Thursday, November 7, 2013

Nobel Prize focused on life-giving cellular cargo delivery system

A Nobel Prize was recently awarded to three researchers who discovered bubbles within bubbles that have tentacles. Award winners James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas S├╝dhof were pioneers in the study of vesicles, which are like bubbles inside human cells whose outer layers are made of the same stuff that separates cell insides from the outside world. Because the bubbles’ insides are kept separate from the rest of the cell’s interior, they can store, organize and deliver highly reactive biochemicals and proteins, releasing them only when and where they’re needed.
Electron microscope images of vesicles near Golgi complex in a cell.

Furthermore, the outer membranes of vesicles can fuse to outer cell membranes or to the membranes surrounding other cellular machines. This lets them take in contents from one compartment, move them to another walled-off area, and deposit them there. It also lets a cell start manufacturing a hormone or an antibody in one spot, truck it somewhere else for finishing, move it to the cell's surface, and secrete it to do a job elsewhere in the body.

To ensure that it dumps its contents into the right compartment, each vesicle has tentacles,” squiggly proteins that taste” the surface of other vesicles to make sure they have reached the right destination. Without vesicle formation and fusion, cells could neither live nor signal to each other as part of complex tissues. Vesicles are so central to cellular function that they are most likely involved in almost every disease when things go wrong, although we don’t yet know their role.

For his share of the prize, Dr. Rothman, a professor at Yale, discovered a protein complex that lets vesicles fuse with membranes to deliver their molecular cargo. He has a UAB connection in his former student, Dr. Elizabeth Sztul, Ph.D., professor in the UAB Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology and a vesicle expert in her own right. Dr. Sztul said she was “thrilled” to see vesicle research be recognized in the form of a Nobel Prize, and we thought to ask her why her field deserves notice.

Show notes from the podcast

1:56  A Nobel Prize win for vesicle research underscores just how vital basic scientific research is, along with the fundamental importance of vesicles in human life, said Dr. Sztul. Cells are made of compartments, and the prize went to the three-scientist team for discovering how proteins and genes work together to move key substances from one compartment to another.

3:02  Vesicular traffic has implication for all of life. Genetic mistakes that occur in genes that control this delivery system mean that an embryo does not often survive, and if so, with severe disabilities. The Nobel Prize winners designed tests that identified the cogs (proteins) that make possible the machinery behind vesicle formation and transport.

4:15 Specifically, Dr. Rothman, a biochemist, identified the proteins required for vesicle transport and then re-created vesicle trafficking in a test tube. Dr. Schekman identified some of the genes that control vesicle transport, and that have done so throughout evolution. He works one-celled organisms like yeast that share vesicle pathways with human cells. Dr Sudhof, a neurobiologist, showed how vesicles deliver proteins, not just to the right place, but also with perfect timing, to make cellular life possible. Together, the pioneers outlined how a vesicle "knows" where to go and when to fuse.

5:47  Genetic mutations, random changes in that occur in genes as they constantly get copied, are usually fatal within a few days when they occur within the central machinery proteins of vesicle trafficking in a human embryo. Dr. Stzul describes one key vesicle protein type as snares, which help a vesicle grab on to the outside of another compartment they want to fuse with. Genetic defects in snares are fatal, but people are born with genetic changes in less essential machinery related to vesicles and survive.

6:22 For instance, proteins on the sides of vesicles that are nicknamed tethers or tentacles, touch and "sample" the outer membranes of surrounding vesicles to determine which they should target for fusion.  A mutation in one these protein tentacles causes a very serious, rare disease called congenital disorder of glycosylation. Tethers and snares represent two ways that any vesicle chooses a specific vesicle that it will deliver its cargo into.

8:40 There are many types of payloads delivered by vesicle in human cells. The immune system uses them to swallow invading bacteria, and then to deliver chemicals to that vesicle that destroy the bacteria.  Nerve cells use them to deliver signaling molecules to the next cell in line as a nerve message runs along a nerve pathway. After you eat a meal, cells in your pancreas packs digestive enzymes into vesicles and ship them off to the gut.

10:38 Vesicle delivery of proteins by cells is tightly regulated and very precise, Dr. Sztul said. Even small genetic errors in the genes that make the vesicle proteins can cause disease, including one called craniofacial disorder. These patients have bones that don't form properly because the structural protein collagen, which makes the lion's share of skin and bones, is not delivered properly by vesicles.

12:37  Dr. Sztul's lab is trying to figure out all of the steps needed to move all important proteins in the cell from where they are made, through every required vesicle stop along the way and to a final destination.  Each stop in this journey involves a web of interacting proteins, and Dr. Sztul would like to map all of these interactions precisely in time and space. She believe that this map, once complete, will reveal links between mutations in vesicle trafficking genes and many diseases, both common and rare. These patterns will emerge, she said, as more and more patients routinely get their DNA sequenced as part of personalized medicine.

15:00 With the map in place, researchers will have a basis for the design of treatments that compensate for problems with specific vesicle proteins. At least theoretically, every protein that regulates trafficking will become targets for drug design. In cancer for instance, vesicles may be used by tumors to deliver proteins that cause cancer cells to spread or that encourage the growth of blood vessels that feed tumors. Drugs might be designed to keep vesicles from making these harmful deliveries.

18:15 The field is working to invent imaging technologies that can track the movement and action in a living cell, not just of a couple of interacting proteins at a time, but that can watch perhaps 60 vesicle trafficking proteins at work during one stage of trafficking. Also on the horizon, an in-depth understanding of the interaction between vesicle trafficking and outer key cellular actions. How do hormones effect vesicle trafficking in cells that secrete hormones? How vesicles in immune cells become filled with antibodies when the body senses that it has been infected with a bacterium or a virus, or in response to a vaccine?

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