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1.  Thermodynamic Stability of Histone H3 Is a Necessary but not Sufficient Driving Force for its Evolutionary Conservation 
PLoS Computational Biology  2011;7(1):e1001042.
Determining the forces that conserve amino acid positions in proteins across species is a fundamental pursuit of molecular evolution. Evolutionary conservation is driven by either a protein's function or its thermodynamic stability. Highly conserved histone proteins offer a platform to evaluate these driving forces. While the conservation of histone H3 and H4 “tail” domains and surface residues are driven by functional importance, the driving force behind the conservation of buried histone residues has not been examined. Using a computational approach, we determined the thermodynamically preferred amino acids at each buried position in H3 and H4. In agreement with what is normally observed in proteins, we find a significant correlation between thermodynamic stability and evolutionary conservation in the buried residues in H4. In striking contrast, we find that thermodynamic stability of buried H3 residues does not correlate with evolutionary conservation. Given that these H3 residues are not post-translationally modified and only regulate H3-H3 and H3-H4 stabilizing interactions, our data imply an unknown function responsible for driving conservation of these buried H3 residues.
Author Summary
Most proteins fold to a well-defined, three-dimensional structure, which can be delineated into the protein surface and its buried core. When comparing amino acid sequences of the same protein from different organisms, we would expect to find certain residue positions conserved due to the importance of that position in either maintaining the protein's function or its three-dimensional structure. In this study, we looked at residues in the buried core domains of histone proteins H3 and H4, which have no known function other than maintaining the three-dimensional structure of the protein. We find that perturbing protein stability (which is a measure of maintenance of the protein's structure) by mutating these residues compromises survival fitness in yeast. However, the stability conferred by buried amino acids of H3 alone cannot account for their evolutionary conservation, which is in striking contrast to other proteins where stability has been shown to be the driving force for sequence conservation. This conservation of H3 thus points to either new additional functions of H3 that have not been uncovered or a unique conservation mechanism that goes beyond survival pressure. These data therefore reveal a highly conserved domain that is distinct in its evolutionary conservation.
PMCID: PMC3017104  PMID: 21253558
2.  Polyglutamine Induced Misfolding of Huntingtin Exon1 is Modulated by the Flanking Sequences 
PLoS Computational Biology  2010;6(4):e1000772.
Polyglutamine (polyQ) expansion in exon1 (XN1) of the huntingtin protein is linked to Huntington's disease. When the number of glutamines exceeds a threshold of approximately 36–40 repeats, XN1 can readily form amyloid aggregates similar to those associated with disease. Many experiments suggest that misfolding of monomeric XN1 plays an important role in the length-dependent aggregation. Elucidating the misfolding of a XN1 monomer can help determine the molecular mechanism of XN1 aggregation and potentially help develop strategies to inhibit XN1 aggregation. The flanking sequences surrounding the polyQ region can play a critical role in determining the structural rearrangement and aggregation mechanism of XN1. Few experiments have studied XN1 in its entirety, with all flanking regions. To obtain structural insights into the misfolding of XN1 toward amyloid aggregation, we perform molecular dynamics simulations on monomeric XN1 with full flanking regions, a variant missing the polyproline regions, which are hypothesized to prevent aggregation, and an isolated polyQ peptide (Qn). For each of these three constructs, we study glutamine repeat lengths of 23, 36, 40 and 47. We find that polyQ peptides have a positive correlation between their probability to form a β-rich misfolded state and their expansion length. We also find that the flanking regions of XN1 affect its probability to^x_page_count=28 form a β-rich state compared to the isolated polyQ. Particularly, the polyproline regions form polyproline type II helices and decrease the probability of the polyQ region to form a β-rich state. Additionally, by lengthening polyQ, the first N-terminal 17 residues are more likely to adopt a β-sheet conformation rather than an α-helix conformation. Therefore, our molecular dynamics study provides a structural insight of XN1 misfolding and elucidates the possible role of the flanking sequences in XN1 aggregation.
Author Summary
Huntington's Disease is a neurodegenerative disorder associated with protein aggregation in neurons. The aggregates formed are thought to lead to neurotoxicity and cell death. Understanding the molecular structure of these aggregates may lead to strategies to inhibit aggregation. Exon 1 (XN1) of the huntingtin protein is critical for aggregate formation. This polypeptide has a naturally occurring polyglutamine sequence (polyQ), which is elongated in patients afflicted with the disease. The polyQ region in XN1 has several flanking sequences with distinct physicochemical properties, including the N-terminal 17 residues, two polyproline regions, and C-terminal sequences, that may affect its overall structure and aggregation. What is the overall structure of XN1, and what structural effects do the neighboring sequences have on each other and polyQ? We address these questions by studying computational models of various polypeptides, including XN1 and three mutant forms associated with Huntington's Disease. Certain neighboring sequences are found to inhibit aggregation, while others may be recruited by polyQ to form aggregates. Our results suggest the role that the flanking sequences may play in XN1 aggregation and may subsequently guide future structural models of XN1 aggregation.
PMCID: PMC2861695  PMID: 20442863
3.  A Structural Model of the Pore-Forming Region of the Skeletal Muscle Ryanodine Receptor (RyR1) 
PLoS Computational Biology  2009;5(4):e1000367.
Ryanodine receptors (RyRs) are ion channels that regulate muscle contraction by releasing calcium ions from intracellular stores into the cytoplasm. Mutations in skeletal muscle RyR (RyR1) give rise to congenital diseases such as central core disease. The absence of high-resolution structures of RyR1 has limited our understanding of channel function and disease mechanisms at the molecular level. Here, we report a structural model of the pore-forming region of RyR1. Molecular dynamics simulations show high ion binding to putative pore residues D4899, E4900, D4938, and D4945, which are experimentally known to be critical for channel conductance and selectivity. We also observe preferential localization of Ca2+ over K+ in the selectivity filter of RyR1. Simulations of RyR1-D4899Q mutant show a loss of preference to Ca2+ in the selectivity filter as seen experimentally. Electrophysiological experiments on a central core disease mutant, RyR1-G4898R, show constitutively open channels that conduct K+ but not Ca2+. Our simulations with G4898R likewise show a decrease in the preference of Ca2+ over K+ in the selectivity filter. Together, the computational and experimental results shed light on ion conductance and selectivity of RyR1 at an atomistic level.
Author Summary
Ryanodine receptors (RyRs) are ion channels present in the membranes of an intracellular calcium storage organelle, the sarcoplasmic reticulum. Nerve impulse triggers the opening of RyR channels, thus increasing the cytoplasmic calcium levels, which subsequently leads to muscle contraction. Congenital mutations in a specific type of RyR that is present in skeletal muscles, RyR1, lead to central core disease (CCD), which leads to weakened muscle. RyR1 mutations also render patients to be highly susceptible to malignant hyperthermia, an adverse reaction to general anesthesia. Although it is generally known that CCD mutations abort RyR1 function, the molecular basis of RyR1 dysfunction remains largely unknown because of the lack of atomic-level structure. Here, we present a structural model of the RyR1 pore region, where many of the CCD mutations are located. Molecular dynamics simulations of the pore region confirm the positions of residues experimentally known to be relevant for function. Furthermore, electrophysiological experiments and simulations shed light on the loss of function of CCD mutant channels. The combined theoretical and experimental studies on RyR1 elucidate the ion conduction pathway of RyR1 and a potential molecular origin of muscle diseases.
PMCID: PMC2668181  PMID: 19390614
4.  Identification and Rational Redesign of Peptide Ligands to CRIP1, A Novel Biomarker for Cancers 
PLoS Computational Biology  2008;4(8):e1000138.
Cysteine-rich intestinal protein 1 (CRIP1) has been identified as a novel marker for early detection of cancers. Here we report on the use of phage display in combination with molecular modeling to identify a high-affinity ligand for CRIP1. Panning experiments using a circularized C7C phage library yielded several consensus sequences with modest binding affinities to purified CRIP1. Two sequence motifs, A1 and B5, having the highest affinities for CRIP1, were chosen for further study. With peptide structure information and the NMR structure of CRIP1, the higher-affinity A1 peptide was computationally redesigned, yielding a novel peptide, A1M, whose affinity was predicted to be much improved. Synthesis of the peptide and saturation and competitive binding studies demonstrated approximately a 10–28-fold improvement in the affinity of A1M compared to that of either A1 or B5 peptide. These techniques have broad application to the design of novel ligand peptides.
Author Summary
Breast cancer is one of the most frequently diagnosed malignancies in American females and is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women. Several improvements in diagnostic protocols have enhanced our ability for earlier detection of breast cancer, resulting in improvement of therapeutic outcome and an increased survival rate for breast cancer patients. However, current early screening techniques are neither comprehensive nor infallible. Imaging techniques that improve breast cancer detection, localization, and evaluation of therapy are essential in combating the disease. Cysteine-rich intestinal protein 1 (CRIP1) has been identified as a novel marker for early detection of breast cancers. Here, we report the use of phage display and computational molecular modeling to identify a high-affinity ligand for CRIP1. Phage display panning experiments initially identified consensus peptide sequences with modest binding affinity to purified CRIP1. Using ab initio modeling of binding peptide structures, computational docking, and recently developed free energy estimation protocols, we redesigned the peptides to increase their affinity for CRIP1. Synthesis of the redesigned peptide and binding studies demonstrated approximately a 10–28-fold improvement in the binding affinity. The combination of computational and experimental techniques in this study demonstrates a potentially powerful tool in modulating protein–protein interactions.
PMCID: PMC2453235  PMID: 18670594
5.  Active Nuclear Receptors Exhibit Highly Correlated AF-2 Domain Motions 
PLoS Computational Biology  2008;4(7):e1000111.
Nuclear receptor ligand binding domains (LBDs) convert ligand binding events into changes in gene expression by recruiting transcriptional coregulators to a conserved activation function-2 (AF-2) surface. While most nuclear receptor LBDs form homo- or heterodimers, the human nuclear receptor pregnane X receptor (PXR) forms a unique and essential homodimer and is proposed to assemble into a functional heterotetramer with the retinoid X receptor (RXR). How the homodimer interface, which is located 30 Å from the AF-2, would affect function at this critical surface has remained unclear. By using 20- to 30-ns molecular dynamics simulations on PXR in various oligomerization states, we observed a remarkably high degree of correlated motion in the PXR–RXR heterotetramer, most notably in the four helices that create the AF-2 domain. The function of such correlation may be to create “active-capable” receptor complexes that are ready to bind to transcriptional coactivators. Indeed, we found in additional simulations that active-capable receptor complexes involving other orphan or steroid nuclear receptors also exhibit highly correlated AF-2 domain motions. We further propose a mechanism for the transmission of long-range motions through the nuclear receptor LBD to the AF-2 surface. Taken together, our findings indicate that long-range motions within the LBD scaffold are critical to nuclear receptor function by promoting a mobile AF-2 state ready to bind coactivators.
Author Summary
Long-range motions play essential roles in protein function but are difficult to appreciate from static crystal structures. We sought to understand how macromolecular motion affects the formation of transcriptional complexes central to controlling gene expression. Using 20- to 30-ns molecular dynamics simulations, we examined three nuclear receptors that function as ligand-regulated transcription factors: the pregnane X receptor, the peroxisome proliferator-activator receptor-γ, and estrogen receptor-α. We found that each of these receptors exhibits a high degree of correlated motions within the domain responsible for forming functionally essential protein–protein interactions with transcriptional coactivators. We further found that specific long-range (up to 30 Å) motions play an important role in these dynamics. Our results show that “active-capable” nuclear receptors are prepared for coactivator contacts by maintaining a mobile but preformed protein–protein interaction surface.
PMCID: PMC2432469  PMID: 18617990
6.  Diminished Self-Chaperoning Activity of the ΔF508 Mutant of CFTR Results in Protein Misfolding 
PLoS Computational Biology  2008;4(2):e1000008.
The absence of a functional ATP Binding Cassette (ABC) protein called the Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator (CFTR) from apical membranes of epithelial cells is responsible for cystic fibrosis (CF). Over 90% of CF patients carry at least one mutant allele with deletion of phenylalanine at position 508 located in the N-terminal nucleotide binding domain (NBD1). Biochemical and cell biological studies show that the ΔF508 mutant exhibits inefficient biosynthetic maturation and susceptibility to degradation probably due to misfolding of NBD1 and the resultant misassembly of other domains. However, little is known about the direct effect of the Phe508 deletion on the NBD1 folding, which is essential for rational design strategies of cystic fibrosis treatment. Here we show that the deletion of Phe508 alters the folding dynamics and kinetics of NBD1, thus possibly affecting the assembly of the complete CFTR. Using molecular dynamics simulations, we find that meta-stable intermediate states appearing on wild type and mutant folding pathways are populated differently and that their kinetic accessibilities are distinct. The structural basis of the increased misfolding propensity of the ΔF508 NBD1 mutant is the perturbation of interactions in residue pairs Q493/P574 and F575/F578 found in loop S7-H6. As a proof-of-principle that the S7-H6 loop conformation can modulate the folding kinetics of NBD1, we virtually design rescue mutations in the identified critical interactions to force the S7-H6 loop into the wild type conformation. Two redesigned NBD1-ΔF508 variants exhibited significantly higher folding probabilities than the original NBD1-ΔF508, thereby partially rescuing folding ability of the NBD1-ΔF508 mutant. We propose that these observed defects in folding kinetics of mutant NBD1 may also be modulated by structures separate from the 508 site. The identified structural determinants of increased misfolding propensity of NBD1-ΔF508 are essential information in correcting this pathogenic mutant.
Author Summary
Deletion of a single residue, phenylalanine at position 508, in the first nucleotide binding domain (NBD1) of the Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator (CFTR) is present in approximately 90% of cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. Experiments show that this mutant protein exhibits inefficient biosynthetic maturation and susceptibility to degradation probably due to misfolding of NBD1 and the resultant incorrect interactions of other domains. However, little is known about the direct effect of the Phe508 deletion on NBD1 folding. Here, using molecular dynamics simulations of NBD1-WT, NBD1-F508A, and NBD1-ΔF508, we show that the deletion of Phe508 indeed alters the kinetics of NBD1 folding. We also find that the intermediate states appearing on wild type and mutant folding pathways are populated differently and that their kinetic accessibilities are distinct. Moreover, we identified critical interactions not necessarily localized near position 508, such as Q493/P574 and F575/F587, to be significant structural elements influencing the kinetic difference between wild type and mutant NBD1. We propose that these observed alterations in folding kinetics of mutant NBD1 result in misassembly of the whole multi-domain protein, thereby causing its premature degradation.
PMCID: PMC2265529  PMID: 18463704
8.  Emergence of Protein Fold Families through Rational Design 
PLoS Computational Biology  2006;2(7):e85.
Diverse proteins with similar structures are grouped into families of homologs and analogs, if their sequence similarity is higher or lower, respectively, than 20%–30%. It was suggested that protein homologs and analogs originate from a common ancestor and diverge in their distinct evolutionary time scales, emerging as a consequence of the physical properties of the protein sequence space. Although a number of studies have determined key signatures of protein family organization, the sequence-structure factors that differentiate the two evolution-related protein families remain unknown. Here, we stipulate that subtle structural changes, which appear due to accumulating mutations in the homologous families, lead to distinct packing of the protein core and, thus, novel compositions of core residues. The latter process leads to the formation of distinct families of homologs. We propose that such differentiation results in the formation of analogous families. To test our postulate, we developed a molecular modeling and design toolkit, Medusa, to computationally design protein sequences that correspond to the same fold family. We find that analogous proteins emerge when a backbone structure deviates only 1–2 Å root-mean-square deviation from the original structure. For close homologs, core residues are highly conserved. However, when the overall sequence similarity drops to ~25%–30%, the composition of core residues starts to diverge, thereby forming novel families of protein homologs. This direct observation of the formation of protein homologs within a specific fold family supports our hypothesis. The conservation of amino acids in designed sequences recapitulates that of the naturally occurring sequences, thereby validating our computational design methodology.
Studies of known proteins have revealed intriguing co-organization of their sequences and structures. Proteins with sequence similarity higher than 25%–30% usually adopt a similar structure and are called homologs, whereas those with low sequence similarity (<20%) can share the same structure and are referred as analogs. The origin of such co-organization has been a topic of extensive discussions among protein folding, design, and evolution research communities, because understanding of the emergence of homologs and analogs in the protein universe has broad implications for our ability to rationally manipulate proteins. In this study, the authors developed a molecular modeling and design method, Medusa, to computationally design diversified protein sequences that correspond to similar backbone structures, which determine a protein fold family. Using Medusa, the authors directly demonstrated the formation of distinct protein homologs within a specific fold family when the structure deviates only 1–2 Å away from the original structure. The study suggests that subtle structural changes, which appear due to accumulating mutations in the families of homologs, lead to a distinct packing of the protein core and, thus, novel compositions of core residues. The latter process leads to the formation of distinct families of homologs.
PMCID: PMC1487181  PMID: 16839198
9.  Molecular Origin of Polyglutamine Aggregation in Neurodegenerative Diseases  
PLoS Computational Biology  2005;1(3):e30.
Expansion of polyglutamine (polyQ) tracts in proteins results in protein aggregation and is associated with cell death in at least nine neurodegenerative diseases. Disease age of onset is correlated with the polyQ insert length above a critical value of 35–40 glutamines. The aggregation kinetics of isolated polyQ peptides in vitro also shows a similar critical-length dependence. While recent experimental work has provided considerable insights into polyQ aggregation, the molecular mechanism of aggregation is not well understood. Here, using computer simulations of isolated polyQ peptides, we show that a mechanism of aggregation is the conformational transition in a single polyQ peptide chain from random coil to a parallel β-helix. This transition occurs selectively in peptides longer than 37 glutamines. In the β-helices observed in simulations, all residues adopt β-strand backbone dihedral angles, and the polypeptide chain coils around a central helical axis with 18.5 ± 2 residues per turn. We also find that mutant polyQ peptides with proline-glycine inserts show formation of antiparallel β-hairpins in their ground state, in agreement with experiments. The lower stability of mutant β-helices explains their lower aggregation rates compared to wild type. Our results provide a molecular mechanism for polyQ-mediated aggregation.
Nine human diseases, including Huntington's disease, are associated with an expanded trinucleotide sequence CAG in genes. Since CAG codes for the amino acid glutamine, these disorders are collectively known as polyglutamine diseases. Although the genes (and proteins) involved in different polyglutamine diseases have little in common, the disorders they cause follow a strikingly similar course: If the length of the expansion exceeds a critical value of 35–40, the greater the number of glutamine repeats in a protein, the earlier the onset of disease and the more severe the symptoms. This fact suggests that abnormally long glutamine tracts render their host protein toxic to nerve cells, and all polyglutamine diseases are hypothesized to progress via common molecular mechanisms. One possible mechanism of cell death is that the abnormally long sequence of glutamines acquires a shape that prevents the host protein from folding into its proper shape. What is the structure acquired by polyglutamine and what is the molecular basis of the observed threshold repeat length? Using computer models of polyglutamine, the authors show that if, and only if, the length of polyglutamine repeats is longer than the critical value found in disease, it acquires a specific shape called a β-helix. The longer the glutamine tract length, the higher is the propensity to form β-helices. This length-dependent formation of β-helices by polyglutamine stretches may provide a unified molecular framework for understanding the structural basis of different trinucleotide repeat-associated diseases.
PMCID: PMC1193989  PMID: 16158094

Results 1-9 (9)