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1.  Structural study of hNck2 SH3 domain protein in solution by circular dichroism and X-ray solution scattering 
Biophysical chemistry  2013;0:39-46.
We have done conformational study of hNck2 SH3 domain by means of far-ultraviolet (far-UV) circular dichroism (CD) and X-ray solution scattering (XSS). The results indicated that the following: (1) hNck2 SH3 domain protein exhibited concentration dependent monomer–dimer transition at neutral pH, while the secondary structure of this protein was independent of the protein concentration. (2) The hNck2 SH3 domain also exhibited pH dependent monomer–dimer transition. This monomer–dimer transition was accompanied with helix-β transition of the secondary structural change. Moreover, the acid-induced conformation, which was previously studied by Liu and Song by CD and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), was found to be not compact, but the conformation of the protein at acidic pH was similar to the cold denatured state (C-state) reported by Yamada et al. for equine β-lactoglobulin. We calculated that a structure of the equilibrium helix-rich intermediate of the hNck2 SH3 domain by DAMMIF program.
PMCID: PMC3925460  PMID: 23524290
Equilibrium helix-rich intermediate; Monomer–dimer transition; C-state
2.  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.
PMCID: PMC3782497  PMID: 24086308
3.  Interordinal Chimera Formation Between Medaka and Zebrafish for Analyzing Stem Cell Differentiation 
Stem Cells and Development  2011;21(12):2333-2341.
Chimera formation is a standard test for pluripotency of stem cells in vivo. Interspecific chimera formation between distantly related organisms offers also an attractive approach for propagating endangered species. Parameters influencing interspecies chimera formation have remained poorly elucidated. Here, we report interordinal chimera formation between medaka and zebrafish, which separated ∼320 million years ago and exhibit a more than 2-fold difference in developmental speed. We show that, on transplantation into zebrafish blastulae, both noncultivated blastomeres and long-term cultivated embryonic stem (ES) cells of medaka adopted the zebrafish developmental program and differentiated into physiologically functional cell types including pigment cells, blood cells, and cardiomyocytes. We also show that medaka ES cells express differentiation gene markers during chimeric embryogenesis. Therefore, the evolutionary distance and different embryogenesis speeds do not produce donor-host incompatibility to compromise chimera formation between medaka and zebrafish, and molecular markers are valuable for analyzing lineage commitment and cell differentiation in interspecific chimeric embryos.
PMCID: PMC3411366  PMID: 22204449
4.  Distinctive Binding of Three Antagonistic Peptides to the Ephrin-Binding Pocket of the EphA4 Receptor 
The Biochemical journal  2012;445(1):47-56.
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.
PMCID: PMC3677027  PMID: 22489865
receptor tyrosine kinase; antagonist; targeting; imaging; nerve regeneration; cancer
5.  Why do proteins aggregate? “Intrinsically insoluble proteins” and “dark mediators” revealed by studies on “insoluble proteins” solubilized in pure water 
F1000Research  2013;2:94.
In 2008, I reviewed and proposed a model for our discovery in 2005 that unrefoldable and insoluble proteins could in fact be solubilized in unsalted water. Since then, this discovery has offered us and other groups a powerful tool to characterize insoluble proteins, and we have further addressed several fundamental and disease-relevant issues associated with this discovery. Here I review these results, which are conceptualized into several novel scenarios. 1) Unlike 'misfolded proteins', which still retain the capacity to fold into well-defined structures but are misled to 'off-pathway' aggregation, unrefoldable and insoluble proteins completely lack this ability and will unavoidably aggregate in vivo with ~150 mM ions, thus designated as 'intrinsically insoluble proteins (IIPs)' here. IIPs may largely account for the 'wastefully synthesized' DRiPs identified in human cells. 2) The fact that IIPs including membrane proteins are all soluble in unsalted water, but get aggregated upon being exposed to ions, logically suggests that ions existing in the background play a central role in mediating protein aggregation, thus acting as 'dark mediators'. Our study with 14 salts confirms that IIPs lack the capacity to fold into any well-defined structures. We uncover that salts modulate protein dynamics and anions bind proteins with high selectivity and affinity, which is surprisingly masked by pre-existing ions. Accordingly, I modified my previous model. 3) Insoluble proteins interact with lipids to different degrees. Remarkably, an ALS-causing P56S mutation transforms the β-sandwich MSP domain into a helical integral membrane protein. Consequently, the number of membrane-interacting proteins might be much larger than currently recognized. To attack biological membranes may represent a common mechanism by which aggregated proteins initiate human diseases. 4) Our discovery also implies a solution to the 'chicken-and-egg paradox' for the origin of primitive membranes embedded with integral membrane proteins, if proteins originally emerged in unsalted prebiotic media.
PMCID: PMC3869494  PMID: 24555050
6.  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.
PMCID: PMC3196665  PMID: 21791013
small molecule; antagonist; dymethylpyrrole derivative; protein tyrosine kinase; angiogenesis; nerve regeneration
7.  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.
PMCID: PMC3419725  PMID: 22916121
8.  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.
PMCID: PMC3398895  PMID: 22815741
9.  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.
PMCID: PMC3374797  PMID: 22720086
10.  Protein dynamics at Eph receptor-ligand interfaces as revealed by crystallography, NMR and MD simulations 
BMC Biophysics  2012;5:2.
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.
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.
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.
PMCID: PMC3274464  PMID: 22277260
11.  Insights into Protein Aggregation by NMR Characterization of Insoluble SH3 Mutants Solubilized in Salt-Free Water 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(11):e7805.
Protein aggregation in vivo has been extensively associated with a large spectrum of human diseases. On the other hand, mechanistic insights into protein aggregation in vitro were incomplete due to the inability in solubilizing insoluble proteins for high-resolution biophysical investigations. However, a new avenue may be opened up by our recent discovery that previously-thought insoluble proteins can in fact be solubilized in salt-free water. Here we use this approach to study the NMR structural and dynamic properties of an insoluble SH3 mutant with a naturally-occurring insertion of Val22 at the tip of the diverging turn. The obtained results reveal: 1) regardless of whether the residue is Val, Ala, Asp or Arg, the insertion will render the first hNck2 SH3 domain to be insoluble in buffers. Nevertheless, all four mutants could be solubilized in salt-free water and appear to be largely unfolded as evident from their CD and NMR HSQC spectra. 2) Comparison of the chemical shift deviations reveals that while in V22-SH3 the second helical region is similarly populated as in the wild-type SH3 at pH 2.0, the first helical region is largely unformed. 3) In V22-SH3, many non-native medium-range NOEs manifest to define non-native helical conformations. In the meanwhile a small group of native-like long-range NOEs still persists, indicating the existence of a rudimentary native-like tertiary topology. 4) Although overall, V22-SH3 has significantly increased backbone motions on the ps-ns time scale, some regions still own restricted backbone motions as revealed by analyzing 15N relaxation data. Our study not only leads to the establishment of the first high-resolution structural and dynamic picture for an insoluble protein, but also shed more light on the molecular events for the nonhierarchical folding mechanism. Furthermore, a general mechanism is also proposed for in vivo protein aggregation triggered by the genetic mutation and posttranslational modification.
PMCID: PMC2776303  PMID: 19956763
12.  Mechanism for Controlling the Dimer-Monomer Switch and Coupling Dimerization to Catalysis of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 3C-Like Protease▿  
Journal of Virology  2008;82(9):4620-4629.
Unlike 3C protease, the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) 3C-like protease (3CLpro) is only enzymatically active as a homodimer and its catalysis is under extensive regulation by the unique extra domain. Despite intense studies, two puzzles still remain: (i) how the dimer-monomer switch is controlled and (ii) why dimerization is absolutely required for catalysis. Here we report the monomeric crystal structure of the SARS-CoV 3CLpro mutant R298A at a resolution of 1.75 Å. Detailed analysis reveals that Arg298 serves as a key component for maintaining dimerization, and consequently, its mutation will trigger a cooperative switch from a dimer to a monomer. The monomeric enzyme is irreversibly inactivated because its catalytic machinery is frozen in the collapsed state, characteristic of the formation of a short 310-helix from an active-site loop. Remarkably, dimerization appears to be coupled to catalysis in 3CLpro through the use of overlapped residues for two networks, one for dimerization and another for the catalysis.
PMCID: PMC2293028  PMID: 18305031
13.  Identification of a Novel Nonstructural Protein, VP9, from White Spot Syndrome Virus: Its Structure Reveals a Ferredoxin Fold with Specific Metal Binding Sites▿  
Journal of Virology  2006;80(21):10419-10427.
White spot syndrome virus (WSSV) is a major pathogen in shrimp aquaculture. VP9, a full-length protein of WSSV, encoded by open reading frame wsv230, was identified for the first time in the infected Penaeus monodon shrimp tissues, gill, and stomach as a novel, nonstructural protein by Western blotting, mass spectrometry, and immunoelectron microscopy. Real-time reverse transcription-PCR demonstrated that the transcription of VP9 started from the early to the late stage of WSSV infection as a major mRNA species. The structure of full-length VP9 was determined by both X-ray and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) techniques. It is the first structure to be reported for WSSV proteins. The crystal structure of VP9 revealed a ferredoxin fold with divalent metal ion binding sites. Cadmium sulfate was found to be essential for crystallization. The Cd2+ ions were bound between the monomer interfaces of the homodimer. Various divalent metal ions have been titrated against VP9, and their interactions were analyzed using NMR spectroscopy. The titration data indicated that VP9 binds with both Zn2+ and Cd2+. VP9 adopts a similar fold as the DNA binding domain of the papillomavirus E2 protein. Based on our present investigations, we hypothesize that VP9 might be involved in the transcriptional regulation of WSSV, a function similar to that of the E2 protein during papillomavirus infection of the host cells.
PMCID: PMC1641761  PMID: 16956937

Results 1-13 (13)