Chemical chaperones have helped proteins do their jobs for billions of years

February 20, 2014

An ancient chemical, present for billions of years, appears to have helped proteins function properly since time immemorial.

Proteins are the body's workhorses, and like horses they often work in teams. There exists a modern day team of multiple that help other proteins fold into the complex 3D shapes they must achieve to function. This is necessary to avert many serious diseases caused when proteins misbehave.

But what happened before this team of chaperones was formed? How did the primordial cells that were the ancestors of modern life keep their proteins folded and functional?

Scientists from the University of Michigan discovered that an extremely simple, ancient chemical called can perform the role of a chaperone. It likely played that role billions of years ago, and still keeps its old job today.

"Polyphosphate has likely been present since life began on Earth, and is thought to exist in all living creatures," said postdoctoral researcher Michael Gray. "This means it's extremely important, but no one really knew what it was for.

"We found that bacteria accumulate polyphosphate to defend against disease-causing, unfolding conditions. Purified polyphosphate works well to protect proteins in the test tube, showing that this simple chemical can substitute for the complex team of protein chaperones."

The discovery unravels a long­standing evolutionary mystery that could lead to new strategies for treating protein folding diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, which occur when proteins misfold or pile up.

"Once we know how to manipulate the levels of polyphosphate in cells and organisms, we should be able to improve protein folding and develop countermeasures against diseases," said Ursula Jakob, the U-M professor in charge of the research.

Their work appears in the journal Molecular Cell.

Explore further: The dance of the chaperones: Scientists identify key player of protein folding

Related Stories

Researchers discover antifreeze protein with water filled core

February 14, 2014

( —A team of researches with Queen's University, in Canada has found that the antifreeze protein Maxi, defies the normal expectations of a protein by having a core filled with water molecules. In their paper published ...

Recommended for you

A better way to read the genome

October 9, 2015

UConn researchers have sequenced the RNA of the most complicated gene known in nature, using a hand-held sequencer no bigger than a cell phone.

Threat posed by 'pollen thief' bees uncovered

October 9, 2015

A new University of Stirling study has uncovered the secrets of 'pollen thief' bees - which take pollen from flowers but fail to act as effective pollinators - and the threat they pose to certain plant species.

Mapping the protein universe

October 9, 2015

To understand how life works, figure out the proteins first. DNA is the architect of life, but proteins are the workhorses. After proteins are built using DNA blueprints, they are constantly at work breaking down and building ...


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.