Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Scientific Communities
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article

Proteins in their Natural Habitat

Published: Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Last Updated: Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Bookmark and Share
Proteins which reside in the membrane of cells play a key role in many biological processes and provide targets for more than half of current drug treatments.

These membrane proteins are notoriously difficult to study in their natural environment, but scientists at the University of Oxford have now developed a technique to do just that, combining the use of sophisticated nanodiscs and mass spectrometers.

Mass spectrometry is a technique which allows scientists to probe molecular interactions. Using a high-tech 'nanoflow' system, molecules are transmitted into the instrument in charged water droplets, which then undergo evaporation releasing molecules into the gas phase of the mass spectrometer.

But membrane proteins are difficult to measure in this way, as they are hydrophobic: they don't dissolve in water. One way to overcome this problem is to mix them with detergents. Detergents work by surrounding insoluble substances with a water-friendly shell. Each detergent particle has two ends – the heads are attracted to water and the tails are attracted to insoluble regions of the membrane protein. The tails stick to the hydrophobic parts, leaving a shell of water-loving heads around the outside. The molecules can then easily dissolve in water.

Although detergents can be used to get membrane proteins to dissolve in water, these artificial chemicals can damage protein structures and do not faithfully mimic the natural environments in which they are normally found. The Oxford group, led by Professor Carol Robinson, has utilised a technique which allows them to study membrane protein structures by mass spectrometry from their natural environment. Their new method, published in Nature Methods, uses tiny disc-like structures made from molecules called lipids, as first author Dr Jonathan Hopper explains:

'Membrane proteins are naturally found in flat structures called lipid bilayers. Lipids are a bit like nature's detergents, in that they have water-loving heads and fat-loving tails. Lipid bilayers are made up of two sheets of lipids with their tails pointing inwards.

'The nanodiscs we use are made from lipids, the same material that membrane proteins occupy in the body. It's essentially as if you took a round cookie cutter to remove a section of the natural bilayer, so the conditions are just like they would be in the body. The discs are stabilised by wrapping a belt of proteins around them to keep the exposed lipid tails from the water.

'Aside from the nanodiscs, we actually got great results from 'bicelles', which are made in a similar way.  The main difference is that instead of putting a belt of proteins around the edge, we plug the gap with short-chain lipids instead. This actually gives us much more control over the size and structure of the disc.'

These innovations enable researchers to study membrane protein structures using sophisticated mass spectrometry, in environments as close to the human body as possible.

'I am delighted that this has worked, it is completely unexpected given the difficulties we have had in the past in studying these complexes in lipidic environments,' says study leader Professor Carol Robinson. 'The breakthrough enables us to study membrane proteins in a natural environment for the first time. We believe this will have a great impact on structural biology approaches, and could in turn lead to better-designed drug treatments.'

Further Information
Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 2,600+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More Than 3,800+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters

Sign In

Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

UK Scientists to Begin Trial of Potential HIV Cure
Scientists and clinicians from five leading UK universities will begin a groundbreaking clinical trial next year to test a possible cure for HIV infection.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Scientific News
Researchers Develop Classification Model for Cancers Caused by KRAS
Most frequently mutated cancer gene help oncologists choose more effective cancer therapies.
Fixing Holes in the Heart Without Invasive Surgery
UV-light enabled catheter is a medical device which represents a major shift in how cardiac defects are repaired.
Chromosomal Chaos
Penn study forms basis for future precision medicine approaches for Sezary syndrome
Enzyme Malfunction May be Why Binge Drinking Can Lead to Alcoholism
A new study in mice shows that restoring the synthesis of a key brain chemical tied to inhibiting addictive behavior may help prevent alcohol cravings following binge drinking.
Key to Natural Detoxifier’s Reactivity Discovered
Results have implications for health, drug design and chemical synthesis.
New Treatment for Obesity Developed
Researchers at the University of Liverpool, working with a global healthcare company, have helped develop a new treatment for obesity.
New Protein Found in Immune Cells
Immunobiologists from the University of Freiburg discover Kidins220/ARMS in B cells and demonstrate its functions.
Will Brain Palpation Soon Be Possible?
Researchers have developed non-invasive brain imaging technique which provides the same information as physical palpation.
Shaking Up the Foundations of Epigenetics
Researchers at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) and the University of Barcelona (UB) published a study that challenges some of the current beliefs about epigenetics.
Groundbreaking Computer Program Diagnoses Cancer in Two Days
Researchers have combined genetics with computer science and created a new diagnostic technology can with 85 per cent certainty identify the source of the disease and thus target treatment and, ultimately, improve the prognosis for the patient.
Scroll Up
Scroll Down
Skyscraper Banner

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
2,600+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
3,800+ scientific videos