Scientists determine 3D structure of proteins in living cells for the first time

March 5, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A University of Glasgow scientist was part of a team of researchers which has, for the first time, been able to determine the three-dimensional structure of protein in living cells.

The discovery, published in the latest edition of Nature, means scientists can now prove correct previous assumptions about the structure of proteins and how they change due to mutations and interactions with each other, as well as helping to find ways of correcting damage.

From the 1950s until now, scientists have only been able to closely examine the structures of proteins in their extracted and purified form (in vitro) but these conditions are very different from those inside living cells (in vivo).

Using a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer - a machine that allows the distances between the nuclei of atoms within a molecule to be measured - researchers were able to work out the three dimensional shape of an example protein called TTHA1718 which was being produced in living cells of the bacterium E.coli.

Doctor Brian Smith of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Glasgow provided expertise that helped the Japanese-based and funded international team, led by Yutaka Ito at the Tokyo Metropolitan University, pursue this particular line of research.

Doctor Smith, a lecturer in biochemistry and cell biology, said: “Most proteins don’t exist in isolation; instead they exist in a very crowded environment inside cells where they interact with other molecules and, critically, a large of class of proteins don’t have a definite three-dimensional structure when you take them out of living cells.

“This new, relatively inexpensive method of using NMR spectroscopy means we can now establish the structure of proteins whilst still in live cells and will tell us much more about how they work, and how they change when mutated.

“Our results open new avenues for investigation of protein structures at atomic resolution and how they change in response to biological events in living environments.

“We’ll now try the technique with other, more interesting proteins, which are unstable when you take them out of cells. Ultimately, it could help us discover whether drugs to correct damaged or mutated proteins are working and find new methods of fixing them.”

Proteins are made up of long chains of amino-acids and play essential roles in all aspects of life from metabolism, through detecting and responding to stimuli, to the way organisms are put together. Mutated proteins are implicated in a whole range of illnesses, from cancer to the neurodegenerative condition Huntington’s Disease.

Dr Smith leads a group at the University of Glasgow which uses a 600MHz NMR spectrometer, with a cryogenically cooled probe, to study the structure and functions of proteins and nucleic acids involved in processes in a variety of systems.

More information: A paper on the research entitled, ‘Protein structure determination in living cells by in-cell NMR spectroscopy’, is published in the journal Nature.

Provided by University of Glasgow

Explore further: Research advances on transplant ward pathogen

Related Stories

Research advances on transplant ward pathogen

August 28, 2015

The fungus Cryptococcus causes meningitis, a brain disease that kills about 1 million people each year—mainly those with impaired immune systems due to AIDS, cancer treatment or an organ transplant. It's difficult to treat ...

Chemists solve major piece of cellular mystery

August 27, 2015

Not just anything is allowed to enter the nucleus, the heart of eukaryotic cells where, among other things, genetic information is stored. A double membrane, called the nuclear envelope, serves as a wall, protecting the contents ...

Tackling the root cause of cystic fibrosis

August 26, 2015

Treatments for cystic fibrosis (CF) have added years to the lives of thousands of Americans. But they can be difficult to administer, and most don't fix the underlying cause. Scientists have now found that a small molecule, ...

Recommended for you

Secrets of a heat-loving microbe unlocked

September 4, 2015

Scientists studying how a heat-loving microbe transfers its DNA from one generation to the next say it could further our understanding of an extraordinary superbug.

Plants also suffer from stress

September 4, 2015

High salt in soil dramatically stresses plant biology and reduces the growth and yield of crops. Now researchers have found specific proteins that allow plants to grow better under salt stress, and may help breed future generations ...

Ancient walnut forests linked to languages, trade routes

September 4, 2015

If Persian walnut trees could talk, they might tell of the numerous traders who moved along the Silk Roads' thousands of miles over thousands of years, carrying among their valuable merchandise the seeds that would turn into ...

Huddling rats behave as a 'super-organism'

September 3, 2015

Rodents huddle together when it is cold, they separate when it is warm, and at moderate temperatures they cycle between the warm center and the cold edges of the group. In a new study published in PLOS Computational Biology, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.