Category Archives: Journal Club


The most recent paper presented to the OPIG journal club from PLOS Pathogens, The Structural Architecture of an Infectious Mammalian Prion Using Electron Cryomicroscopy. But prior to that, I presented a bit of a background to prions in general.

In the 1960s, work was being undertaken by Tikvah Alper and John Stanley Griffith on the nature of a transmissible infection which caused scrapie in sheep. They were interested in how studies of the infection showed it was somehow resistant to ionizing radiation. Infectious elements such as bacteria or viruses were normally destroyed by radiation with the amount of radiation required having a relationship with the size of the infectious particle. However, the infection caused by the scrapie agent appeared to be too small to be caused by even a virus.

In 1982, Stanley Prusiner had successfully purified the infectious agent, discovering that it consisted of a protein. “Because the novel properties of the scrapie agent distinguish it from viruses, plasmids, and viroids, a new term “prion” was proposed to denote a small proteinaceous infectious particle which is resistant to inactivation by most procedures that modify nucleic acids.”
Prusiner’s discovery led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1997.

Whilst there are many different forms of infection, such as parasites, bacteria, fungi and viruses, all of these have a genome. Prions on the other hand are just proteins. Coming in two forms, the naturally occurring cellular (PrPC) and the infectious form PrPSC (Sc referring to scrapie), through an as yet unknown mechanism, PrPSC prions are able to reproduce by forcing beneign PrPC forms into the wrong conformation.  It’s believed that through this conformational change, the following diseases are caused.

  • Bovine Spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease)
  • Scrapie in:
    • Sheep
    • Goats
  • Chronic wasting disease in:
    • Deer
    • Elk
    • Moose
    • Reindeer
  • Ostrich spongiform encephalopathy
  • Transmissible mink encephalopathy
  • Feline spongiform  encephalopathy
  • Exotic ungulate encephalopathy
    • Nyala
    • Oryx
    • Greater Kudu
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans









Whilst it’s commonly accepted that prions are the cause of the above diseases there’s still debate whether the fibrils which are formed when prions misfold are the cause of the disease or caused by it. Due to the nature of prions, attempting to cure these diseases proves extremely difficult. PrPSC is extremely stable and resistant to denaturation by most chemical and physical agents. “Prions have been shown to retain infectivity even following incineration or after being subjected to high autoclave temperatures“. It is thought that chronic wasting disease is normally transmitted through the saliva and faeces of infected animals, however it has been proposed that grass plants bind, retain, uptake, and transport infectious prions, persisting in the environment and causing animals consuming the plants to become infected.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, lichens may long have had a way to degrade prion fibrils. Not just a way, but because it’s apparently no big thing to them, have done so twice. Tests on three different lichens species: Lobaria pulmonaria, Cladonia rangiferina and Parmelia sulcata, indicated at least two logs of reduction, including reduction “following exposure to freshly-collected P. sulcata or an aqueous extract of the lichen”. This has the potential to inactivate the infectious particles persisting in the landscape or be a source for agents to degrade prions.

Addressing the Role of Conformational Diversity in Protein Structure Prediction

For my journal club last week, I chose to look at a recent paper entitled “Addressing the Role of Conformational Diversity in Protein Structure Prediction”, by Palopoli et al [1]. In the study of proteins, structures are incredibly useful tools, offering information about how they carry out their function, and allowing informed decisions to be made in many areas (e.g. drug design). Since the experimental determination is difficult, however, the computational prediction of protein structures has become very important (and a number of us here at OPIG work on this!).

A problem, however, in both experimental structure determination and computational structure prediction, is that proteins are generally treated as static – the output of an X-ray crystallography experiment is a single structure, and in the majority of cases the goal of structure prediction is to produce one model that closely resembles the native structure. The accuracy of structure prediction algorithms is also normally measured by comparing the resulting model to a single, known experimentally-determined structure. The issue here is that proteins are not static – they are constantly moving and may adopt a number of different conformations; the structure observed experimentally is just a snapshot of that motion. The dynamics of a protein may even play an important role in its function; an example is haemoglobin, which after binding to oxygen changes conformation to increase affinity for further binding. It may be more appropriate, then, to represent a protein as an ensemble of structures, and not just one.

Conformational diversity helps the protein haemoglobin carry out its function (the transportation of oxygen in the blood). Haemoglobin has four subunits, each containing a haem group, shown in red. When oxygen binds to this group (blue), a histidine residue moves, shifting the position of an alpha helix. This movement is propagated throughout the entire structure, and increases the affinity for oxygen of the other subunits – binding therefore becomes increasingly easy (this is known as co-operative binding). Gif shown is from the PDB-101 Molecule of the Month series: S. Dutta and D. Goodsell, doi:10.2210/rcsb_pdb/mom_2003_5

How, though, could this be incorporated into protein structure prediction? This is the question being considered by the authors of this paper. They consider conformational diversity by looking at different conformers of the same protein – there are many proteins whose structures have been solved experimentally multiple times, and as such have a number of structures available in the PDB. Information about this is stored in a useful database called CoDNaS [2], which was developed by some of the authors of the paper under discussion. In some cases, there are model (or decoy) structures available for these proteins, generated by various structure prediction algorithms – for example, all models submitted for the CASP experiments [3], where the current accuracy of structure prediction is monitored through blind prediction, are freely available for download. The authors curated a collection of decoy sets for 91 different proteins for which multiple experimental structures are present in the PDB.

As mentioned previously, the accuracy of a model is normally evaluated by measuring its structural similarity to one known (or reference) structure – only one conformer of the protein is considered. The authors show that the model rankings achieved by this are highly dependent on the chosen reference structure. If the possible choices (i.e. the observed conformers) are quite similar the effect is small, but if there is a large difference, then two completely different decoys could be designated as the most accurate depending on which reference structure is used.

The key figure from this paper, in my opinion, is the one shown below. For the two most dissimilar experimentally-observed conformers for each protein in the set, the RMSD of the best decoy in relation to one conformer is plotted against the RMSD of the best decoy when measured against the other:

The straight line on this graph indicates what would be observed if there are decoys in the set that equally represent the two conformers; for example, if the best decoy with reference to conformer 1 has an RMSD of 1 Å, then there is also a decoy that is 1 Å away from conformer 2. Most points are on or near this line – this means that the sets of decoy structures are not biased towards one of the conformers. Therefore, structure prediction algorithms seem to be able to generate models for multiple conformations of proteins, and so the production of an ensemble of models is not an impossible dream. Several obstacles remain, however – although of equal distance to both conformers, the decoys could still be of poor quality; and decoy selection is often inaccurate, and so finding these multiple conformations amongst all others is a challenge.

[1] – Palopoli, N., Monzon, A. M., Parisi, G., and Fornasari, M. S. (2016). Addressing the Role of Conformational Diversity in Protein Structure Prediction. PLoS One, 11, e0154923.

[2] – Monzon, A. M., Juritz, E., Fornasari, S., and Parisi, G. (2013). CoDNaS: a database of conformational diversity in the native state of proteins. Bioinformatics, 29, 2512–2514.

[3] – Moult, J., Pedersen, J. T., Judson, R., and Fidelis, K. (1995). A Large-Scale Experiment to Assess Protein Structure Prediction Methods. Proteins, 23, ii–iv.

The Emerging Disorder-Function Paradigm

It’s rare to find a paper that connects all of the diverse areas of research of OPIG, but “The rules of disorder or why disorder rules” by Gsponer and Babu (2009) is one such paper. Protein folding, protein-protein interaction networks, protein loops (Schlessinger et al., 2007), and drug discovery all play a part in this story. What’s great about this paper is that it gives numerous examples of proteins and the evidence supporting that they are partially or completely unstructured. These are the so-called intrinsically unstructured proteins or IUPs, although more recently they are also being referred to as intrinsically disordered proteins, or IDPs. Intrinsically disordered regions (IDRs) “are polypeptide segments that do not contain sufficient hydrophobic amino acids to mediate co-operative folding” (Babu, 2016).

Such proteins contradict the classic “lock and key” hypothesis of Fischer, and challenge Continue reading

Do we need the constant regions of Antibodies and T-cell receptors in molecular simulations?

At this week’s journal club I presented my latest results on the effect of the constant regions of antibodies (ABs) and T-cell receptors (TCRs) on the dynamics of the overall system. Not including constant regions in such simulations is a commonly used simplification that is found throughout the literature. This is mainly due a massive saving in computational runtime as illustrated below: cutConstRegions

The constant regions contain about 210 residues but an additional speed up comes from the much smaller solvation box. If a cubic solvation box is used then the effect is even more severe:

waterbathBut the question is: “Is is OK to remove the constant regions of an AB or TCR and simulate without them?”.

Using replica simulations we found that simulations with and without constant regions lead to (on average) significantly different results. The detail of our analysis will soon be submitted to a scientific journal. The current working title is “Why constant regions are essential in antibody and T-cell receptor Molecular Dynamics simulations”.