Peering into the Protein Pathways of a Cell

By: Colin Poitras

Nathan Alder, assistant professor of molecular and cell biology, at his lab. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

As a cell’s central power plant, the mitochondrion is a busy place.

Specially-coded proteins from the nucleus are constantly being ferried across the mitochondrion’s inner membrane, where they help the mighty organelle do its work – producing the cell’s high-energy molecules, carrying out signaling duties, and controlling cell growth.

Scientists have long known that the central channel through which most of these proteins must pass – a critical gatekeeper known as the translocase of the inner mitochondrial membrane 23 or TIM23 for short – requires an electrical field for its gating capabilities to function. But they weren’t quite sure how the whole process worked.

Until now.

Using highly sensitive fluorescent probes, a team of scientists based at UConn has managed to peer deep into the inner workings of a cell, capturing the never-before-seen structural dynamics of the TIM23 channel complex while it functioned in its natural environment.

In doing so, the team, led by Nathan N. Alder, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, discovered that the TIM23 complex not only opens and closes in response to fluctuations in the energized state of the mitochondrion’s inner membrane, as the scientific community suspected, it also changes its very structure – altering the helical shape of protein segments that line the channel – as the electrical field across the membrane drops.

The research, which appears this week in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, explains how the energized state of the membrane drives the structural dynamics of membrane proteins and sheds new light on how cellular transport systems harness energy to perform their work inside the cell. It also shows how fluorescent mapping at the subcellular level may reveal new insights into the underlying causes of neurodegenerative and metabolic disorders associated with mitochondrial function.

A visual representation of structural alterations in the protein-conducting channel of the TIM23 complex that occur in response to changes in the energized state of the mitochondrial inner membrane. (Graphic courtesy of Nathan Alder)

A visual representation of structural alterations in the protein-conducting channel of the TIM23 complex that occur in response to changes in the energized state of the mitochondrial inner membrane. (Graphic courtesy of Nathan Alder)

Nikolaus Pfanner of the University of Freiburg, Germany, an international leader in the field of cellular protein trafficking, and several members of his research group, called the study “a major step towards a molecular understanding of a voltage-gated protein translocase.”

“The molecular nature of voltage sensors in membrane proteins is a central question in biochemical research,” Pfanner and his colleagues said. “The study … is not only of fundamental importance for our understanding of mitochondrial biogenesis, but also opens up new perspectives in the search for voltage-responsive elements in membrane proteins.”

Applying a new technique

The fluorescent mapping technique used in the research was a key to the project’s success. Alder says he first realized the application’s potential when he successfully mapped channel proteins in a functioning mitochondrion in 2008. In the current study, he advanced the process further, using probes to capture the behavior of a particular segment of the TIM23 channel complex as it was impacted by voltage changes in the membrane’s electrical field.

“Fluorescent mapping made this possible,” says Alder, who, as a post-doctoral student, worked with protein fluorescent labeling pioneer Arthur E. Johnson of Texas A&M’s Health Science Center. “It allowed us to peer into the functioning dynamics of a protein import channel complex that is responsible for building up the power plant of the cell … What we found was that these protein-trafficking complexes are certainly not static. This is a very, very dynamic channel.”

To monitor the fluorescence probes inside the mitochondria, the research team used advanced spectrofluorimeters equipped with xenon lamps and laser diodes to measure steady-state and time-resolved fluorescence, respectively.

Read more at UConn Today.

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