Molecules that Walk

This post was contributed by Dr Clare Sansom, senior associate lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences. Dr Sansom attended Dr Anthony Roberts’s lecture during Birkbeck Science Week 2016.

Molecules

The Department of Biological Science’s contribution to Science week 2016 kicked off on 11 April with a lecture by Dr Anthony Roberts, a young Principal Investigator who arrived at Birkbeck in 2014. Anthony received his B.Sc. from Imperial College in London and his Ph.D. from the University of Leeds, and spent four years as a postdoc at Harvard in the USA before moving here to start his own research group as a Sir Henry Dale Fellow of the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society.

Walking molecules and their importance for human health

Anthony began his lecture by explaining that he was going to talk about molecules that have the capacity to produce directed movement – or to ‘walk’ – and their importance for human health. These molecules are all proteins, and the context in which they move is the interior of living cells. Both the proteins he studies, kinesin and dynein, ‘walk’ on a network of highways conceptually not unlike the transport system that we use to move around London. These cellular highways are filaments called microtubules, which, unlike our roads and railway tracks, are able to self-assemble and also to self-destruct.

The ability to move is one of the fundamental properties of life, and scientists and philosophers have been studying it for millennia. Muscles were identified as the organs of movement in antiquity, but it was not until the mid-twentieth century that the molecules involved in muscle contraction could be identified. The Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi discovered the muscle proteins now named actin and myosin using very simple equipment during the Second World War.

These proteins have similarities with kinesin and dynein, although historically they have been easier to study due to their abundance in muscle; actin forms fibrils and the enzyme myosin binds to and ‘walks’ along these filaments. This process, like all movement, requires energy, and this is obtained from the cell’s power source, the small molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The part of the myosin molecule that binds to actin, which is called its head, breaks a phosphate bond in this molecule to liberate energy and power the walking motion; many of these ‘power strokes’ together cause the muscle fibre to contract.

Snapshots

Dr Anthony RobertsIdeally, we would want to watch this, or any other form of molecular motion, in real time, but this is impossible because molecules are far too small: smaller than the wavelength of light, so they cannot be viewed in a light microscope. Studies of molecular structure require techniques like X-ray crystallography and electron microscopy, both of which have been used to study motor molecules.

However, neither of these techniques can do more than generate still images. Movement can only be inferred by taking lots of snapshots of the molecules at different points during the movement cycle, rather like the earliest movies. We have now built up a complete picture of actin and myosin that is detailed enough for the positions of individual atoms to be seen clearly.

Not all movement in nature, however, uses muscles. Single-celled organisms – the ‘animalcules’ observed by pioneer microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the 1670s – have directed movement, as do bacteria, and these have neither muscles nor nervous systems. And directed movement also occurs inside cells. A good example of this is the division of replicated DNA between daughter cells during cell division.

The interior of all cells is a viscous mixture, crowded with molecules; it is possible for small molecules to move from one part of a cell to another through diffusion, but this process would be impossibly slow for larger ones. Motor proteins, on the other hand, can carry ‘cargo’ molecules across cells remarkably quickly and efficiently. Motor proteins can traverse a distance of 0.1 mm – the length of a large animal cell – in two minutes, which in terms of lengths per second is approximately three times faster than a car.

Both the motor proteins studied in Anthony’s lab, kinesin and dynein, ‘walk’ along microtubules inside cells. These filaments typically form with one end towards the centre of the cell, and its nucleus, and the other towards the cell periphery, and the motor proteins move in opposite directions: dynein towards the nucleus, and kinesin towards the cell edge.

Any kind of directed movement by molecules is challenging for several reasons. Motor molecules have no equivalent of our nervous systems for controlling movement, and they are far too small to be held on their tracks by gravity; instead, they grip the microtubules using chemical forces. They experience negligible inertia, and are constantly buffeted by other molecules in the cell. It would therefore be catastrophic for the whole of a walking molecule to leave its path at once.

A single leg with two feet

The structure and function of conventional kinesin are now fairly well understood. It consists of two identical protein chains, and each chain has two major domains separated by a short linker. The larger domain of each chain coils together to form a single long stalk; the smaller domain is globular and attaches to the microtubule, so the molecule looks rather like a single leg with two feet. Each of the feet is an enzyme that generates the energy for the motion by breaking down ATP to form ADP and release a phosphate group, and it cycles between ATP-bound, ADP-bound and empty states.

The step between ADP-bound and empty is a bottleneck that can be relieved when the foot attaches to the microtubule in a particular position, ensuring that the whole molecule moves in the correct direction. The trailing foot is released from the microtubule and the cycle begins again once ATP has bound to the front foot, triggering a conformational change in the whole molecule.

The core of kinesin is similar in structure to myosin, suggesting that these two proteins have a common ancestor. The other microtubule-bound motor protein, dynein, has a different origin. Although we still know comparatively little about it, it was actually the first of the microtubule-bound motor proteins to be discovered: this was in the 1960s, when it was found as the protein that generates the force that allows protozoa and sperm cells to swim. Anthony’s group, however, has been studying how it functions inside cells to move ‘cargo’ – often nucleic acids or other proteins – from the edges of the cell towards its interior. It also helps to pull the duplicated genetic material between the two halves of the cell during cell division.

The structure of Dynein

Dynein

Dynein

Dynein is a much larger and more complex molecule than the other motor proteins. Its structure, like those other proteins, has several components: in this case, a stalk, a ring and a tail, with a linker between the stalk and the ring. Much of what we know about this large structure has come from electron microscopy, and more recently X-ray crystallography.

Anthony’s group and others have developed a model in which the main mechanical element is the linker, which bends and straightens to displace the cargo-bound end of the structure along the microtubule in the direction of travel. The image shown here is a still from an animated model of how dynein generates movement, which remains speculative in places and is helping to stimulate new experiments in these areas. It is also incomplete, as it only shows one half of the molecule: we do know that dynein, like kinesin, is a biped, but exactly how its ‘feet’ are coordinated remains at the frontier of our knowledge.

Anthony ended his talk by discussing some actual and potential medical applications of studies of walking molecules. Some commonly used anti-cancer drugs, including taxol, work by stabilising microtubules to prevent motion and therefore stop cancer cells from dividing. Molecules that interact with motor proteins are also being studied as potential treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and for some types of heart disease. One such compound is a myosin activator, omecamtiv mecarbil, which is showing promise as a treatment for heart failure. And we are likely to discover further applications as we learn more about these fascinating walking molecules.

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