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Scientists found a way to stabilize membrane proteins for analysis

Posted February 10, 2017

Our health largely depends on the communication between different cells in our body. However, this communication is not easy to study as proteins, key in this process, are encased in membranes, making it hard to study their 3D structure. Now, however, scientists from the University of Toronto discovered a simple yet effective method – encasing crucial proteins in plastic or polymer.

Membrane proteins are hard to research without stripping them off of their surrounding fat. Image credit: CNX OpenStax via Wikimedia, CC-BY-4.0

Although it does not seem too obvious, physical shape of proteins is actually very important. These proteins are key in how cells communicate between themselves and this communication (or miscommunication) determines if various health conditions will develop or not. In fact, many modern treatments for a large number of diseases are targeting various proteins involved in the development of the condition. So it makes sense that scientists want to examine structure of said proteins, although it is not easy. Now they think they found the key to the problem – stabilizing proteins in plastic or polymer. It should allow researchers to study them easier and see how they respond to different therapies.

Scientists want to produce membrane proteins, but it is difficult to determine their structure using current techniques. That is where this newly developed algorithm to generate 3D structures of tiny protein molecules comes in handy. Scientists say that this new method will help them study membrane proteins more closely and see why sometimes they malfunction in certain situations. This method is thought to be a big step forward in comparison with currently used one. Now scientists are using detergents to separate proteins from their fatty membrane, but that is less than ideal, because it strips all the fat from protein, altering its structure.

This new polymer does not strip off fat molecules from the proteins. It just encases protein and its surrounding fat and so it is stabilized. Then scientists can research these proteins using various methods, such as X-ray crystallography. Jana Broecker, one of the authors of the study, said: “With more and better structures at hand, it will be easier to develop new drugs for the treatment of human diseases in the near future”.

It is just a small step, but a very important one. Although it will not impact people’s lives directly, it may lead to bigger, more substantial discoveries and medical advancements.


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