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Concept: Biochemistry


The attenuation of sedimentation and convection in microgravity can sometimes decrease irregularities formed during macromolecular crystal growth. Current terrestrial protein crystal growth (PCG) capabilities are very different than those used during the Shuttle era and that are currently on the International Space Station (ISS). The focus of this experiment was to demonstrate the use of a commercial off-the-shelf, high throughput, PCG method in microgravity. Using Protein BioSolutions' microfluidic Plug Maker™/CrystalCard™ system, we tested the ability to grow crystals of the regulator of glucose metabolism and adipogenesis: peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (apo-hPPAR-γ LBD), as well as several PCG standards. Overall, we sent 25 CrystalCards™ to the ISS, containing ~10,000 individual microgravity PCG experiments in a 3U NanoRacks NanoLab (1U = 10(3) cm.). After 70 days on the ISS, our samples were returned with 16 of 25 (64%) microgravity cards having crystals, compared to 12 of 25 (48%) of the ground controls. Encouragingly, there were more apo-hPPAR-γ LBD crystals in the microgravity PCG cards than the 1g controls. These positive results hope to introduce the use of the PCG standard of low sample volume and large experimental density to the microgravity environment and provide new opportunities for macromolecular samples that may crystallize poorly in standard laboratories.

Concepts: Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor, Crystal, Chemistry, Experiment, Biochemistry, Crystallization, International Space Station, Micro-g environment


More than 2 million people in the United States have myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). We performed targeted, broad-spectrum metabolomics to gain insights into the biology of CFS. We studied a total of 84 subjects using these methods. Forty-five subjects (n = 22 men and 23 women) met diagnostic criteria for ME/CFS by Institute of Medicine, Canadian, and Fukuda criteria. Thirty-nine subjects (n = 18 men and 21 women) were age- and sex-matched normal controls. Males with CFS were 53 (±2.8) y old (mean ± SEM; range, 21-67 y). Females were 52 (±2.5) y old (range, 20-67 y). The Karnofsky performance scores were 62 (±3.2) for males and 54 (±3.3) for females. We targeted 612 metabolites in plasma from 63 biochemical pathways by hydrophilic interaction liquid chromatography, electrospray ionization, and tandem mass spectrometry in a single-injection method. Patients with CFS showed abnormalities in 20 metabolic pathways. Eighty percent of the diagnostic metabolites were decreased, consistent with a hypometabolic syndrome. Pathway abnormalities included sphingolipid, phospholipid, purine, cholesterol, microbiome, pyrroline-5-carboxylate, riboflavin, branch chain amino acid, peroxisomal, and mitochondrial metabolism. Area under the receiver operator characteristic curve analysis showed diagnostic accuracies of 94% [95% confidence interval (CI), 84-100%] in males using eight metabolites and 96% (95% CI, 86-100%) in females using 13 metabolites. Our data show that despite the heterogeneity of factors leading to CFS, the cellular metabolic response in patients was homogeneous, statistically robust, and chemically similar to the evolutionarily conserved persistence response to environmental stress known as dauer.

Concepts: Protein, Amino acid, Metabolism, Adenosine triphosphate, Mass spectrometry, Biochemistry, Metabolic pathway, Chronic fatigue syndrome


BACKGROUND: Shifts in intracellular arginine (Arg) and sulfur amino acid (SAA) redox metabolism modulate macrophage activation, polarization and phenotype. Despite their importance in inflammation and redox regulatory pathways, comprehensive analysis of these metabolic networks was not previously possible with existing analytical methods. METHODS: The Arg/thiol redox LC-MS/MS metabolomics assay permits simultaneous assessment of amino acids and derivative products generated from Arg and SAA metabolism. Using this assay, LPS-induced changes in macrophage amino acid metabolism were monitored to identify pathway shifts during activation and their linkage to cellular redox regulation. RESULTS: Metabolite concentrations most significantly changed after treatment of a macrophage-like cell line (RAW) with LPS for 24 hrs were citrulline (Cit) (48-fold increase), ornithine (Orn) (8.5-fold increase), arginine (Arg) (66% decrease), and aspartic acid (Asp) (73% decrease). The ratio Cit + Orn/Arg + Asp (CO/AA) was more sensitive to LPS stimulation than other amino acid ratios commonly used to measure LPS-dependent inflammation (e.g., SAM/SAH, GSH/GSSG) and total media NOx. The CO/AA ratio was also the first ratio to change significantly after LPS treatment (4 hrs). Changes in the overall metabolomic profile over time indicated that metabolic pathways shifted from Arg catabolism to thiol oxidation. CONCLUSIONS: Simultaneous quantification of Arg and SAA metabolic pathway shifts following LPS challenge of macrophage indicate that, in this system, the Arg-Citrulline/NO cycle and arginase pathways are the amino acid metabolic pathways most sensitive to LPS-challenge. The cellular (Cit + Orn)/(Arg + Asp) ratio, which summarizes this pathway, was more responsive to lower concentrations of LPS and responded earlier than other metabolic biomarkers of macrophage activation including GSH redox. It is suggested that the CO/AA ratio is a redox- independent early biomarker of macrophage activation. The ability to measure both the CO/AA and GSH-redox ratios simultaneously permits quantification of the relative effects of LPS challenge on macrophage inflammation and oxidative stress pathways. The use of this assay in humans is discussed, as are clinical implications.

Concepts: Protein, Amino acid, Metabolism, Enzyme, Oxidative phosphorylation, Biochemistry, Ornithine, Catabolism


Articular cartilage maturation is the postnatal development process that adapts joint surfaces to their site-specific biomechanical demands. Maturation involves gross morphological changes that occur through a process of synchronised growth and resorption of cartilage and generally ends at sexual maturity. The inability to induce maturation in biomaterial constructs designed for cartilage repair has been cited as a major cause for their failure in producing persistent cell-based repair of joint lesions. The combination of growth factors FGF2 and TGFβ1 induces accelerated articular cartilage maturation in vitro such that many molecular and morphological characteristics of tissue maturation are observable. We hypothesised that experimental growth factor-induced maturation of immature cartilage would result in a biophysical and biochemical composition consistent with a mature phenotype. Using native immature and mature cartilage as reference, we observed that growth factor-treated immature cartilages displayed increased nano-compressive stiffness, decreased surface adhesion, decreased water content, increased collagen content and smoother surfaces, correlating with a convergence to the mature cartilage phenotype. Furthermore, increased gene expression of surface structural protein collagen type I in growth factor-treated explants compared to reference cartilages demonstrates that they are still in the dynamic phase of the postnatal developmental transition. These data provide a basis for understanding the regulation of postnatal maturation of articular cartilage and the application of growth factor-induced maturation in vitro and in vivo in order to repair and regenerate cartilage defects.

Concepts: Bone, Gene, Molecular biology, Collagen, Cartilage, Knee, Biochemistry, Articular cartilage repair


Fish otoliths, biominerals composed of calcium carbonate with a small amount of organic matrix, are involved in the functioning of the inner ear. Starmaker (Stm) from zebrafish (Danio rerio) was the first protein found to be capable of controlling the formation of otoliths. Recently, a gene was identified encoding the Starmaker-like (Stm-l) protein from medaka (Oryzias latipes), a putative homologue of Stm and human dentine sialophosphoprotein. Although there is no sequence similarity between Stm-l and Stm, Stm-l was suggested to be involved in the biomineralization of otoliths, as had been observed for Stm even before. The molecular properties and functioning of Stm-l as a putative regulatory protein in otolith formation have not been characterized yet. A comprehensive biochemical and biophysical analysis of recombinant Stm-l, along with in silico examinations, indicated that Stm-l exhibits properties of a coil-like intrinsically disordered protein. Stm-l possesses an elongated and pliable structure that is able to adopt a more ordered and rigid conformation under the influence of different factors. An in vitro assay of the biomineralization activity of Stm-l indicated that Stm-l affected the size, shape and number of calcium carbonate crystals. The functional significance of intrinsically disordered properties of Stm-l and the possible role of this protein in controlling the formation of calcium carbonate crystals is discussed.

Concepts: DNA, Molecular biology, Model organism, Biochemistry, Calcium carbonate, Inner ear, Oryzias latipes, Oryzias


Hypoxia and hyperthermia are two connected consequences of the ongoing global change and constitute major threats for coastal marine organisms. In the present study, we used a proteomic approach to characterize the changes induced by hypoxia in the great scallop, Pecten maximus, subjected to three different temperatures (10 °C, 18 °C and 25 °C). We did not observe any significant change induced by hypoxia in animals acclimated at 10 °C. At 18 °C and 25 °C, 16 and 11 protein spots were differentially accumulated between normoxia and hypoxia, respectively. Moreover, biochemical data (octopine dehydrogenase activity and arginine assays) suggest that animals grown at 25 °C switched their metabolism towards anaerobic metabolism when exposed to both normoxia and hypoxia, suggesting that this temperature is out of the scallops' optimal thermal window. The 11 proteins identified with high confidence by mass spectrometry are involved in protein modifications and signaling (e.g., CK2, TBK1), energy metabolism (e.g., ENO3) or cytoskeleton (GSN), giving insights into the thermal-dependent response of scallops to hypoxia.

Concepts: Protein, Oxygen, Amino acid, Metabolism, Biochemistry, Scallop, Pectinidae, Pecten jacobaeus


The RecQ4 helicase belongs to the ubiquitous RecQ family but its exact role in the cell is not completely understood. In addition to the helicase domain, RecQ4 has a unique N-terminal part that is essential for viability and is constituted by a region homologous to the yeast Sld2 replication initiation factor, followed by a cysteine-rich region, predicted to fold as a Zn knuckle. We carried out a structural and biochemical analysis of both the human and Xenopus laevis RecQ4 cysteine-rich regions, and showed by NMR spectroscopy that the Xenopus fragment indeed assumes the canonical Zn knuckle fold, whereas the human sequence remains unstructured, consistent with the mutation of one of the Zn ligands. Both the human and Xenopus Zn knuckles bind to a variety of nucleic acid substrates, with a mild preference for RNA. We also investigated the effect of a segment located upstream the Zn knuckle that is highly conserved and rich in positively charged and aromatic residues, partially overlapping with the C-terminus of the Sld2-like domain. In both the human and Xenopus proteins, the presence of this region strongly enhances binding to nucleic acids. These results reveal novel possible roles of RecQ4 in DNA replication and genome stability.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Molecular biology, Metabolism, RNA, Nucleic acid, Biochemistry, Adenine


Biological macromolecules function in highly crowded cellular environments. The structure and dynamics of proteins and nucleic acids are well characterized in vitro, but in vivo crowding effects remain unclear. Using molecular dynamics simulations of a comprehensive atomistic model cytoplasm we found that protein-protein interactions may destabilize native protein structures, whereas metabolite interactions may induce more compact states due to electrostatic screening. Protein-protein interactions also resulted in significant variations in reduced macromolecular diffusion under crowded conditions, while metabolites exhibited significant two-dimensional surface diffusion and altered protein-ligand binding that may reduce the effective concentration of metabolites and ligands in vivo. Metabolic enzymes showed weak non-specific association in cellular environments attributed to solvation and entropic effects. These effects are expected to have broad implications for the in vivo functioning of biomolecules. This work is a first step towards physically realistic in silico whole-cell models that connect molecular with cellular biology.

Concepts: Protein, Cell, Molecular biology, Metabolism, Enzyme, Nucleic acid, Biochemistry, Macromolecule


To understand how the gut microbiome is impacted by human adaptation to varying environments, we explored gut bacterial communities in the BaAka rainforest hunter-gatherers and their agriculturalist Bantu neighbors in the Central African Republic. Although the microbiome of both groups is compositionally similar, hunter-gatherers harbor increased abundance of Prevotellaceae, Treponema, and Clostridiaceae, while the Bantu gut microbiome is dominated by Firmicutes. Comparisons with US Americans reveal microbiome differences between Africans and westerners but show western-like features in the Bantu, including an increased abundance of predictive carbohydrate and xenobiotic metabolic pathways. In contrast, the hunter-gatherer gut shows increased abundance of predicted virulence, amino acid, and vitamin metabolism functions, as well as dominance of lipid and amino-acid-derived metabolites, as determined through metabolomics. Our results demonstrate gradients of traditional subsistence patterns in two neighboring African groups and highlight the adaptability of the microbiome in response to host ecology.

Concepts: Bacteria, Amino acid, Metabolism, Nutrition, Biochemistry, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Cameroon


Artemisinin-based therapies are the only effective treatment for malaria, the most devastating disease in human history. To meet the growing demand for artemisinin and make it accessible to the poorest, an inexpensive and rapidly scalable production platform is urgently needed. Here we have developed a new synthetic biology approach, combinatorial supertransformation of transplastomic recipient lines (COSTREL), and applied it to introduce the complete pathway for artemisinic acid, the precursor of artemisinin, into the high-biomass crop tobacco. We first introduced the core pathway of artemisinic acid biosynthesis into the chloroplast genome. The transplastomic plants were then combinatorially supertransformed with cassettes for all additional enzymes known to affect flux through the artemisinin pathway. By screening large populations of COSTREL lines, we isolated plants that produce more than 120 milligram artemisinic acid per kilogram biomass. Our work provides an efficient strategy for engineering complex biochemical pathways into plants and optimizing the metabolic output.

Concepts: Photosynthesis, Metabolism, Adenosine triphosphate, Enzyme, Organism, Chloroplast, Biochemistry, Metabolic pathway