Nav: Home

Cells use sugars to communicate at the molecular level

March 01, 2019

The human body is made up of 30 to 40 million cells, a large and complex network of blood cells, neurons, and specialized cells that make up organs and tissues. Until now, figuring out which mechanisms control communication between them has proven a significant challenge for the field of cell biology.

Research led by Virgil Percec in Penn's Department of Chemistry, in collaboration with the University's departments of cell and developmental biology and biology, and with Temple and Aachen Universities, provides a new tool to study synthetic cells in incredible detail. Percec and his group demonstrated the value of their method by looking at how a cell's structure dictates its ability to communicate and interact with other cells and proteins. They found that sugar molecules play a key role in cellular communication, serving as the "channels" that cells and proteins use to talk to one another. They published their findings this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Ultimately, this research is about understanding how cell membranes function," says Percec. "People try to understand how human cells function, but it is very difficult to do. Everything in the cell is liquid-like, and that makes it difficult to analyze it by routine methods."

Cell biologists have historically used diffraction to study cells. This involves breaking them apart and taking atomic-level pictures of individual parts, such as proteins. The problem with this approach, however, is that it doesn't allow for study of the cell as a whole. Newer methods like fluorescence microscopy allow researchers to study entire cells, but these tools are complicated and don't provide the high-resolution view that diffraction can.

Using engineered synthetic cells as a model system, lead author Cesar Rodriguez-Emmenegger, a former member of Percec's group, now at Aachen, discovered a way to directly study cell membranes using a method called atomic force microscopy. This approach generates extremely high-resolution scans that reveal shapes and structures at a scale of less than a nanometer, nearly 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Percec's group then built a model that computes how the structural images relate to the cell's function.

The study is the first example of a diffraction-like method that can be done on whole synthetic cells. Using this new method, Percec's group discovered that a lower concentration of sugars on a cell membrane's surface led to increased reactivity with proteins on the membranes of other cells.

One of Percec's goals is to figure out how to control cell-to-cell communication and cell function, which is linked with his group's ongoing work in creating hybrid cells made up of parts of human and bacterial cells. While his group has been studying cell membrane mimics and engineered systems since 2010, the discovery of this new diffraction-like method was, as Percec describes, a "lucky accident."

"We approach problems that other people say there is no solution for. You cannot make a big breakthrough overnight,"Percec says. "All these people on our team are gifted and have the machinery needed to solve the various problems along the way that bring the story together."
-end-
This research was supported by National Science Foundation grants DMR-1066116, DMR-1807127, DMR-1120901, and DMR-1720530 (awarded to the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter), the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and National Institutes of Health grant R01-GM080279.

University of Pennsylvania

Related Proteins Articles:

New method to monitor Alzheimer's proteins
IBS-CINAP research team has reported a new method to identify the aggregation state of amyloid beta (Aβ) proteins in solution.
Composing new proteins with artificial intelligence
Scientists have long studied how to improve proteins or design new ones.
Hero proteins are here to save other proteins
Researchers at the University of Tokyo have discovered a new group of proteins, remarkable for their unusual shape and abilities to protect against protein clumps associated with neurodegenerative diseases in lab experiments.
Designer proteins
David Baker, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Washington to speak at the AAAS 2020 session, 'Synthetic Biology: Digital Design of Living Systems.' Prof.
Gone fishin' -- for proteins
Casting lines into human cells to snag proteins, a team of Montreal researchers has solved a 20-year-old mystery of cell biology.
Coupled proteins
Researchers from Heidelberg University and Sendai University in Japan used new biotechnological methods to study how human cells react to and further process external signals.
Understanding the power of honey through its proteins
Honey is a culinary staple that can be found in kitchens around the world.
How proteins become embedded in a cell membrane
Many proteins with important biological functions are embedded in a biomembrane in the cells of humans and other living organisms.
Finding the proteins that unpack DNA
A new method allows researchers to systematically identify specialized proteins called 'nuclesome displacing factors' that unpack DNA inside the nucleus of a cell, making the usually dense DNA more accessible for gene expression and other functions.
A brewer's tale of proteins and beer
The transformation of barley grains into beer is an old story, typically starring water, yeast and hops.
More Proteins News and Proteins Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.