New way to look at cell membranes could change the way we study disease

November 16, 2018 by Hayley Dunning, Imperial College London
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A new technique to study intact parts of cell membranes could revolutionise studies of cancer, metabolic and heart diseases.

Membranes protect all of our and the organelles inside them, including the mitochondria – the powerhouse of the cell. These membranes are studded with biological machinery made of proteins that enable molecular cargo to pass in and out.

Studying these -embedded machines in their native state is therefore crucial to understand mechanisms of disease and provide new targets for treatments. However, current methods for studying them involve removing them from the membrane, which can alter their structure and functional properties.

Now a research team, led by the University of Oxford and including Imperial College London researchers, has demonstrated a that can analyse the structure of intact protein machines within membranes as a whole. The study is published today in the journal Science.

Lead researcher Dame Carol Robinson, from the University of Oxford, said: "I wasn't sure this would ever work; I thought the membrane environment would be just too complicated and we wouldn't be able to understand the results. I am delighted that it has because it has given us a whole new view of an important class of drug targets."

New discoveries already being made

The technique involves vibrating the sample at ultrasonic frequencies so that the cell begins to fall apart. Electrical currents then applied an to eject the protein machines out of the membrane and directly into a – an instrument that can detect a molecule's chemical 'signature', based on its mass.

Not only did the membrane protein survive the ejection; the analysis also revealed how they communicate with each other, are guided to their final location and transport their molecular cargo into the cell.

Professor Steve Matthews, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said: "With the development of this method, the application of mass spectrometry in biology will be taken to a new level, using it to make discoveries that would not have been possible before."

Dr. Sarah Rouse, also from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said: "A longstanding question on the structure of one membrane machine from mitochondria has now been solved using this technique. Mitochondria are particularly interesting because there are several diseases that target them specifically, that we may now be able to design new therapies for."

Explore further: Protein dynamics: Molecular machines at work

More information: Dror S. Chorev et al. Protein assemblies ejected directly from native membranes yield complexes for mass spectrometry, Science (2018). DOI: 10.1126/science.aau0976

Related Stories

Protein dynamics: Molecular machines at work

October 8, 2018

Researchers from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have used a special fluorescence-based imaging technique to track the shape changes that occur when pore proteins in the cell membrane export molecules into ...

New insights into the structure of a killer protein

September 28, 2018

Researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum and the University of Tübingen have gained new insights into the structure of the killer protein Bax. The protein induces programmed cell death, the method by which the body disposes ...

Evolution of mitochondria

May 18, 2016

Mitochondria are the power stations of human cells. They provide the energy needed for the cellular metabolism. But how did these power stations evolve, and how are they constructed? Researchers from the University of Freiburg ...

Lipids support protein machinery

November 5, 2015

In the membranes of mitochondria, the power stations of the cell, are many different embedded proteins. These proteins perform key functions for the mitochondria. A team led by the biochemist Dr. Thomas Becker from the University ...

Revolutionary new view of how living cells make energy

August 9, 2018

Researchers at The University of Western Australia and Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research have made a fundamental discovery about of the atomic structure and function of the biological 'factories' in cells that make ...

Recommended for you

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.