MSMs for proton gating

Published 15 October 2021 in eLife (doi 10.7554/eLife.68369):

Markov state models of proton- and pore-dependent activation in a pentameric ligand-gated ion channel

Cathrine BerghStephanie A HeusserRebecca HowardErik Lindahl

Ligand-gated ion channels conduct currents in response to chemical stimuli, mediating electrochemical signaling in neurons and other excitable cells. For many channels the details of gating remain unclear, partly due to limited structural data and simulation timescales. Here, we used enhanced sampling to simulate the pH-gated channel GLIC, and construct Markov state models (MSMs) of gating. Consistent with new functional recordings we report in oocytes, our analysis revealed differential effects of protonation and mutation on free-energy wells. Clustering of closed- versus open-like states enabled estimation of open probabilities and transition rates, while higher-order clustering affirmed conformational trends in gating. Furthermore, our models uncovered state- and protonation-dependent symmetrization. This demonstrates the applicability of MSMs to map energetic and conformational transitions between ion-channel functional states, and how they reproduce shifts upon activation or mutation, with implications for modeling neuronal function and developing state-selective drugs.

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Tracking protons with neutrons

Published 14 September 2021 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (doi 10.1073/pnas.2108006118):

Probing solution structure of the pentameric ligand-gated ion channel GLIC by small-angle neutron scattering

Marie LycksellUrška RovšnikCathrine Bergh, Nicolai T. Johansen, Anne Martel, Lionel Porcar, Lise Arleth, Rebecca J HowardErik Lindahl

Pentameric ligand-gated ion channels undergo subtle conformational cycling to control electrochemical signal transduction in many kingdoms of life. Several crystal structures have now been reported in this family, but the functional relevance of such models remains unclear. Here, we used small-angle neutron scattering (SANS) to probe ambient solution-phase properties of the pH-gated bacterial ion channel GLIC under resting and activating conditions. Data collection was optimized by inline paused-flow size-exclusion chromatography, and exchanging into deuterated detergent to hide the micelle contribution. Resting-state GLIC was the best-fit crystal structure to SANS curves, with no evidence for divergent mechanisms. Moreover, enhanced-sampling molecular-dynamics simulations enabled differential modeling in resting versus activating conditions, with the latter corresponding to an intermediate ensemble of both the extracellular and transmembrane domains. This work demonstrates state-dependent changes in a pentameric ion channel by SANS, an increasingly accessible method for macromolecular characterization with the coming generation of neutron sources.

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Review of the Skin Barrier Formation

Published online August 31, 2021 in Journal of Investigative Dermatology (doi

The Skin’s Barrier: A Cryo-EM Based Overview of its Architecture and Stepwise Formation

Lars Norlén, Magnus Lundborg, Christian Wennberg, Ali Narangifard, Bertil Daneholt

A major role of the skin is to serve as a barrier toward the environment. The skin’s permeability barrier consists of a lipid structure positioned in the stratum corneum. Recent progress in high-resolution cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) has allowed for elucidation of the architecture of the skin’s barrier and its stepwise formation process representing the final stage of epidermal differentiation. In this review, we present an overview of the skin’s barrier structure and its formation process, as evidenced by cryo-EM.

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Phosphorylation at Heart

Published 17 August 2021 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (doi 10.1073/pnas.2025320118):

Functional cross-talk between phosphorylation and disease-causing mutations in the cardiac sodium channel Nav1.5

Iacopo Galleano, Hendrik Harms, Koushik Choudhury, Keith Khoo, Lucie Delemotte, Stephan A Pless

The voltage-gated sodium channel Nav1.5 initiates the cardiac action potential. Alterations of its activation and inactivation properties due to mutations can cause severe, life-threatening arrhythmias. Yet despite intensive research efforts, many functional aspects of this cardiac channel remain poorly understood. For instance, Nav1.5 undergoes extensive posttranslational modification in vivo, but the functional significance of these modifications is largely unexplored, especially under pathological conditions. This is because most conventional approaches are unable to insert metabolically stable posttranslational modification mimics, thus preventing a precise elucidation of the contribution by these modifications to channel function. Here, we overcome this limitation by using protein semisynthesis of Nav1.5 in live cells and carry out complementary molecular dynamics simulations. We introduce metabolically stable phosphorylation mimics on both wild-type (WT) and two pathogenic long-QT mutant channel backgrounds and decipher functional and pharmacological effects with unique precision. We elucidate the mechanism by which phosphorylation of Y1495 impairs steady-state inactivation in WT Nav1.5. Surprisingly, we find that while the Q1476R patient mutation does not affect inactivation on its own, it enhances the impairment of steady-state inactivation caused by phosphorylation of Y1495 through enhanced unbinding of the inactivation particle. We also show that both phosphorylation and patient mutations can impact Nav1.5 sensitivity toward the clinically used antiarrhythmic drugs quinidine and ranolazine, but not flecainide. The data highlight that functional effects of Nav1.5 phosphorylation can be dramatically amplified by patient mutations. Our work is thus likely to have implications for the interpretation of mutational phenotypes and the design of future drug regimens.

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Proton Gating by CryoEM

Available online 1 July 2021 in Life Science Alliance (doi 10.26508/lsa.202101011):

Dynamic closed states of a ligand-gated ion channel captured by cryo-EM and simulations

Urška RovšnikYuxuan ZhuangBjörn O Forsberg, Marta Carroni, Linnea YvonnesdotterRebecca J HowardErik Lindahl 

Ligand-gated ion channels are critical mediators of electrochemical signal transduction across evolution. Biophysical and pharmacological characterization of these receptor proteins relies on high-quality structures in multiple, subtly distinct functional states. However, structural data in this family remain limited, particularly for resting and intermediate states on the activation pathway. Here, we report cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) structures of the proton-activated Gloeobacter violaceus ligand-gated ion channel (GLIC) under three pH conditions. Decreased pH was associated with improved resolution and side chain rearrangements at the subunit/domain interface, particularly involving functionally important residues in the β1–β2 and M2–M3 loops. Molecular dynamics simulations substantiated flexibility in the closed-channel extracellular domains relative to the transmembrane ones and supported electrostatic remodeling around E35 and E243 in proton-induced gating. Exploration of secondary cryo-EM classes further indicated a low-pH population with an expanded pore. These results allow us to define distinct protonation and activation steps in pH-stimulated conformational cycling in GLIC, including interfacial rearrangements largely conserved in the pentameric channel family.

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Illuminating pLGICs

Available online 3 July 2021 in the Journal of Molecular Biology (doi 10.1016/j.jmb.2021.167128):

Elephants in the dark: insights and incongruities in pentameric ligand-gated ion channel models

Rebecca J Howard

The superfamily of pentameric ligand-gated ion channels (pLGICs) comprises key players in electrochemical signal transduction across evolution, including historic model systems for receptor allostery and targets for drug development. Accordingly, structural studies of these channels have steadily increased, and now approach 250 depositions in the protein data bank. This review contextualizes currently available structures in the pLGIC family, focusing on morphology, ligand binding, and gating in three model subfamilies: the prokaryotic channel GLIC, the cation-selective nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, and the anion-selective glycine receptor. Common themes include the challenging process of capturing and annotating channels in distinct functional states; partially conserved gating mechanisms, including remodeling at the extracellular/transmembrane-domain interface; and diversity beyond the protein level, arising from posttranslational modifications, ligands, lipids, and signaling partners. Interpreting pLGIC structures can be compared to describing an elephant in the dark, relying on touch alone to comprehend the many parts of a monumental beast: each structure represents a snapshot in time under specific experimental conditions, which must be understood and integrated with further structure, function, and simulations data to build a comprehensive model, and understand how one channel may fundamentally differ from another.

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Cation-π Lipid-Channel Binding

Available online 19 June 2021 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (doi 10.1016/j.jbc.2021.100899):

Regulation of a pentameric ligand-gated ion channel by a semi-conserved cationic-lipid binding site

Akshay Sridhar*, Sarah CR Lummis*, Diletta Pasini, Aujan Mehregan, Marijke Brams, Kumiko Kambara, Daniel Bertrand, Erik Lindahl, Rebecca J Howard, Chris Ulens

Pentameric ligand-gated ion channels (pLGICs) are crucial mediators of electrochemical signal transduction in various organisms from bacteria to humans. Lipids play an important role in regulating pLGIC function, yet the structural bases for specific pLGIC-lipid interactions remain poorly understood. The bacterial channel ELIC recapitulates several properties of eukaryotic pLGICs, including activation by the neurotransmitter GABA, and binding and modulation by lipids, offering a simplified model system for structure-function relationship studies. In this study, functional effects of non-canonical amino acid substitution of a potential lipid-interacting residue (W206) at the top of the M1-helix, combined with detergent interactions observed in recent X-ray structures, are consistent with this region being the location of a lipid binding site on the outward face of the ELIC transmembrane domain. Coarse-grained and atomistic molecular dynamics simulations revealed preferential binding of lipids containing a positive charge, particularly involving interactions with residue W206, consistent with cation-π binding. Polar contacts from other regions of the protein, particularly M3 residue Q264, further support lipid binding via headgroup ester linkages. Aromatic residues were identified at analogous sites in a handful of eukaryotic family members, including the human GABAA receptor ε subunit, suggesting conservation of relevant interactions in other evolutionary branches. Further mutagenesis experiments indicated that mutations at this site in ε-containing GABAA receptors can change the apparent affinity of the agonist response to GABA, suggesting a potential role of this site in channel gating. In conclusion, this work details type-specific lipid interactions, which adds to our growing understanding of how lipids modulate pLGICs.

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*equal contributions


Computing Coupling

Available online 6 June 2021 in the Journal of Molecular Biology (doi 10.1016/j.jmb.2021.167095):

Structure and sequence-based computational approaches to allosteric signal transduction: application to electromechanical coupling in voltage-gated ion channels

Ahmad Elbahnsi, Lucie Delemotte

Allosteric signaling underlies the function of many biomolecules, including membrane proteins such as ion channels. Experimental methods have enabled specific quantitative insights into the coupling between the voltage sensing domain and the pore gate of voltage-gated ion channels, located tens of Angstrom apart from one another, as well as pinpointed specific residues and domains that participate in electromechanical signal transmission. Nevertheless, an overall atomic-level resolution picture is difficult to obtain from these methods alone. Today, thanks to the cryo-EM resolution revolution, we have access to high resolution structures of many different voltage-gated ion channels in various conformational states, putting a quantitative description of the processes at the basis of these changes within our close reach. Here, we review computational methods that build on structures to detect and characterize allosteric signaling and pathways. We then examine what has been learned so far about electromechanical coupling between VSD and pore domain using such methods. While no general theory of electromechanical coupling in voltage-gated ion channels integrating results from all these methods is available yet, we outline the types of insights that could be achieved in the near future using the methods that have not yet been put to use in this field of application.

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AWH for Binding Energies

Available online 25 May 2021 in The Journal of Chemical Physics (doi 10.1063/5.0044352):

The accelerated weight histogram method for alchemical free energy calculations

Magnus Lundborg, Jack Lidmar, Berk Hess

The accelerated weight histogram method is an enhanced sampling technique used to explore free energy landscapes by applying an adaptive bias. The method is general and easy to extend. Herein, we show how it can be used to efficiently sample alchemical transformations, commonly used for, e.g., solvation and binding free energy calculations. We present calculations and convergence of the hydration free energy of testosterone, representing drug-like molecules. We also include methane and ethanol to validate the results. The protocol is easy to use, does not require a careful choice of parameters, and scales well to accessible resources, and the results converge at least as quickly as when using conventional methods. One benefit of the method is that it can easily be combined with other reaction coordinates, such as intermolecular distances.

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Trends in Ion-Channel MD

Available online 30 April 2021 in Trends in Biochemical Sciences (doi 10.1016/j.tibs.2021.04.005):

Molecular dynamics simulations of ion channels

Vincenzo Carnevale*, Lucie Delemotte*, Rebecca J Howard*

Propelled by enormous increases in computational power, molecular dynamics (MD) simulations were first reported in 1957 by B.J. Alder and T.E. Wainwright and since then have moved from this proof of concept to routinely investigating the dynamics of complex systems composed of up to tens of millions of atoms. MD simulations are based on the idea that the equations of motion of a multi-particle system can be solved numerically within an acceptable level of accuracy; the resulting trajectory is key for calculating occupancy probabilities of distinct conformational states (sampling). In advanced protocols, enhanced sampling ensures wide exploration of the configurational space. Further, a strength of MD simulations is that by starting from descriptions of the motions of all atoms, several data learning techniques can be used to conceptualize trajectories. In ion channel biophysics, these tools are used to study ion permeation, conformational cycling, drug binding, and lipid–channel interactions.

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*equal contributions


Wedding NMR and MD for KcsA

Published 22 April 2021 in the Journal of Chemical Physics (doi 10.1063/5.0040649):

Informing NMR experiments with molecular dynamics simulations to characterize the dominant activated state of the KcsA ion channel

Sergio Pérez-ConesaEric G. KeelerDongyu Zhang, Lucie Delemotte, Ann E. McDermott

As the first potassium channel with an x-ray structure determined, and given its homology to eukaryotic channels, the pH-gated prokaryotic channel KcsA has been extensively studied. Nevertheless, questions related, in particular, to the allosteric coupling between its gates remain open. The many currently available x-ray crystallography structures appear to correspond to various stages of activation and inactivation, offering insights into the molecular basis of these mechanisms. Since these studies have required mutations, complexation with antibodies, and substitution of detergents in place of lipids, examining the channel under more native conditions is desirable. Solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (SSNMR) can be used to study the wild-type protein under activating conditions (low pH), at room temperature, and in bacteriomimetic liposomes. In this work, we sought to structurally assign the activated state present in SSNMR experiments. We used a combination of molecular dynamics (MD) simulations, chemical shift prediction algorithms, and Bayesian inference techniques to determine which of the most plausible x-ray structures resolved to date best represents the activated state captured in SSNMR. We first identified specific nuclei with simulated NMR chemical shifts that differed significantly when comparing partially open vs fully open ensembles from MD simulations. The simulated NMR chemical shifts for those specific nuclei were then compared to experimental ones, revealing that the simulation of the partially open state was in good agreement with the SSNMR data. Nuclei that discriminate effectively between partially and fully open states belong to residues spread over the sequence and provide a molecular level description of the conformational change.

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Channels Accommodating Cannabinoids

Published 9 April 2021 in the Journal of General Physiology (doi 10.1085/jgp.202012701):

Cannabidiol inhibits the skeletal muscle Nav1.4 by blocking its pore and by altering membrane elasticity

Mohammad-Reza Ghovanloo, Koushik Choudhury, Tagore S. Bandaru, Mohamed A. Fouda, Kaveh Rayani, Radda Rusinova, Tejas Phaterpekar, Karen Nelkenbrecher, Abeline R. Watkins, Damon Poburko, Jenifer Thewalt, Olaf S. Andersen, Lucie Delemotte, Samuel J. Goodchild, Peter C. Ruben 

Cannabidiol (CBD) is the primary nonpsychotropic phytocannabinoid found in Cannabis sativa, which has been proposed to be therapeutic against many conditions, including muscle spasms. Among its putative targets are voltage-gated sodium channels (Navs), which have been implicated in many conditions. We investigated the effects of CBD on Nav1.4, the skeletal muscle Nav subtype. We explored direct effects, involving physical block of the Nav pore, as well as indirect effects, involving modulation of membrane elasticity that contributes to Nav inhibition. MD simulations revealed CBD’s localization inside the membrane and effects on bilayer properties. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) confirmed these results, showing CBD localizing below membrane headgroups. To determine the functional implications of these findings, we used a gramicidin-based fluorescence assay to show that CBD alters membrane elasticity or thickness, which could alter Nav function through bilayer-mediated regulation. Site-directed mutagenesis in the vicinity of the Nav1.4 pore revealed that removing the local anesthetic binding site with F1586A reduces the block of INa by CBD. Altering the fenestrations in the bilayer-spanning domain with Nav1.4-WWWW blocked CBD access from the membrane into the Nav1.4 pore (as judged by MD). The stabilization of inactivation, however, persisted in WWWW, which we ascribe to CBD-induced changes in membrane elasticity. To investigate the potential therapeutic value of CBD against Nav1.4 channelopathies, we used a pathogenic Nav1.4 variant, P1158S, which causes myotonia and periodic paralysis. CBD reduces excitability in both wild-type and the P1158S variant. Our in vitro and in silico results suggest that CBD may have therapeutic value against Nav1.4 hyperexcitability.

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Drugging COVID-19 with Dynamics

Published 16 March 2021 in ACS Pharmacology & Translational Sciences (doi 10.1021/acsptsci.0c00215):

A blueprint for high affinity SARS-CoV-2 Mpro inhibitors from activity-based compound library screening guided by analysis of protein dynamics

Jonas Gossen, Simone Albani, Anton Hanke, Benjamin P Joseph, Cathrine Bergh, Maria Kuzikov, Elisa Costanzi, Candida Manelfi, Paola Storici, Philip Gribbon, Andrea R Beccari, Carmine Talarico, Francesca Spyrakis, Erik Lindahl, Andrea Zaliani, Paolo Carloni, Rebecca C Wade, Francesco Musiani, Daria B Kokh, and Giulia Rossetti

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus outbreak continues to spread at a rapid rate worldwide. The main protease (Mpro) is an attractive target for anti-COVID-19 agents. Unexpected difficulties have been encountered in the design of specific inhibitors. Here, by analyzing an ensemble of ∼30 000 SARS-CoV-2 Mpro conformations from crystallographic studies and molecular simulations, we show that small structural variations in the binding site dramatically impact ligand binding properties. Hence, traditional druggability indices fail to adequately discriminate between highly and poorly druggable conformations of the binding site. By performing ∼200 virtual screenings of compound libraries on selected protein structures, we redefine the protein’s druggability as the consensus chemical space arising from the multiple conformations of the binding site formed upon ligand binding. This procedure revealed a unique SARS-CoV-2 Mpro blueprint that led to a definition of a specific structure-based pharmacophore. The latter explains the poor transferability of potent SARS-CoV Mpro inhibitors to SARS-CoV-2 Mpro, despite the identical sequences of the active sites. Importantly, application of the pharmacophore predicted novel high affinity inhibitors of SARS-CoV-2 Mpro, that were validated by in vitro assays performed here and by a newly solved X-ray crystal structure. These results provide a strong basis for effective rational drug design campaigns against SARS-CoV-2 Mpro and a new computational approach to screen protein targets with malleable binding sites.

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A Range of Sites for Resin Acids

Published 8 March 2021 in the Journal of General Physiology (doi 10.1085/jgp.202012676):

Resin-acid derivatives bind to multiple sites on the voltage-sensor domain of the Shaker potassium channel

Malin Silverå Ejneby, Arina Gromova, Nina E Ottosson, Stina Borg, Argel Estrada-Mondragón, Samira Yazdi, Panagiotis Apostolakis, Fredrik Elinder, Lucie Delemotte

Voltage-gated potassium (Kv) channels can be opened by negatively charged resin acids and their derivatives. These resin acids have been proposed to attract the positively charged voltage-sensor helix (S4) toward the extracellular side of the membrane by binding to a pocket located between the lipid-facing extracellular ends of the transmembrane segments S3 and S4. By contrast to this proposed mechanism, neutralization of the top gating charge of the Shaker KV channel increased resin-acid–induced opening, suggesting other mechanisms and sites of action. Here, we explore the binding of two resin-acid derivatives, Wu50 and Wu161, to the activated/open state of the Shaker KV channel by a combination of in silico docking, molecular dynamics simulations, and electrophysiology of mutated channels. We identified three potential resin-acid–binding sites around S4: (1) the S3/S4 site previously suggested, in which positively charged residues introduced at the top of S4 are critical to keep the compound bound, (2) a site in the cleft between S4 and the pore domain (S4/pore site), in which a tryptophan at the top of S6 and the top gating charge of S4 keeps the compound bound, and (3) a site located on the extracellular side of the voltage-sensor domain, in a cleft formed by S1–S4 (the top-VSD site). The multiple binding sites around S4 and the anticipated helical-screw motion of the helix during activation make the effect of resin-acid derivatives on channel function intricate. The propensity of a specific resin acid to activate and open a voltage-gated channel likely depends on its exact binding dynamics and the types of interactions it can form with the protein in a state-specific manner.

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Hotspots of Efficacy in GPCRs

Published 28 January 2021 in eLife (doi 10.7554/eLife.60715):

Identification of ligand-specific G-protein coupled receptor states and prediction of downstream efficacy via data-driven modeling

Oliver Fleetwood, Jens Carlsson, Lucie Delemotte

Ligand binding stabilizes different G protein-coupled receptor states via a complex allosteric process that is not completely understood. Here, we have derived free energy landscapes describing activation of the β2 adrenergic receptor bound to ligands with different efficacy profiles using enhanced sampling molecular dynamics (MD) simulations. These reveal shifts towards active-like states at the G protein binding site for receptors bound to partial and full agonists and that the ligands modulate the conformational ensemble of the receptor by tuning protein microswitches. We indeed find an excellent correlation between the conformation of the microswitches close to the ligand binding site and in the transmembrane region and experimentally reported cAMP signaling responses. Dimensionality reduction further reveals the similarity between the unique conformational states induced by different ligands and examining the output of classifiers highlights two distant hotspots governing agonism on transmembrane helices 5 and 7.

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Homegrown Tests for COVID-19

Published 19 January 2021 in Scientific Reports (doi 10.1038/s41598-020-80352-8):

Direct detection of SARS-CoV-2 using non-commercial RT-LAMP reagents on heat-inactivated samples

Alisa Alekseenko, Donal Barrett, Yerma Pareja-Sanchez, Rebecca J Howard, Emilia Strandback, Henry Ampah-Korsah, Urška Rovšnik, Silvia Zuniga-Veliz, Alexander Klenov, Jayshna Malloo, Shenglong Ye, Xiyang Liu, Björn Reinius, Simon J. Elsässer, Tomas Nyman, Gustaf Sandh, Xiushan Yin, Vicent Pelechano

RT-LAMP detection of SARS-CoV-2 has been shown to be a valuable approach to scale up COVID-19 diagnostics and thus contribute to limiting the spread of the disease. Here we present the optimization of highly cost-effective in-house produced enzymes, and we benchmark their performance against commercial alternatives. We explore the compatibility between multiple DNA polymerases with high strand-displacement activity and thermostable reverse transcriptases required for RT-LAMP. We optimize reaction conditions and demonstrate their applicability using both synthetic RNA and clinical patient samples. Finally, we validate the optimized RT-LAMP assay for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 in unextracted heat-inactivated nasopharyngeal samples from 184 patients. We anticipate that optimized and affordable reagents for RT-LAMP will facilitate the expansion of SARS-CoV-2 testing globally, especially in sites and settings where the need for large scale testing cannot be met by commercial alternatives.

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Switching on a CaM

Published 11 December 2020 in Science Advances (doi 10.1126/sciadv.abd6798):

Calmodulin acts as a state-dependent switch to control a cardiac potassium channel opening

Po Wei Kang,* Annie M Westerlund,* Jingyi Shi, Kelli McFarland White, Alex K Dou, Amy H Cui, Jonathan R Silva, Lucie Delemotte, Jianmin Cui
*contributed equally to this work

Calmodulin (CaM) and phosphatidylinositol 4,5-bisphosphate (PIP2) are potent regulators of the voltage-gated potassium channel KCNQ1 (KV7.1), which conducts the cardiac IKs current. Although cryo–electron microscopy structures revealed intricate interactions between the KCNQ1 voltage-sensing domain (VSD), CaM, and PIP2, the functional consequences of these interactions remain unknown. Here, we show that CaM-VSD interactions act as a state-dependent switch to control KCNQ1 pore opening. Combined electrophysiology and molecular dynamics network analysis suggest that VSD transition into the fully activated state allows PIP2 to compete with CaM for binding to VSD. This leads to conformational changes that alter VSD-pore coupling to stabilize open states. We identify a motif in the KCNQ1 cytosolic domain, which works downstream of CaM-VSD interactions to facilitate the conformational change. Our findings suggest a gating mechanism that integrates PIP2and CaM in KCNQ1 voltage-dependent activation, yielding insights into how KCNQ1 gains the phenotypes critical for its physiological function.

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Skin Structures Simulated

Published 22 October 2020 in Journal of Investigative Dermatology (doi 10.1016/j.jid.2020.07.040):

Molecular reorganization during formation of the human skin barrier studied in situ

Ali Narangifard, Christian L Wennberg, Lianne den Hollander, Ichiro Iwai, HongMei Han, Magnus Lundborg, Sergej Masich, Erik Lindahl, Bertil Daneholt, Lars Norlén

In vertebrates, skin upholds homeostasis by preventing body water loss. The skin’s permeability barrier is located intercellularly in stratum corneum and consists of stacked lipid lamellae composed of ceramides, cholesterol and free fatty acids. We have combined cryo-EM with molecular dynamics modelling and EM-simulation in our analysis of the lamellae’s formation, a maturation process beginning in stratum granulosum and ending in stratum corneum. Previously, we have revealed the lipid lamellae’s initial- and end-stage molecular organizations. Here, we reveal two cryo-EM patterns representing intermediate stages in the lamellae’s maturation process: a single-band pattern with 2.0-2.5 nm periodicity and a two-band pattern with 5.5-6.0 nm periodicity, that may be derived from lamellar lipid structures with 4.0-5.0 nm and 5.5-6.0 nm periodicity, respectively. Based on the analysis of the data now available on the four maturation stages identified, we can present a tentative molecular model for the complete skin barrier formation process.

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Elucidating Lipid Allostery

Published 9 October 2020 in The Journal of Chemical Physics (doi 10.1063/5.0020974):

Network analysis reveals how lipids and other cofactors influence membrane protein allostery

Annie M Westerlund, Oliver Fleetwood, Sergio Pérez-Conesa, Lucie Delemotte

Many membrane proteins are modulated by external stimuli, such as small molecule binding or change in pH, transmembrane voltage, or temperature. This modulation typically occurs at sites that are structurally distant from the functional site. Revealing the communication, known as allostery, between these two sites is key to understanding the mechanistic details of these proteins. Residue interaction networks of isolated proteins are commonly used to this end. Membrane proteins, however, are embedded in a lipid bilayer, which may contribute to allosteric communication. The fast diffusion of lipids hinders direct use of standard residue interaction networks. Here, we present an extension that includes cofactors such as lipids and small molecules in the network. The novel framework is applied to three membrane proteins: a voltage-gated ion channel (KCNQ1), a G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR—β2 adrenergic receptor), and a pH-gated ion channel (KcsA). Through systematic analysis of the obtained networks and their components, we demonstrate the importance of lipids for membrane protein allostery. Finally, we reveal how small molecules may stabilize different protein states by allosterically coupling and decoupling the protein from the membrane.

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Speedier Simulations with Parallelization

Published 5 October 2020 in The Journal of Chemical Physics (doi 10.1063/5.0018516):

Heterogeneous parallelization and acceleration of molecular dynamics simulations in GROMACS

Szilárd Páll, Artem Zhmurov, Paul Bauer, Mark Abraham, Magnus Lundborg, Alan Gray, Berk Hess, Erik Lindahl

The introduction of accelerator devices such as graphics processing units (GPUs) has had profound impact on molecular dynamics simulations and has enabled order-of-magnitude performance advances using commodity hardware. To fully reap these benefits, it has been necessary to reformulate some of the most fundamental algorithms, including the Verlet list, pair searching, and cutoffs. Here, we present the heterogeneous parallelization and acceleration design of molecular dynamics implemented in the GROMACS codebase over the last decade. The setup involves a general cluster-based approach to pair lists and non-bonded pair interactions that utilizes both GPU and central processing unit (CPU) single instruction, multiple data acceleration efficiently, including the ability to load-balance tasks between CPUs and GPUs. The algorithm work efficiency is tuned for each type of hardware, and to use accelerators more efficiently, we introduce dual pair lists with rolling pruning updates. Combined with new direct GPU–GPU communication and GPU integration, this enables excellent performance from single GPU simulations through strong scaling across multiple GPUs and efficient multi-node parallelization.

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Fungal Metabolism at its Core

Published 16 September 2020 in Nature Communications (doi 10.1038/s41467-020-18401-z):

Arrangement and symmetry of the fungal E3BP-containing core of the pyruvate dehydrogenase complex

Björn O Forsberg, Shintaro Aibara, Rebecca J Howard, Narges Mortezaei, Erik Lindahl

The pyruvate dehydrogenase complex (PDC) is a multienzyme complex central to aerobic respiration, connecting glycolysis to mitochondrial oxidation of pyruvate. Similar to the E3-binding protein (E3BP) of mammalian PDC, PX selectively recruits E3 to the fungal PDC, but its divergent sequence suggests a distinct structural mechanism. Here, we report reconstructions of PDC from the filamentous fungus Neurospora crassa by cryo-electron microscopy, where we find protein X (PX) interior to the PDC core as opposed to substituting E2 core subunits as in mammals. Steric occlusion limits PX binding, resulting in predominantly tetrahedral symmetry, explaining previous observations in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The PX-binding site is conserved in (and specific to) fungi, and complements possible C-terminal binding motifs in PX that are absent in mammalian E3BP. Consideration of multiple symmetries thus reveals a differential structural basis for E3BP-like function in fungal PDC.

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Unveiling Valium

Published 2 September 2020 in Nature (doi 10.1038/s41586-020-2654-5):

Shared structural mechanisms of general anaesthetics and benzodiazepines

Jeong Joo Kim, Anant Gharpure, Jinfeng Teng, Yuxuan Zhuang, Rebecca J Howard, Shaotong Zhu, Colleen M Noviello, Richard M Walsh Jr, Erik Lindahl, Ryan E Hibbs

Most general anaesthetics and classical benzodiazepine drugs act through positive modulation of γ-aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptors to dampen neuronal activity in the brain. However, direct structural information on the mechanisms of general anaesthetics at their physiological receptor sites is lacking. Here we present cryo-electron microscopy structures of GABAA receptors bound to intravenous anaesthetics, benzodiazepines and inhibitory modulators. These structures were solved in a lipidic environment and are complemented by electrophysiology and molecular dynamics simulations. Structures of GABAA receptors in complex with the anaesthetics phenobarbital, etomidate and propofol reveal both distinct and common transmembrane binding sites, which are shared in part by the benzodiazepine drug diazepam. Structures in which GABAA receptors are bound by benzodiazepine-site ligands identify an additional membrane binding site for diazepam and suggest an allosteric mechanism for anaesthetic reversal by flumazenil. This study provides a foundation for understanding how pharmacologically diverse and clinically essential drugs act through overlapping and distinct mechanisms to potentiate inhibitory signalling in the brain.

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Electroporation Simulation

Published 7 July 2020 in Biophysical Journal (v. 119 pp. 190–205):

Pulsed electric fields can create pores in the voltage sensors of voltage-gated ion channels

Lea Rems, Marina A Kasimova, Ilaria Testa, Lucie Delemotte

Pulsed electric fields are increasingly used in medicine to transiently increase the cell membrane permeability via electroporation to deliver therapeutic molecules into the cell. One type of event that contributes to this increase in membrane permeability is the formation of pores in the membrane lipid bilayer. However, electrophysiological measurements suggest that membrane proteins are affected as well, particularly voltage-gated ion channels (VGICs). The molecular mechanisms by which the electric field could affects these molecules remain unidentified. In this study, we used molecular dynamics simulations to unravel the molecular events that take place in different VGICs when exposing them to electric fields mimicking electroporation conditions. We show that electric fields can induce pores in the voltage-sensor domains (VSDs) of different VGICs and that these pores form more easily in some channels than in others. We demonstrate that poration is more likely in VSDs that are more hydrated and are electrostatically more favorable for the entry of ions. We further show that pores in VSDs can expand into so-called complex pores, which become stabilized by lipid headgroups. Our results suggest that such complex pores are considerably more stable than conventional lipid pores, and their formation can lead to severe unfolding of VSDs from the channel. We anticipate that such VSDs become dysfunctional and unable to respond to changes in transmembrane voltage, which is in agreement with previous electrophysiological measurements showing a decrease in the voltage-dependent transmembrane ionic currents after pulse treatment. Finally, we discuss the possibility of activation of VGICs by submicrosecond-duration pulses. Overall, our study reveals a new, to our knowledge, mechanism of electroporation through membranes containing VGICs.

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Friction in the Field

Published 29 June 2020 in Physical Review Fluids (v. 5 p. 064203):

Electrowetting diminishes contact line friction in molecular wetting

Petter JohanssonBerk Hess

We use large-scale molecular dynamics to study the dynamics at the three-phase contact line in electrowetting of water and electrolytes on no-slip substrates. Under the applied electrostatic potential the line friction at the contact line is diminished. The effect is consistent for droplets of different sizes as well as for both pure water and electrolyte solution droplets. We analyze the electric field at the contact line to show how it assists ions and dipolar molecules to advance the contact line. Without an electric field, the interaction between a substrate and a liquid has a very short range, mostly affecting the bottom, immobilized layer of liquid molecules which leads to high friction since mobile molecules are not pulled towards the surface. In electrowetting, the electric field attracts charged and polar molecules over a longer range, which diminishes the friction.

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Dramatic Domains of DeCLIC

Published 16 June 2020 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (v. 117 pp. 13437–13446):

Structural basis for allosteric transitions of a multidomain pentameric ligand-gated ion channel

Haidai Hu, Rebecca J Howard, Ugo Bastolla, Erik Lindahl, Marc Delarue

Pentameric ligand-gated ion channels (pLGICs) are allosteric receptors that mediate rapid electrochemical signal transduction in the animal nervous system through the opening of an ion pore upon binding of neurotransmitters. Orthologs have been found and characterized in prokaryotes and they display highly similar structure–function relationships to eukaryotic pLGICs; however, they often encode greater architectural diversity involving additional amino-terminal domains (NTDs). Here we report structural, functional, and normal-mode analysis of two conformational states of a multidomain pLGIC, called DeCLIC, from a Desulfofustis deltaproteobacterium, including a periplasmic NTD fused to the conventional ligand-binding domain (LBD). X-ray structure determination revealed an NTD consisting of two jelly-roll domains interacting across each subunit interface. Binding of Ca2+ at the LBD subunit interface was associated with a closed transmembrane pore, with resolved monovalent cations intracellular to the hydrophobic gate. Accordingly, DeCLIC-injected oocytes conducted currents only upon depletion of extracellular Ca2+; these were insensitive to quaternary ammonium block. Furthermore, DeCLIC crystallized in the absence of Ca2+ with a wide-open pore and remodeled periplasmic domains, including increased contacts between the NTD and classic LBD agonist-binding sites. Functional, structural, and dynamical properties of DeCLIC paralleled those of sTeLIC, a pLGIC from another symbiotic prokaryote. Based on these DeCLIC structures, we would reclassify the previous structure of bacterial ELIC (the first high-resolution structure of a pLGIC) as a “locally closed” conformation. Taken together, structures of DeCLIC in multiple conformations illustrate dramatic conformational state transitions and diverse regulatory mechanisms available to ion channels in pLGICs, particularly involving Ca2+ modulation and periplasmic NTDs.

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