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1.  A Bacteriophage Tailspike Domain Promotes Self-Cleavage of a Human Membrane-Bound Transcription Factor, the Myelin Regulatory Factor MYRF 
PLoS Biology  2013;11(8):e1001624.
Myelination of the central nervous system (CNS) is critical to vertebrate nervous systems for efficient neural signaling. CNS myelination occurs as oligodendrocytes terminally differentiate, a process regulated in part by the myelin regulatory factor, MYRF. Using bioinformatics and extensive biochemical and functional assays, we find that MYRF is generated as an integral membrane protein that must be processed to release its transcription factor domain from the membrane. In contrast to most membrane-bound transcription factors, MYRF proteolysis seems constitutive and independent of cell- and tissue-type, as we demonstrate by reconstitution in E. coli and yeast. The apparent absence of physiological cues raises the question as to how and why MYRF is processed. By using computational methods capable of recognizing extremely divergent sequence homology, we identified a MYRF protein domain distantly related to bacteriophage tailspike proteins. Although occurring in otherwise unrelated proteins, the phage domains are known to chaperone the tailspike proteins' trimerization and auto-cleavage, raising the hypothesis that the MYRF domain might contribute to a novel activation method for a membrane-bound transcription factor. We find that the MYRF domain indeed serves as an intramolecular chaperone that facilitates MYRF trimerization and proteolysis. Functional assays confirm that the chaperone domain-mediated auto-proteolysis is essential both for MYRF's transcriptional activity and its ability to promote oligodendrocyte maturation. This work thus reveals a previously unknown key step in CNS myelination. These data also reconcile conflicting observations of this protein family, different members of which have been identified as transmembrane or nuclear proteins. Finally, our data illustrate a remarkable evolutionary repurposing between bacteriophages and eukaryotes, with a chaperone domain capable of catalyzing trimerization-dependent auto-proteolysis in two entirely distinct protein and cellular contexts, in one case participating in bacteriophage tailspike maturation and in the other activating a key transcription factor for CNS myelination.
Author Summary
Membrane-bound transcription factors are synthesized as integral membrane proteins, but are proteolytically cleaved in response to relevant cues, untethering their transcription factor domains from the membrane to control gene expression in the nucleus. Here, we find that the myelin regulatory factor MYRF, a major transcriptional regulator of oligodendrocyte differentiation and central nervous system myelination, is also a membrane-bound transcription factor. In marked contrast to most well-known membrane-bound transcription factors, cleavage of MYRF appears to be unconditional. Surprisingly, this processing is performed by a protein domain shared with bacteriophages in otherwise unrelated proteins, where the domain is critical to the folding and proteolytic maturation of virus tailspikes. In addition to revealing a previously unknown key step in central nervous system myelination, this work also illustrates a remarkable example of evolutionary repurposing between bacteriophages and eukaryotes, with the same protein domain capable of catalyzing trimerization-dependent auto-proteolysis in two completely distinct protein and cellular contexts.
doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001624
PMCID: PMC3742443  PMID: 23966832
2.  Evolutionarily Repurposed Networks Reveal the Well-Known Antifungal Drug Thiabendazole to Be a Novel Vascular Disrupting Agent 
PLoS Biology  2012;10(8):e1001379.
Analysis of a genetic module repurposed between yeast and vertebrates reveals that a common antifungal medication is also a potent vascular disrupting agent.
Studies in diverse organisms have revealed a surprising depth to the evolutionary conservation of genetic modules. For example, a systematic analysis of such conserved modules has recently shown that genes in yeast that maintain cell walls have been repurposed in vertebrates to regulate vein and artery growth. We reasoned that by analyzing this particular module, we might identify small molecules targeting the yeast pathway that also act as angiogenesis inhibitors suitable for chemotherapy. This insight led to the finding that thiabendazole, an orally available antifungal drug in clinical use for 40 years, also potently inhibits angiogenesis in animal models and in human cells. Moreover, in vivo time-lapse imaging revealed that thiabendazole reversibly disassembles newly established blood vessels, marking it as vascular disrupting agent (VDA) and thus as a potential complementary therapeutic for use in combination with current anti-angiogenic therapies. Importantly, we also show that thiabendazole slows tumor growth and decreases vascular density in preclinical fibrosarcoma xenografts. Thus, an exploration of the evolutionary repurposing of gene networks has led directly to the identification of a potential new therapeutic application for an inexpensive drug that is already approved for clinical use in humans.
Author Summary
Yeast cells and vertebrate blood vessels would not seem to have much in common. However, we have discovered that during the course of evolution, a group of proteins whose function in yeast is to maintain cell walls has found an alternative use in vertebrates regulating angiogenesis. This remarkable repurposing of the proteins during evolution led us to hypothesize that, despite the different functions of the proteins in humans compared to yeast, drugs that modulated the yeast pathway might also modulate angiogenesis in humans and in animal models. One compound seemed a particularly promising candidate for this sort of approach: thiabendazole (TBZ), which has been in clinical use as a systemic antifungal and deworming treatment for 40 years. Gratifyingly, our study shows that TBZ is indeed able to act as a vascular disrupting agent and an angiogenesis inhibitor. Notably, TBZ also slowed tumor growth and decreased vascular density in human tumors grafted into mice. TBZ’s historical safety data and low cost make it an outstanding candidate for translation to clinical use as a complement to current anti-angiogenic strategies for the treatment of cancer. Our work demonstrates how model organisms from distant branches of the evolutionary tree can be exploited to arrive at a promising new drug.
doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001379
PMCID: PMC3423972  PMID: 22927795
3.  Rational Extension of the Ribosome Biogenesis Pathway Using Network-Guided Genetics 
PLoS Biology  2009;7(10):e1000213.
Gene networks are an efficient route for associating candidate genes with biological processes. Here, networks are used to discover more than 15 new genes for ribosomal subunit maturation, rRNA processing, and ribosomal export from the nucleus.
Biogenesis of ribosomes is an essential cellular process conserved across all eukaryotes and is known to require >170 genes for the assembly, modification, and trafficking of ribosome components through multiple cellular compartments. Despite intensive study, this pathway likely involves many additional genes. Here, we employ network-guided genetics—an approach for associating candidate genes with biological processes that capitalizes on recent advances in functional genomic and proteomic studies—to computationally identify additional ribosomal biogenesis genes. We experimentally evaluated >100 candidate yeast genes in a battery of assays, confirming involvement of at least 15 new genes, including previously uncharacterized genes (YDL063C, YIL091C, YOR287C, YOR006C/TSR3, YOL022C/TSR4). We associate the new genes with specific aspects of ribosomal subunit maturation, ribosomal particle association, and ribosomal subunit nuclear export, and we identify genes specifically required for the processing of 5S, 7S, 20S, 27S, and 35S rRNAs. These results reveal new connections between ribosome biogenesis and mRNA splicing and add >10% new genes—most with human orthologs—to the biogenesis pathway, significantly extending our understanding of a universally conserved eukaryotic process.
Author Summary
Ribosomes are the extremely complex cellular machines responsible for constructing new proteins. In eukaryotic cells, such as yeast, each ribosome contains more than 80 protein or RNA components. These complex machines must themselves be assembled by an even more complex machinery spanning multiple cellular compartments and involving perhaps 200 components in an ordered series of processing events, resulting in delivery of the two halves of the mature ribosome, the 40S and 60S components, to the cytoplasm. The ribosome biogenesis machinery has been only partially characterized, and many lines of evidence suggest that there are additional components that are still unknown. We employed an emerging computational technique called network-guided genetics to identify new candidate genes for this pathway. We then tested the candidates in a battery of experimental assays to determine what roles the genes might play in the biogenesis of ribosomes. This approach proved an efficient route to the discovery of new genes involved in ribosome biogenesis, significantly extending our understanding of a universally conserved eukaryotic process.
doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000213
PMCID: PMC2749941  PMID: 19806183
4.  Group II Intron Protein Localization and Insertion Sites Are Affected by Polyphosphate 
PLoS Biology  2008;6(6):e150.
Mobile group II introns consist of a catalytic intron RNA and an intron-encoded protein with reverse transcriptase activity, which act together in a ribonucleoprotein particle to promote DNA integration during intron mobility. Previously, we found that the Lactococcus lactis Ll.LtrB intron-encoded protein (LtrA) expressed alone or with the intron RNA to form ribonucleoprotein particles localizes to bacterial cellular poles, potentially accounting for the intron's preferential insertion in the oriC and ter regions of the Escherichia coli chromosome. Here, by using cell microarrays and automated fluorescence microscopy to screen a transposon-insertion library, we identified five E. coli genes (gppA, uhpT, wcaK, ynbC, and zntR) whose disruption results in both an increased proportion of cells with more diffuse LtrA localization and a more uniform genomic distribution of Ll.LtrB-insertion sites. Surprisingly, we find that a common factor affecting LtrA localization in these and other disruptants is the accumulation of intracellular polyphosphate, which appears to bind LtrA and other basic proteins and delocalize them away from the poles. Our findings show that the intracellular localization of a group II intron-encoded protein is a major determinant of insertion-site preference. More generally, our results suggest that polyphosphate accumulation may provide a means of localizing proteins to different sites of action during cellular stress or entry into stationary phase, with potentially wide physiological consequences.
Author Summary
Group II introns are bacterial mobile elements thought to be ancestors of introns—genetic material that is discarded from messenger RNA transcripts—and retroelements—genetic elements and viruses that replicate via reverse transcription—in higher organisms. They propagate by forming a complex consisting of the catalytically active intron RNA and an intron-encoded reverse transcriptase (which converts the RNA to DNA, which can then be reinserted in the host genome). The Ll.LtrB group II intron-encoded protein (LtrA) was found previously to localize to bacterial cellular poles, potentially accounting for the preferential insertion of Ll.LtrB in the replication origin (oriC) and terminus (ter) regions of the Escherichia coli chromosome, which are located near the poles during much of the cell cycle. Here, we identify E. coli genes whose disruption leads both to more diffuse LtrA localization and a more uniform chromosomal distribution of Ll.LtrB-insertion sites, proving that the location of the LtrA protein contributes to insertion-site preference. Surprisingly, we find that LtrA localization in the disruptants is affected by the accumulation of intracellular polyphosphate, which appears to bind basic proteins and delocalize them away from the cellular poles. Thus, polyphosphate, a ubiquitous but enigmatic molecule in prokaryotes and eukaryotes, can localize proteins to different sites of action, with potentially wide physiological consequences.
A novel cell microarray method uncovers connections between group II intron mobility, cell stress, and polyphosphate metabolism, including the finding that polyphosphate can influence intracellular protein localization.
doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060150
PMCID: PMC2435150  PMID: 18593213

Results 1-4 (4)