Cell-to-cell communication exposed
Structure of the gap junction communication channel from the eye lens, resolved to near-atomic resolution by the Reichow Lab. [Portland State University]
Using cryo-EM, US-based researchers have imaged the 3D structure of proteins from inside the eye lens.
As Professor Steve Reichow from Portland State University highlights, these proteins control how cells communicate with each other, and the latest results open the door to new ways to treat cataracts, cancer and more.
To better understand the processes involved in cell-to-cell communication, Reichow and colleagues used single-particle cryo-electron microscopy to determine the structure of membrane protein channels - the transportation tunnels in cell walls - at the atomic level.
The also used comparative molecular dynamics simulations to understand the key features of ion permeation and selectivity,
Their findings show for the first time how gap junctions selectively pass or block chemical information.
Until now, it was not known how these channels would allow certain messages to pass between cells while specifically blocking others.
2D images, left, and the 3D structure, right, of the gap junction communication channel from the eye lens, resolved to near-atomic resolution by the Reichow Lab using cryo-electron microscopy. [Reichow Lab | Portland State University]
Reichow believes the detailed images will open the door to understanding, and potentially treating, different types of diseases that are associated with the loss of function in cellular communication involving gap junctions, such as cataracts, cardiac arrhythmia, stroke and certain cancers.
"Currently there's no drug on the market today that can specifically block or activate gap junction proteins," he says. "But our discovery may one day pave the way for development of pharmaceuticals that can control heart disease or other diseases that are associated with the malfunctions or mis-regulations of these protein channels."
Now that Reichow and colleagues have established a method for characterising the proteins, they are trying to understand the nuances of how the body uses gap junctions differently across tissues and organs.
Research is published in Nature.