15. November 2016

CBL: Membrane Proteins in Slow Motion

Members of the Center for Advanced Bioanalysis Ltd. (CBL) have developed an innovative method to monitor proteins in biological membranes. 

The research findings have been recently published in the renowned scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology. In cooperation with Prof. Peter Pohl (Institute of Biophysics, JKU), lead researchers DI Andreas Karner and Dr. Johannes Preiner have developed a platform to study membrane proteins. These innovative methods allow scientists to observe the biomolecules in an environment very similar to real situations in biological cells. The motion of the proteins being studied can be slowed down and controlled, as if they were moving in slow motion. Information on the protein movement and motion is significant when it comes to developing new drugs.

Versatile Platform

The biological cells in our body are separated by membranes. The embedded proteins serve as communication interfaces between the cell interior and the outside world, fulfilling a wide range of functions, including transport and signal transmission. At CBL, scientists use high-resolution microscopy techniques, such as high-speed scanning microscopy, to study membrane proteins. The proteins are extracted from cells, isolated, integrated into the membranes, and then spread out on the flat surfaces for experimental study. By means of tricky substructure modifications, researchers have succeeded in creating a nearly natural environment for membrane proteins and simulating the dense clutter in a cell. By reducing the space a protein has to an ever smaller area of the membrane, the proteins’ mobility adjusts to the respective study technique being used and in this way, their dynamic structure can be observed with high spatial and temporal resolution.

Proteins Behave Like Horses on a Pasture

DI Karner, the first author of the published study, compared the deceleration of membrane proteins to a pasture horse. The animal’s movement on the pasture can be restricted when certain areas are fenced off. The smaller these areas, the less freedom of movement and it is easier to observe the horses from close up. From time to time a horse can jump over the fence into an adjacent area. Proteins on the developed platform display the same behavior. Of course, the dimensions are different as proteins are only a few nanometers - meaning just millionths of millimeters - in size.

The method can be applied to a majority of all membrane proteins and gives scientists a versatile tool that will open up new possibilities in international and multidisciplinary research on membrane proteins. The function of proteins is due to the dynamic change in their structure. The platform developed at CBL now allows scientists to explore these dynamic changes which can be used for, among other things, developing new active drug ingredients. Dr. Preiner, project manager and head of the Nanoanalytics Group at CBL, remarked, “Being published in such a well-known journal as Nature Nanotechnology is a great achievement and confirms the high quality of our research.”

Publication: Karner, B. Nimmvervoll, B. Plochberger, E. Klotzsch, A.Horner, D.G. Knyazev, R. Kuttner, K. Winkler, L. Winter, C. Siligan, N. Ollinger, P. Pohl, and J. Preiner, Tuning membrane protein mobility by confinement into nanodomains, Nature Nanotechnology, 2016, DOI: 10.1038/NNANO.2016.236

Copyright: JKU Sandra Posch