Biophysical Society 61st Annual Meeting – New Orleans, February 2017

As the sole representative of OPIG attending Biophys 2017 in New Orleans, I had to bear the heavy burden of a long and lonely flight and the fear of missing out on a week of the very grey Oxford winter. Having successfully crossed the border into the US, which was thankfully easier for me than it was for some of our scientific colleagues from around the world, I found my first time attending the conference to be full of very interesting and relevant science. While also covering a wide variety of experimental techniques and non-protein topics, the conference is so large and broad that there was more than enough to keep me busy over the five days, featuring folding, structure prediction, docking, networks, and molecular dynamics.

There were several excellent talks on the subject of folding pathways, misfolding and aggregation. A common theme was the importance of the kinetic stability of the native state, and the mechanisms by which it may be prevented from reaching a non-native global thermodynamic minimum. This is particularly important for serpins, large protease inhibitors which inactivate proteases by a suicide mechanism. The native and active state can be transformed into a lower energy conformation over long timescales. However, this also occurs by cleavage near the C-terminal end, which allows insertion of the C-terminal tail into a beta sheet, holding the cleaving protease inactive and therefore the stored energy is very important for function. Anne Gershenson described recent simulations and experiments to elucidate the order in which substructures of the complete fold assemble. There are many cooperative substructures in this case, and N-terminal helices form at an early stage. The overall topology appears to be consistent with a cotranslational folding mechanism inside the ER, but requires significant rearrangements after translation for adoption of the full native fold.

Cotranslational folding was also discussed by several others including the following: Patricia Clark is now using the YKB system of alternately folding fluorescent protein to find new translation stalling sequences; Anais Cassaignau described NMR experiments to show the interactions taking place between nascent chains and the ribosome at different stalled positions during translation; and Daniel Nissley presented a model to predict a shift in folding mechanism from post-translational to cotranslational due to specific designed synonymous codon changes, which agreed very well with experimental data.

To look more deeply into the evolution of folding mechanisms and protein stability, Susan Marqusee presented a study of the kinetics of folding of RNases, comparing the properties of inferred ancestral sequences to a present day thermophile and mesophilic E. coli. A number of reconstructed sequences were expressed, and it was found that moving along either evolutionary branch from the ancestor to modern day, folding and unfolding rates had both decreased, but the same three-state folding pathway via an intermediate is conserved for all ancestors. However, the energy transition between the intermediate and the unfolded state has evolved in opposite directions even while the kinetic stability remains similar. This has led to the greater thermodynamic stability seen in the modern day thermophile compared to the mesophile at higher temperatures and concentrations of denaturant.

Panel C shows that kinetic stability (low unfolding rate) seems to be selected for in both environments. Panel D shows that the thermodynamic stability of the intermediate (compared to the unfolded state) accounts for the differences in thermodynamic stability of the native state, when compared to the common ancestor (0,0). Link to paper

There were plenty of talks discussing the problems and mechanisms of protein aggregation, with two focussing on light chain amyloidosis. Marina Ramirez-Alvarado was investigating how fibrils begin to grow and showed using microscopy that both soluble light chains and fibrils (more slowly) are internalised by heart muscle cells. They can then be exposed at the cell surface and become a seed to recruit other soluble light chains to form fibrils. Shannon Esswein presented work on the enhancement of VL-VL dimerisation to prevent amyloid formation. The variable domain of the light chain (VL) can pair with itself in a similar orientation to its pairing with VH domains in normal antibodies, or in a non-canonical orientation. Adding disulphide bonds to stabilise these dimers prevented fibril formation, therefore they carried out a small scale screen of 27 aromatic and hydrophobic ligands to find those which would favour dimer formation by binding at the interface. Sulfasalazine was detected in this screen and was also shown to significantly reduce fibril formation and could therefore be used as a template for future drug design.

A ligand stabilises the dimer therefore fewer light chains are present as monomers, slowing the rate of the only route by which fibrils can be formed. Link to paper

Among the posters, Alan Perez-Rathke presented loop modelling by DiSGro in beta barrel membrane proteins which showed that the population of structures generated and scored favourably after relaxation at a pH 7 led to an open pore more often than at pH 5, consistent with experimental observations. There were two posters on the topic of prediction of membrane protein expression in bacteria and yeast presented by students of Bill Clemons, who also gave a great talk. Shyam Saladi has carefully curated datasets of successes and failures in expression in E. coli and trained a linear SVM on features such as RNA secondary structure and transmembrane segment hydrophobicity to predict the outcome for unknown proteins. This simple approach (preprint available here) achieved area under ROC curve of around 0.6 on a separate test set, and using more complex machine learning techniques is likely to improve this. Samuel Schulte is adapting the same method for prediction of expression in yeast.

Overall, it was a great conference and it was nice to hear about plenty of experimental work alongside the more familiar computational work. I would also highly recommend New Orleans as an excellent place to find great food, jazz and sunshine!