The research was conducted by Dennis Discher and Christine Krieger in the Molecular and Cell Biophysics Lab in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, along with researchers from the New York Blood Center and the Wistar Institute.
Discher’s research was published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In stark contrast with much of the architecture people interact with every day, the internal architecture of the human body is predominantly soft. Other than bones, all of the organs, tissues and structures in the body are pliable and flexible and need to be that way in order to work.
The Discher lab’s research aims to understand what keeps these flexible structures stable, especially when they are under constant physical stress. Discher selected red blood cells as a model for this stress, as they make a complete lap of the turbulent circulatory system every few minutes but survive for months.
“Red blood cells are disks, and they have proteins right below the membrane that give it resilience, like a car tire,” Discher said. “The cells are filled with hemoglobin like the tires are filled with air, but where the rubber meets the road is the exterior.”
To measure stress in that membrane on an atomic level, the Discher team needed a way to track changes to the shape of those supporting proteins. They found an ideal proxy for that stress in the amino acid cysteine.
Proteins are long chain of amino acids that are tightly folded in on themselves. The order and chemical properties of the acids determine the locations of the folds, which in turn determine the function of the protein. Cysteine is “hydrophobic”; it interacts poorly with water and so it is usually on the inside of a protein. And because stress changes the shape of these folded proteins, Discher reasoned that measuring the degree to which cysteine is exposed would in effect measure how stressed the protein and cells containing it are.
Discher’s team simulated the shear forces originating from the beating heart, which forcefully pumps blood and ultimately pulls apart the folds that keep cysteine on the inside of proteins at the red blood cell membrane, allowing it to bind with a fluorescent marker dye. The team could visually confirm that more stressed cells were more fluorescent under the microscope but actually tested the levels of marked cysteine using mass spectrometry.
“Just like a polymer engineer designing a tire, we’re looking at the relationship between the chemical makeup and the physical stability of the structure and how it performs,” Discher said. “We can use this technique to look at the relationship between structure, flexibility and function.”
Investigating the structural elements of blood cells could pave the way to breakthroughs for human health.
“How long can blood be stored? Why are there no good blood substitutes? There are a lot of things we don’t understand about the forces cells can sustain before fragmenting and falling apart, especially when we consider age and mutations,” he said.
The Discher team studied the mutated blood cells that result in disorders known as elliptocytosis; cells are elliptical, rather than round, and therefore have shorter functional lifespans. These elliptical cells are often missing a chemical “rivet” that anchors the support proteins to the outer membrane, which means that stress causes them to “disassociate,” or disconnect, rather than unfold.
That kind of structural change is crippling to the function of anatomical structures like blood cells. The flexibility provided by unfolding is therefore key to their overall stability.
“At least for this cell, the first mechanism of response is to unfold proteins and keep the interactions between proteins the same,” Discher said. “That constant back and forth with unfolding within these cells as the cells flow and distort while in the blood stream, allows their architecture to be maintained.”
Discher and his colleagues plan to use their cysteine-mass-spectometry technique to investigate the role of softness and flexibility in responding to stress in other biological systems, particularly stem cells, and to better understand why those traits are intrinsic to life on this planet.
Along with Discher and Krieger, the research was conducted by Xiuli An and Narla Mohandas of the New York Blood Center and Hsin-Yao Tang and David W. Speicher of the Wistar Institute.
The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.
Evan Lerner | EurekAlert!
Bolstering fat cells offers potential new leukemia treatment
17.10.2017 | McMaster University
Ocean atmosphere rife with microbes
17.10.2017 | King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST)
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
17.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
17.10.2017 | Life Sciences
17.10.2017 | Life Sciences
17.10.2017 | Earth Sciences