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Molecular biology mystery unravelled

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Press release issued: 18 February 2014

The nature of the machinery responsible for the entry of proteins into cell membranes has been unravelled by scientists, who hope the breakthrough could ultimately be exploited for the design of new anti-bacterial drugs.

Groups of researchers from the University of Bristol and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) used new genetic engineering technologies to reconstruct and isolate the cell’s protein trafficking machinery. Its analysis has shed new light on a process which had previously been a mystery for molecular biologists.

The findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), could also have applications for synthetic biology - an emerging field of science and technology, for the development of novel membrane proteins with useful activities.

Proteins are the building blocks of all life and are essential for the growth of cells and tissue repair. The proteins in the membrane typically help the cell interact with its environment and conserve energy. 

Researchers were able to identify the ‘holo-translocon’ as the machinery which inserts proteins into the membrane. It is a large membrane protein complex and is uniquely capable of both protein-secretion and membrane-insertion.

Professor Ian Collinson, from the School of Biochemistry at Bristol University, said: “These findings are important as they address outstanding questions in one of the central pillars of biology, a process essential in every cell in every organism. Having unravelled how this vital holo-translocon works, we’re now in a position to look at its components to see if they can help in the design or screening for new anti-bacterial drugs.”

The discovery is a result of an international collaboration between the University of Bristol team andDrs Christiane Schaffitzel and Imre Berger of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) outstation in Grenoble, France. 

The work was funded in Bristol by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) through a project grant and a doctoral training programme.

Further information

Paper: 

Membrane protein insertion and proton-motiveforce-dependent secretion through the bacterial holo-translocon SecYEG–SecDF–YajC–YidCby R. Schulze, J. Komar, M. Botte, W. Allen, S. Whitehouse, V. Gold, J. Lycklama a Nijeholt, K. Huard, I. Berger, C. Schaffitzel and I. Collinson in PNAS.

Further information

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £467M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk