Structural Basis of Protein Homestasis

Investigator: Peter Walter, PhD
Sponsor: NIH National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Location(s): United States


The proper folding of newly made proteins is very important for every cell. Numerous human diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, and cancer, as well as normal aging are linked to the failure to fold proteins properly. We will determine the structure of cellular machines that recognize misfolded proteins to help them fold or target them for degration. A detailed structural understanding will contribute to the development of new therapies.

 The integrity of the cellular proteome is critically dependent on an elaborate network of protein quality control machines that both aid in the folding of newly made proteins and allow for the recognition and disposal of terminally misfolded forms. Many diverse human diseases, including familial protein folding diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, and cancer, as well as normal aging have been linked to the failure to maintain proper protein homeostasis. Thus defining the mechanism of action of the protein quality control machinery is a major goal in the quest for understanding of health and pathology in all living cells. A common theme to this machinery is the ability to recognize portions of unfolded polypeptide chains, either to facilitate their subsequent folding/refolding or degradation, or to signal in adaptive responses aimed at restoring the balance between supply and demand of the protein folding capacity. Most molecular events in protein quality control work on many diverse substrates and hence possess considerable plasticity in substrate binding. While much progress has been made in structural and functional analysis of individual components of these machines, there are few examples where substrate-bound structures have been determined or where a substrate "recognition code" has been defined and validated. As such, we are lacking in our understanding of core principles that govern workings of these protein machines. We propose to bridge this gap by focusing on a core set of physiologically critical systems that cover a range of molecular features but share the common requirement of having to balance specificity and plasticity in molecular recognition events. In particular, we wil focus on cytosolic chaperone substrate recognition (using examples of the hsp70, hsp90, and TRIC families of chaperones) and the recognition of unfolded proteins in the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) for degradation via the ER-associated degradation pathway (ERAD) and for signaling via the unfolded protein response (UPR).