiating pathogenesis. Here we determined the NMR topology and dynamics of a helical mutant in a membrane environment transformed from the 125-residue cytosolic all-β MSP by the ALS-causing P56S mutation. Unexpectedly, despite its low hydrophobicity, the P56S major sperm protein (MSP) domain becomes largely embedded in the membrane environment with high backbone rigidity. Furthermore it is composed of five helices with amphiphilicity comparable to those of the partly-soluble membrane toxin mellitin and α-synuclein causing Parkinson's disease. Consequently, the mechanism underlying this chameleon transformation becomes clear: by disrupting the specific tertiary interaction network stabilizing the native all-β MSP fold to release previously-locked amphiphilic segments, the P56S mutation acts to convert the classic MSP fold into a membrane-active protein that is fundamentally indistinguishable from mellitin and α-synuclein which are disordered in aqueous solution but spontaneously partition into membrane interfaces driven by hydrogen-bond energetics gained from forming α-helix in the membrane environments. As segments with high amphiphilicity exist in all proteins, our study successfully resolves the paradox by deciphering that the proteins with a higher tendency to aggregate have a stronger potential to partition into membranes through the same mechanism as α-synuclein to initially attack membranes to trigger pathogenesis without needing aggregates. This might represent the common first step for various kinds of aggregated proteins to trigger familiar, sporadic and aging diseases. Therefore the homeostasis of aggregated proteins in vivo is the central factor responsible for a variety of human diseases including aging. The number and degree of the membrane attacks by aggregated proteins may act as an endogenous clock to count down the aging process. Consequently, a key approach to fight against them is to develop strategies and agents to maintain or even enhance the functions of the degradation machineries.
doi:10.12688/f1000research.2-221.v1
PMCID: PMC4168755  PMID: 25254094
3.  Unique Structure and Dynamics of the EphA5 Ligand Binding Domain Mediate Its Binding Specificity as Revealed by X-ray Crystallography, NMR and MD Simulations 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(9):e74040.
The 16 EphA and EphB receptors represent the largest family of receptor tyrosine kinases, and their interactions with 9 ephrin-A and ephrin-B ligands initiate bidirectional signals controlling many physiological and pathological processes. Most interactions occur between receptor and ephrins of the same class, and only EphA4 can bind all A and B ephrins. To understand the structural and dynamic principles that enable Eph receptors to utilize the same jellyroll β-sandwich fold to bind ephrins, the VAPB-MSP domain, peptides and small molecules, we have used crystallography, NMR and molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to determine the first structure and dynamics of the EphA5 ligand-binding domain (LBD), which only binds ephrin-A ligands. Unexpectedly, despite being unbound, the high affinity ephrin-binding pocket of EphA5 resembles that of other Eph receptors bound to ephrins, with a helical conformation over the J–K loop and an open pocket. The openness of the pocket is further supported by NMR hydrogen/deuterium exchange data and MD simulations. Additionally, the EphA5 LBD undergoes significant picosecond-nanosecond conformational exchanges over the loops, as revealed by NMR and MD simulations, but lacks global conformational exchanges on the microsecond-millisecond time scale. This is markedly different from the EphA4 LBD, which shares 74% sequence identity and 87% homology. Consequently, the unbound EphA5 LBD appears to comprise an ensemble of open conformations that have only small variations over the loops and appear ready to bind ephrin-A ligands. These findings show how two proteins with high sequence homology and structural similarity are still able to achieve distinctive binding specificities through different dynamics, which may represent a general mechanism whereby the same protein fold can serve for different functions. Our findings also suggest that a promising strategy to design agonists/antagonists with high affinity and selectivity might be to target specific dynamic states of the Eph receptor LBDs.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0074040
PMCID: PMC3782497  PMID: 24086308
4.  Distinctive Binding of Three Antagonistic Peptides to the Ephrin-Binding Pocket of the EphA4 Receptor 
The Biochemical journal  2012;445(1):47-56.
SYNOPSIS
The EphA4 receptor tyrosine kinase interacts with ephrin ligands to regulate many processes, ranging from axon guidance and nerve regeneration to cancer malignancy. Thus, antagonists that inhibit ephrin binding to EphA4 could be useful for a variety of research and therapeutic applications. Here we characterize the binding features of three antagonistic peptides (KYL, APY and VTM) that selectively target EphA4 among the Eph receptors. Isothermal titration calorimetry analysis demonstrates that all three peptides bind to the ephrin-binding domain of EphA4 with low micromolar affinity. Furthermore, the effects of a series of EphA4 mutations suggest that the peptides interact in different ways with the ephrin-binding pocket of EphA4. Chemical shifts observed by NMR spectroscopy upon binding of the KYL peptide involve many EphA4 residues, consistent with extensive interactions and possibly receptor conformational changes. Additionally, systematic replacement of each of the 12 amino acids of KYL and VTM identify the residues critical for EphA4 binding. The peptides exhibit a long half-life in cell culture medium, which with their substantial binding affinity and selectivity for EphA4 makes them excellent research tools to modulate EphA4 function.
doi:10.1042/BJ20120408
PMCID: PMC3677027  PMID: 22489865
receptor tyrosine kinase; antagonist; targeting; imaging; nerve regeneration; cancer
5.  A Disalicylic Acid-Furanyl Derivative Inhibits Ephrin Binding to a Subset of Eph Receptors 
Chemical biology & drug design  2011;78(4):667-678.
Eph receptor tyrosine kinases and ephrin ligands control many physiological and pathological processes, and molecules interfering with their interaction are useful probes to elucidate their complex biological functions. Moreover, targeting Eph receptors might enable new strategies to inhibit cancer progression and pathological angiogenesis as well as promote nerve regeneration. Because our previous work suggested the importance of the salicylic acid group in antagonistic small molecules targeting Eph receptors, we screened a series of salicylic acid derivatives to identify novel Eph receptor antagonists. This identified a disalicylic acid-furanyl derivative that inhibits ephrin-A5 binding to EphA4 with an IC50 of 3 μM in ELISA assays. This compound, which appears to bind to the ephrin-binding pocket of EphA4, also targets several other Eph receptors. Furthermore, it inhibits EphA2 and EphA4 tyrosine phosphorylation in cells stimulated with ephrin while not affecting phosphorylation of EphB2, which is not a target receptor. In endothelial cells, the disalicylic acid-furanyl derivative inhibits EphA2 phosphorylation in response to TNFα and capillary-like tube formation on Matrigel, two effects that depend on EphA2 interaction with endogenous ephrin-A1. These findings suggest that salicylic acid derivatives could be used as starting points to design new small molecule antagonists of Eph receptors.
doi:10.1111/j.1747-0285.2011.01199.x
PMCID: PMC3196665  PMID: 21791013
small molecule; antagonist; dymethylpyrrole derivative; protein tyrosine kinase; angiogenesis; nerve regeneration
6.  A Small Molecule Agonist of EphA2 Receptor Tyrosine Kinase Inhibits Tumor Cell Migration In Vitro and Prostate Cancer Metastasis In Vivo 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(8):e42120.
During tumor progression, EphA2 receptor can gain ligand-independent pro-oncogenic functions due to Akt activation and reduced ephrin-A ligand engagement. The effects can be reversed by ligand stimulation, which triggers the intrinsic tumor suppressive signaling pathways of EphA2 including inhibition of PI3/Akt and Ras/ERK pathways. These observations argue for development of small molecule agonists for EphA2 as potential tumor intervention agents. Through virtual screening and cell-based assays, we report here the identification and characterization of doxazosin as a novel small molecule agonist for EphA2 and EphA4, but not for other Eph receptors tested. NMR studies revealed extensive contacts of doxazosin with EphA2/A4, recapitulating both hydrophobic and electrostatic interactions recently found in the EphA2/ephrin-A1 complex. Clinically used as an α1-adrenoreceptor antagonist (Cardura®) for treating hypertension and benign prostate hyperplasia, doxazosin activated EphA2 independent of α1-adrenoreceptor. Similar to ephrin-A1, doxazosin inhibited Akt and ERK kinase activities in an EphA2-dependent manner. Treatment with doxazosin triggered EphA2 receptor internalization, and suppressed haptotactic and chemotactic migration of prostate cancer, breast cancer, and glioma cells. Moreover, in an orthotopic xenograft model, doxazosin reduced distal metastasis of human prostate cancer cells and prolonged survival in recipient mice. To our knowledge, doxazosin is the first small molecule agonist of a receptor tyrosine kinase that is capable of inhibiting malignant behaviors in vitro and in vivo.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042120
PMCID: PMC3419725  PMID: 22916121
7.  VAPC, an Human Endogenous Inhibitor for Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) Infection, Is Intrinsically Unstructured but Forms a “Fuzzy Complex” with HCV NS5B 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(7):e40341.
Nearly 200 million people are infected by hepatitis C virus (HCV) worldwide. For replicating the HCV genome, the membrane-associated machinery needs to be formed by both HCV non-structural proteins (including NS5B) and human host factors such as VAPB. Recently, the 99-residue VAPC, a splicing variant of VAPB, was demonstrated to inhibit HCV replication via binding to NS5B, thus acting as an endogenous inhibitor of HCV infection. So far, the structure of VAPC remains unknown, and its interaction with NS5B has not been biophysically characterized. In this study, we conducted extensive CD and NMR investigations on VAPC which led to several striking findings: 1) although the N-terminal 70 residues are identical in VAPC and VAPB, they constitute the characteristic β-barrel MSP fold in VAPB, while VAPC is entirely unstructured in solution, only with helical-like conformations weakly populated. 2) VAPC is indeed capable of binding to NS5B, with an average dissociation constant (Kd) of ∼20 µM. Intriguingly, VAPC remains dynamic even in the complex, suggesting that the VAPC-NS5B is a “fuzzy complex”. 3) NMR mapping revealed that the major binding region for NS5B is located over the C-terminal half of VAPC, which is composed of three discrete clusters, of which only the first contains the region identical in VAPC and VAPB. The second region containing ∼12 residues appears to play a key role in binding since mutation of 4 residues within this region leads to almost complete loss of the binding activity. 4) A 14-residue mimetic, VAPC-14 containing the second region, only has a ∼3-fold reduction of the affinity. Our study not only provides critical insights into how a human factor mediates the formation of the HCV replication machinery, but also leads to design of VAPC-14 which may be further used to explore the function of VAPC and to develop anti-HCV molecules.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040341
PMCID: PMC3398895  PMID: 22815741
8.  Intrinsically Unstructured Domain 3 of Hepatitis C Virus NS5A Forms a “Fuzzy Complex” with VAPB-MSP Domain Which Carries ALS-Causing Mutations 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(6):e39261.
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) affects nearly 200 million people worldwide and is a leading factor for serious chronic liver diseases. For replicating HCV genome, the membrane-associated replication machinery needs to be formed by both HCV non-structural proteins including NS5A and human host factors. Recently NS5A has been identified to bind ER-anchored human VAP proteins and consequently this interaction may serve as a novel target for design of anti-HCV drugs. So far no biophysical characterization of this interaction has been reported. Here, we dissected the 243-residue VAPB into 4 and 447-residue NS5A into 10 fragments, followed by CD and NMR characterization of their structural properties. Subsequently, binding interactions between these fragments have been extensively assessed by NMR HSQC titration which is very powerful in detecting even very weak binding. The studies lead to three important findings: 1). a “fuzzy complex” is formed between the intrinsically-unstructured third domain (D3) of NS5A and the well-structured MSP domain of VAPB, with an average dissociation constant (Kd) of ∼5 µM. 2). The binding-important residues on both NS5A-D3 and VAPB-MSP have been successfully mapped out, which provided experimental constraints for constructing the complex structure. In the complex, unstructured D3 binds to three surface pockets on one side of the MSP structure. Interestingly, two ALS-causing mutations T46I and P56S are also located on the D3-MSP interface. Moreover, NS5A-D3, FFAT-containing proteins and EphA4 appear to have overlapped binding interfaces on the MSP domain. 3). NS5A-D3 has been experimentally confirmed to competes with EphA4 in binding to the MSP domain, and T46I mutation of MSP dramatically abolishes its binding ability to D3. Our study not only provides essential foundation for further deciphering structure and function of the HCV replication machinery, but may also shed light on rationalizing a recent observation that a chronic HCV patient surprisingly developed ALS-like syndrome.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039261
PMCID: PMC3374797  PMID: 22720086
9.  Protein dynamics at Eph receptor-ligand interfaces as revealed by crystallography, NMR and MD simulations 
BMC Biophysics  2012;5:2.
Background
The role of dynamics in protein functions including signal transduction is just starting to be deciphered. Eph receptors with 16 members divided into A- and B- subclasses are respectively activated by 9 A- and B-ephrin ligands. EphA4 is the only receptor capable of binding to all 9 ephrins and small molecules with overlapped interfaces.
Results
We first determined the structures of the EphA4 ligand binding domain (LBD) in two crystals of P1 space group. Noticeably, 8 EphA4 molecules were found in one asymmetric unit and consequently from two crystals we obtained 16 structures, which show significant conformational variations over the functionally critical A-C, D-E, G-H and J-K loops. The 16 new structures, together with previous 9 ones, can be categorized into two groups: closed and open forms which resemble the uncomplexed and complexed structures of the EphA4 LBD respectively. To assess whether the conformational diversity over the loops primarily results from the intrinsic dynamics, we initiated 30-ns molecular dynamics (MD) simulations for both closed and open forms. The results indicate that the loops do have much higher intrinsic dynamics, which is further unravelled by NMR H/D exchange experiments. During simulations, the open form has the RMS deviations slightly larger than those of the closed one, suggesting the open form may be less stable in the absence of external contacts. Furthermore, no obvious exchange between two forms is observed within 30 ns, implying that they are dynamically separated.
Conclusions
Our study provides the first experimental and computational result revealing that the intrinsic dynamics are most likely underlying the conformational diversity observed for the EphA4 LBD loops mediating the binding affinity and specificity. Interestingly, the open conformation of the EphA4 LBD is slightly unstable in the absence of it natural ligand ephrins, implying that the conformational transition from the closed to open has to be driven by the high-affinity interaction with ephrins because the weak interaction with small molecule was found to be insufficient to trigger the transition. Our results therefore highlight the key role of protein dynamics in Eph-ephrin signalling and would benefit future design of agonists/antagonists targeting Eph receptors.
doi:10.1186/2046-1682-5-2
PMCID: PMC3274464  PMID: 22277260
10.  Structural, Stability, Dynamic and Binding Properties of the ALS-Causing T46I Mutant of the hVAPB MSP Domain as Revealed by NMR and MD Simulations 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(11):e27072.
T46I is the second mutation on the hVAPB MSP domain which was recently identified from non-Brazilian kindred to cause a familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Here using CD, NMR and molecular dynamics (MD) simulations, we characterized the structure, stability, dynamics and binding capacity of the T46I-MSP domain. The results reveal: 1) unlike P56S which we previously showed to completely eliminate the native MSP structure, T46I leads to no significant disruption of the native secondary and tertiary structures, as evidenced from its far-UV CD spectrum, as well as Cα and Cβ NMR chemical shifts. 2) Nevertheless, T46I does result in a reduced thermodynamic stability and loss of the cooperative urea-unfolding transition. As such, the T46I-MSP domain is more prone to aggregation than WT at high protein concentrations and temperatures in vitro, which may become more severe in the crowded cellular environments. 3) T46I only causes a 3-fold affinity reduction to the Nir2 peptide, but a significant elimination of its binding to EphA4. 4) EphA4 and Nir2 peptide appear to have overlapped binding interfaces on the MSP domain, which strongly implies that two signaling networks may have a functional interplay in vivo. 5) As explored by both H/D exchange and MD simulations, the MSP domain is very dynamic, with most loop residues and many residues on secondary structures highly fluctuated or/and exposed to bulk solvent. Although T46I does not alter overall dynamics, it does trigger increased dynamics of several local regions of the MSP domain which are implicated in binding to EphA4 and Nir2 peptide. Our study provides the structural and dynamic understanding of the T46I-causing ALS; and strongly highlights the possibility that the interplay of two signaling networks mediated by the FFAT-containing proteins and Eph receptors may play a key role in ALS pathogenesis.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027072
PMCID: PMC3206076  PMID: 22069488

Results 1-10 (10)