Histones are eukaryotic cell nuclei proteins that package and order DNA into structural units called nucleosomes. Chromatin is the complex of DNA and proteins comprising the genome’s physiological form. As chromatin’s chief protein components, histones act as spools around which DNA winds, playing a role in gene regulation. A chaperone protein assists in the folding and unfolding of macromolecules, such as in the assembly of nucleosomes from folded histones and DNA. Nucleoplasmin (Npm) is a highly conserved embryonic histone chaperone, responsible for the maternal storage and zygotic release of histones H2A and H2B. Npm contains a pentameric N-terminal Core domain and an intrinsically disordered C-terminal Tail domain. Although intrinsically disordered regions are common among histone chaperones, their roles in histone binding and chaperoning have remained unclear.
This study, using the Xenopus laevis Npm Tail domain, unveils the architecture of the Npm histone complex and a mechanism of histone chaperone regulation. It demonstrates that intramolecular regulation of the histone chaperone Npm controls histone binding and release—a key process in the earliest stages of embryonic development. Structural analyses enabled model constructions of both the Npm Tail domain and the pentameric complex, revealing that the Tail domain controls the binding of histones through specific, electrostatic interactions. Functional analyses demonstrated that these competitive interactions negatively regulate Npm histone chaperone activity in vitro. Data from these studies establish a potentially generalizable mechanism of histone chaperone regulation via dynamic and specific intramolecular shielding of histone interaction sites.
Warren, C., et al. “Dynamic intramolecular regulation of the histone chaperone nucleoplasmin controls histone binding and release.” Nat. Commun.8, 2215 (2017). DOI:10.1038/s41467-017-02308-3.
Instruments and Facilities Used: Bruker 600 nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and Inova 600 NMR instruments in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (AECM) Einstein Structural NMR Resource; and bio–small-angle X-ray scattering (bio-SAXS) beamline 4-2, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL).
Named after the Greek goddess who spun the thread of life, Klotho proteins play an important role in the regulation of longevity and metabolism. Alpha-Klotho is a membrane-spanning protein expressed predominantly in the kidney, as well as in the brain. Mice lacking α-klotho exhibit a range of signs associated with aging and have elevated blood phosphate levels. Like α-klotho, β-klotho functions as a co-receptor for endocrine fibroblast growth factors (FGFs). FGF21 is secreted from the liver following fasting, acting in fat cells and the brain to induce metabolic adaptation to fasting and responses to stress. Although FGF receptors (FGFRs) are expressed in a wide range of tissues, expression of the β-klotho “longevity” protein in the liver, fat, and brain restricts the target organs of these endocrine FGFs.
In a recent Yale Medical School–led study, researchers revealed the three-dimensional (3D), high-resolution structure of β-Klotho, illuminating its intricate mechanism and potential for antiaging therapeutics, as well as for treating a wide range of medical conditions. X-ray crystallography data revealed critical molecular interactions required for hormone binding and cell activation. The specific “zip-code”–like interactions of β-klotho receptors appear to regulate critical metabolic processes in the liver, kidneys, and brain, among other organs. Analysis yielded several insights, including that β-Klotho is the primary receptor that binds to FGF21, a key hormone that stimulates insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, causing weight loss. The researchers believe this new understanding can guide the development of therapies by improving the biological activity of FGF21. Also found were a new variant of FGF21 that has 10 times higher potency and cellular activity and the evidence of how a structurally related enzyme (glycosidase) that breaks down sugars evolved into a receptor for a hormone that lowers blood sugar. Researchers believe the untangled β-Klotho structure presents a platform for exploring and developing agents that either enhance or block the pathway, enabling therapies for conditions such as liver cancer and bone diseases.
Lee, S., et al. “Structures of β-klotho reveal a ‘zip code’-like mechanism for endocrine FGF signaling.” Nature553, 501–505 (2018). DOI:10.1038/nature25010.
Instruments and Facilities Used: X-ray data were collected from β-klotho–receptor crystals at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, beamline 14-1 as part of the program to aid National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) users prior to NSLS-II operations.
Enzymes frequently depend on an electron transport cofactor for executing catalytic functions such as reduction-oxidation (redox) reactions. For flavoenzymes, the cofactor is flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD), whose binding type with the enzyme impacts the redox potential and thus reaction chemistry, such as for metabolism and detoxification. Researchers in this study discovered that the structure of an assembled flavoenzyme intermediate reveals the mechanism of covalent flavin binding in respiration. Assembly factors include SdhAF2 in humans, SdhE in Escherichia coli, and Sdh5 in yeast. Other revelations include that mitochondrial flavoenzymes drive both noncovalent and covalent redox reactions and that the assembly factor (SdhE, a small protein of ~90 to 140 amino acids, conserved in all kingdoms) in the structure of the SdhE:FrdA complex with covalent FAD stabilizes a conformation of the flavoprotein subunit FrdA that favors succinate oxidation.
Researchers fixed the E. coli FrdA-SdhE intermediate via site-specific crosslinking, resolving the structure to 2.6 angstroms (Å). This study identified that SdhE stabilizes an FrdA conformation that likely enables the mechanism of autocatalytic covalent flavinylation. FrdA’s FAD-binding domain and capping domain both interact with SdhE, but structural data revealed a 10.8° difference in their angles. The investigators believe that domain rotation affects flavinylation, showing that enzymes are tuned to catalyze reactions in different ways and that conformational diversity can directly relate to catalytic mechanism diversity.
Sharma, P., et al. “Crystal structure of an assembly intermediate of respiratory Complex II.” Nat. Commun. 9, 274 (2018). DOI:10.1038/s41467-017-02713-8.
Instruments and Facilities Used: Small angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) and diffraction and mass spectrometry analysis using beamline 9-2 at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC).
Uranium (U) contamination stubbornly persists as a challenging and costly water quality concern at former uranium ore processing sites across the Upper Colorado River Basin (UCRB). Plumes at these sites are not self-attenuating via natural flushing by groundwater as originally expected. Recent studies at the Rifle, Colo., legacy site suggest that organic-enriched anoxic sediments create conditions that promote reduction of U(VI) to relatively immobile U(IV), causing it to accumulate locally under persistently saturated and anoxic conditions. However, incursion of oxidants into reduced sediments could transform contaminants, allowing these sediments to act as secondary sources of uranium. Oxidant incursions take place during periods of changing water tables, which occur in UCRB throughout the year. If these sediments were regionally common in the UCRB and exposed to varying reduction-oxidation (redox) conditions, then they could contribute to maintaining the longevity of regional uranium plumes.
To investigate these issues, researchers examined the occurrence and distribution of reduced and oxidized iron (Fe), sulfur (S), and U species in sediment cores spanning dry and oxic to wet and reduced conditions at three different UCRB sites. Detailed molecular characterization involved chemical extractions, X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS), Mössbauer spectroscopy, and X-ray microspectroscopy. This work demonstrates that anoxic organic-enriched sediments occur at all sites, strongly accumulate sulfides and U, and are exposed to strong seasonal redox cycles. Uranium was found to be present as U(IV) complexed to sediment-associated organic carbon and possibly to mineral surfaces. This finding is significant because complexed U(IV) is relatively susceptible to oxidative mobilization. Sediment particle size, organic carbon content, and pore saturation control redox conditions in sediments and thus strongly influence Fe, S, and U biogeochemistry. These findings help to illuminate the mechanistic linkages between hydrology, sediment texture, and biogeochemistry. They further provide enhanced contextual and conceptual underpinnings to support reactive transport modeling of uranium, other contaminants, and nutrients in redox-variable floodplains—a subject of importance to BER research missions. Cyclic redox variability has major implications for mobility of carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and metal contaminants in groundwater and surface waters. Redox-variable, organic-enriched sediments mediate the mobility of C, N, Fe, S, U, and metal contaminants regionally in the UCRB. Organic-enriched sediments were established to regionally mediate groundwater quality within the UCRB.
Noël, V., et al. “Understanding controls on redox processes in floodplain sediments of the Upper Colorado River Basin.” Sci. Total Environ. 603–604, 663–675 (2017). DOI:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.01.109.
Noël, V., et al. “Redox constraints over U(IV) mobility in the floodplains of Upper Colorado River Basin.” Environ. Sci. Technol.51(19), 10954–10964 (2017). DOI:10.1021/acs.est.7b02203.
Instruments and Facilities Used: X-ray absorption spectroscopy and X-ray microprobe mapping at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC), and Mössbauer spectroscopy at Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).
Using nondestructive neutron scattering techniques, scientists are examining how single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria produce oxygen and obtain energy through photosynthesis. Collaborators are conducting a series of experiments to study the behavior of phycobilisomes—large antenna protein complexes in cyanobacteria cells. Phycobilisomes harvest light to initiate photosynthesis, and a better understanding of this process could help researchers design more efficient solar panels and other artificial structures that mimic natural systems. Neutrons can analyze these delicate structures without damaging or killing the cyanobacteria and with more spatial accuracy than other techniques like microscopy. Bio-SANS allows observing what’s happening at the nanoscale level in real time in a living cell.
Phycobilisomes attach to cellular membranes where the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis take place. Changing the antenna complexes of the phycobilisomes can have dramatic and far-reaching consequences in cyanobacteria. Artificially modifying phycobilisomes by deleting certain genes in the cells caused structural defects in the cellular membranes and other cell physiology, allowing scientists to observe the resulting structural changes.
Starving the cyanobacteria for nitrogen naturally modifies the antenna complexes, causing the antenna to decrease in size and leading to significant cellular membrane modifications, because the cells break down the phycobilisomes and use them as an alternative nitrogen source to survive. By determining the extent of these changes, the team hopes to better understand the structure-function relationship between cellular organization and natural modification. These processes can be immediately reversed by restoring nitrogen to the cells. The researchers plan to compare these results to those recorded from their genetic studies to explore the differences between artificial and natural modifications and their effects on the intracellular makeup of cyanobacteria.
Instruments and Facilities Used: Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC), a DOE-funded Energy Frontier Research Center based at Washington University. Small angle neutron scattering (SANS) Bio-SANS instrument, beamline CG‑3, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s High Flux Isotope Reactor.
Scientists in this study have successfully demonstrated the ability to manipulate the neutron contrast of detergent micelles by incorporating a similar detergent with deuterium-labelled alkyl chains. The presence of excess detergent micelle scattering often has a detrimental influence on scattering data obtained for membrane protein–detergent complexes. Isolation of the scattering signal from the protein of interest can be accomplished by eliminating all scattering from the detergent. Using this approach enabled determination of the overall structure and oligomeric state of a small membrane protein enzyme.
Oliver, R. C., et al. “Designing Mixed Detergent Micelles for Uniform Neutron Contrast.” The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters8(20), 5041–5046 (2017). [DOI:10.1021/acs.jpclett.7b02149].
Instruments and Facilities Used: Small angle neutron scattering (SANS): Bio-SANS beamline (CG3) of the High-Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Recorded scattering data using MantidPlot software. Neutron contrast studies: ModULes for the Analysis of Contrast (MULCh) Variation Data at University of Sydney (smb-research.smb.usyd.edu.au/NCVWeb/).
Biomass pretreatment is necessary to make cellulose accessible to hydrolysis for conversion to biofuels. Understanding water’s role in cellulose reactivity will aid discovery of the underlying processes that change biomass morphology and reactivity during different pretreatment regimes for biofuels production. In this study, cellulose-water interactions were examined using neutron scattering supported by molecular dynamics simulation. The data show two distinct populations of water molecules—one tightly “bound” to the surface and the other interfibrillar and translationally mobile. Accurate models of hydration water in the cell wall can address fundamental questions about cellulose-water interactions. The mobility of the interfibrillar water is also important to enzyme and chemical attack and is distinct from the bound and bulk water.
O’Neill, H. M., et al. “Dynamics of Water Bound to Crystalline Cellulose.” Sci. Rep.7, Article 11840 (2017). [DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-12035-w].
Instruments and Facilities Used: Deuterium labeling, neutron scattering, and molecular dynamics simulation; quasi-elastic neutron scattering (QENS) using BASIS, the Backscattering Spectrometer, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Spallation Neutron Source (SNS). Structural characterization using small-angle neutron scattering (SANS) CG-3 Bio-SANS instrument at High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) facility of ORNL and X-ray diffraction (XRD) analysis combined with SANS. Wide-Angle X-ray Diffraction (WAXD) using theta-theta goniometer Bruker D5005 instrument; quasi-elastic neutron scattering (QENS) using BASIS, the Backscattering Spectrometer at ORNL SNS; Molecular Dynamics (MD) Simulations (GROMACS software and the CHARMM C36 carbohydrate force field); and TIP4P water model.
Neutron radiography was used to measure soil water movement and water uptake by individual roots in situ. Root water uptake was linked to root traits; smaller-diameter roots had greater water uptake per unit surface area than larger-diameter roots. Model analysis based on root-free soil hydraulic properties indicated unreasonably large water fluxes among the vertical soil layers during the first 16 hours after wetting. These results suggest problems with common soil hydraulic or root surface area modeling approaches, indicating the need to further investigate and understand the impacts of roots on soil hydraulic properties. This work highlights the team’s ability to link root water uptake to characteristic root traits, thus enabling performance assessment of common water uptake models
Dhiman, I., et al. “Quantifying Root Water Extraction After Drought Recovery Using sub-mm In Situ Empirical Data.” Plant Soil417, 1–17 (2017). [DOI:10.1007/s11104-017-3408-5].
Instruments and Facilities Used: Sequential neutron radiography using CG1-D beam line using cold neutrons, at High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Neutron attenuation by plant samples was detected with a 25-μm lithium fluoride / zinc sulfide (LiF/ ZnS) scintillator linked to a charge coupled detector (CCD) camera system (iKon – L 936, Andor Technology plc., Belfast, U.K.). Roots scanned and dimensions measured using WinRhizo software (Regent Instruments Inc., Quebec, Canada.
Reaction centers (RCs) are pigment-protein complexes that drive photosynthesis by converting light into chemical energy (electrons) to power the cell, possibly arising from a homodimeric protein. The symmetry of a homodimer is broken in heterodimeric rRC structures, while the 2.2-Angstrom resolution X-ray structure of the homodimeric RC-photosystem from the phototroph Heliobacterium modesticaldum exhibits perfect C2 symmetry. The core polypeptide dimer and two small subunits coordinate 54 bacteriochlorophylls and 2 carotenoids that capture and transfer energy to the electron-transfer chain at the center, which performs charge separation and comprises 6 (bacterio)chlorophylls and an iron-sulfur cluster; unlike other RCs, it lacks a bound quinone. This structure preserves characteristics of the ancestral reaction center, providing insight into the evolution of photosynthesis.
Enough sunlight hits the Earth to power the planet many times over—if energy capture were more efficient. Thus, scientists have looked at nature’s means to understand photosynthesis in a sun-loving, soil-dwelling bacterium. A team of scientists has gained a fundamental understanding of the inner workings of this vital process and how it differs among plant systems. Their discovery may provide a new template for beginning organic-based solar panel design (i.e., “artificial leaves”) or possibly renewable biofuel applications.
But the team’s structural biologists are capturing freeze-frame images of crystallized proteins throughout the whole process of the simplest form of photosynthesis, in the single-celled heliobacteria, which are fundamentally different than plants. Instead of using water like plants, for example, heliobacteria use hydrogen sulfide and grow without oxygen; after photosynthesis, they give off the foul-smelling sulfur gas in place of oxygen. The scientists grew the “perfect” X-ray diffracting crystal charge after many initial trials. In this breakthrough study, they found an almost perfect symmetry in the heliobacter RC, which helps it gather every available photon of near-infrared light to build chlorophylls.
Gisriel, C., et al. “Structure of a symmetric photosynthetic reaction center–photosystem,” Science 357(6355), 1021–1025 (2017). [DOI:10.1126/science.aan5611].
Instruments and Facilities Used: X-ray macromolecular crystallograpy at Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery at Arizona State University. Advanced Light Source at Berkeley Center for Structural Biology at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Structural Biology Center–CAT beamline of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory.
The simplest known bacterium able to drive photosynthesis is found in muddy soils near hot springs. Heliobacterium modesticaldum is a sun-loving, soil-dwelling, thermophilic bacterium that photosynthesizes near-infrared light, unlike plants, which use different parts of visible light. The photosynthesis reaction centers (RCs) of H. modesticaldum are thought to resemble the earliest common ancestor of all photosynthesis complexes, which evolved around three billion years ago. Thus, a clear, detailed picture of the H. modesticaldum RC would provide valuable insight into the early evolution of photosynthesis. However, successfully purifying an RC protein and growing the crystals needed for X-ray crystallography can be a lengthy, difficult process.
Researchers successfully capped 7 years of work by obtaining a high-resolution (2.2 Å) structure of the membrane protein at the heart of the photosynthetic RC of H. modesticaldum. The structure revealed details such as the interactions between light-harvesting “antenna” molecules and the electron-transfer chain, where the initial steps required to convert photon energy into chemical energy occurs. With this data, the research team was able to make comparisons to other types of RCs, gaining new perspectives on the early evolution of photosynthesis and how nature optimized light-driven energy collection. This work will help unlock the secrets of photosynthesis, possibly leading to the development of cleaner, solar-based renewable energy.
Gisriel, C., et al. “Structure of a Symmetric Photosynthetic Reaction Center–Photosystem.” Science357(6355), 1021–1025 (2017). [DOI:10.1126/science.aan5611].
Instruments and Facilities: Beamline 8.2.1 at Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory.