News and Updates

Emad Tajkhorshid and co-PIs at UIUC recipients of NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Research

University of Illinois professor and MPSDC team member Emad Tajkhorshid, along with co-PIs Chad Rienstra (Chemistry) and James Morrissey (Biochemistry) have been awarded a Director’s Transformative Research Award from the National Institutes of Health for their highly creative approach to the study of cell membrane lipids.

Membrane proteins are abundant in eukaryotic cells and play important roles in a great many biological processes ranging from cell adhesion and recognition to energy production to signaling cascades. 

Membrane proteins make up more than half of the targets for currently approved drugs, which underscores their relevance to human disease but less is known about the membrane lipids that interact with proteins and ligands.

It is becoming increasingly clear that lipids are effector molecules that modulate and/or directly carry out essential biological functions at very different rates depending on what types of lipids are present. Some examples include blood clotting, cell recognition (in immunological response especially), ion conduction (important for neuronal function and viral infection), transport of drugs across the membrane, and pain response.

A potential long-term application is the development of more effective drugs that target biological membranes. Since about 60% of the drugs on the market target membrane-bound proteins, a better understanding of lipid structure and dynamics could greatly improve the efficacy of drug design efforts by modeling the interactions that take place. This would have broader impacts on understanding all the biological functions above and potentially to address the resulting pathologies or diseases. Better blood thinners would help to ameliorate deep vein thrombosis, heart attacks and strokes. Improved modeling of immunological cell recognition and viral life cycles would help to address infectious diseases ranging from influenza to HIV/AIDS. Understanding how drugs are transported would aid in the development of better antibiotics. The project aims to develop a toolkit of methods that would be available to researchers addressing this range of problems and many others.

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research (HRHR) program, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH’s Common Fund) awarded twelve transformative research awards funded by the Director’s office. The awards span the broad mission of the NIH and include groundbreaking research.

Read more about the project here: link

In memory: Klaus Schulten

Klaus Schulten, professor of physics and Beckman Institute faculty member for nearly 25 years, has died after an illness. Schulten, who led the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group, was a leader in the field of biophysics, conducting seminal work in the area of molecular dynamics simulations, illuminating biological processes and structures in ways that weren’t possible before. His research focused on the structure and function of supramolecular systems in the living cell, and on the development of non-equilibrium statistical mechanical descriptions and efficient computing tools for structural biology. Schulten received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1974. At Illinois, he was Swanlund Professor of Physics and was affiliated with the Department of Chemistry as well as with the Center for Biophysics and Computational Biology; he was Director of the Biomedical Technology Research Center for Macromolecular Modeling and Bioinformatics as well as Co-Director of the Center for the Physics of Living Cells.

A memorial service and reception was held November 7. The Beckman Institute will host an honorary symposium in 2017.

Benoît Roux, PI of the MPSDC Computational Modeling Core of which Schulten was an active contributor, shares the following words:

Understanding how biological macromolecular systems (proteins, nucleic acids, membranes) function in terms of their atomic structure represents an outstanding challenge for computational chemists and biophysicists. In this regards, the groundbreaking achievements of Klaus Schulten in Biophysics have opened the door to an unprecedented understanding of biological macromolecular machines. Thanks to the pioneering work of Klaus Schulten, models rigorously anchored in physical laws are now an intrinsic part of life sciences. Because of his intellectual leadership, the complexity of biological systems that can be simulated goes well beyond anything one would have dreamed just a few years ago. By his outstanding contributions, Klaus Schulten has changed the paradigm of computational science and molecular dynamics simulations of complex molecular systems. His tragic loss will long resonate throughout our community.

But Klaus was more than a great scientist, for many of us he was also a close friend. He was great company, and a very collegial and generous member of our community. We will cherish all these memories with him forever.

Solving a Major Piece of a Cellular Mystery about Nuclear Pore Complexes

Drs. Shohei Koide and Anthony Kossiakoff recently worked together with a team to determines the architecture of a second subcomplex of the nuclear pore complex, in so doing solving a major quandary of answering how a nuclear pore complex (NPC) can be such an effective gatekeeper, preventing much from entering the nucleus while helping to shuttle certain molecules across the nuclear envelope.

The scientific team was featured in multiple publications including Caltech and the Argonne National Laboratory Science Highlights (reproduced in part below). The research was supported in part by the Consortium, and culminated in the following publication:

Architecture of the fungal nuclear pore inner ring complex

Stuwe T, Bley CJ, Thierbach K, Petrovic S, Schilbach S, Mayo DJ, Perriches T, Rundlet EJ, Jeon YE, Collins LN, Huber FM, Lin DH, Paduch M, Koide A, Lu V, Fischer J, Hurt E, Koide S, Kossiakoff AA, Hoelz A. Science. 2015 Oct 2;350(6256):56-64. PMID: 26316600.

Learn more »

Solving a Major Piece of a Cellular Mystery

This article by Argonne reproduced in part can be read here

Not just anything is allowed to enter the nucleus, the heart of eukaryotic cells where, among other things, genetic information is stored. A double membrane, called the “nuclear envelope,” serves as a wall, protecting the contents of the nucleus. Any molecules trying to enter or exit the nucleus must do so via a cellular gatekeeper known as the nuclear pore complex (NPC), or pore, which exists within the envelope.

How can the NPC be such an effective gatekeeper — preventing much from entering the nucleus while helping to shuttle certain molecules across the nuclear envelope? Scientists have been trying to figure that out for decades, at least in part because the NPC is targeted by a number of diseases, including some aggressive forms of leukemia and nervous system disorders such as a hereditary form of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Now a team of researchers from Caltech, The University of Chicago, and the Biochemistry Center of Heidelberg University (Germany), led by André Hoelz and working at three U.S. Department of Energy synchrotron light sources including the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne, has solved a crucial piece of the puzzle.

In February of this 2015, the team published a paper describing the atomic structure of the NPC’s coat nucleoporin complex, a subcomplex that forms what they now call the outer rings (see the figure). Building on that work, the team has now solved the architecture of the pore’s inner ring, a subcomplex that is central to the NPC’s ability to serve as a barrier and transport facilitator. In order to determine that architecture, which determines how the ring’s proteins interact with each other, the biochemists built up the complex in a test tube and then systematically dissected it to understand the individual interactions between components. Then they validated that this is actually how it works in vivo, in a species of fungus.

Read more »

Researchers discover structure of fluoride-specific ion channel

Dr. Shohei Koide‘s collaborations in a scientific team seeking to discover the structure of a fluoride-specific ion channel was recently featured in Brandeis NOW, a scientific research publication published by Brandeis University. The work focuses on Dr. Christopher Miller’s lab, based at Brandeis University. The research was supported in part by the Consortium, and culminated in the following publication:

Crystal structures of a double-barrelled fluoride ion channel

Stockbridge RB, Kolmakova-Partensky L, Shane T, Koide A, Koide S, Miller C, Newstead S. Nature. 2015 Sep 24;525(7570):548-51. PMID: 26344196.

Learn more »

Researchers discover structure of fluoride-specific ion channel

Creation of ‘atomic blueprint’ is a biological novelty

The original Brandeis NOW press release by Kimm Fesenmaier can be read here

Fluoride protects our teeth against cavity-causing bacteria by making our teeth stronger. But what if we could find a way to trap fluoride ions (the negatively charged form of the chemical element fluorine) inside bacteria? At the right concentration, fluoride ions are highly toxic to bacteria, wreaking havoc on their proteins and disrupting critical cellular functions. Bacteria, however, can fight back, exporting the toxic fluoride ions out using specialized proteins called fluoride-specific ion channels.

How these proteins remove fluoride ions from the cell is poorly understand. To glimpse into the inner workings of these proteins, researchers in Christopher Miller’s lab at Brandeis University in collaboration with Simon Newstead at the University of Oxford have determined the structure of one such fluoride-specific ion channel from the Bordetella pertussis bacteria called Bpe.

In a paper published by Nature on Sept. 7, lead author Randy Stockbridge, a post-doctorate fellow in Miller’s lab, and colleagues used a technique called X-ray crystallography to obtain an “atomic blueprint” illustrating the arrangement of the amino acids that make up Bpe. The details provide important insight into how Bpe exports fluoride out of the cell. Intriguingly, the schematics also point out potential weaknesses in Bpe that could be exploited to trap fluoride inside bacteria.

Based on the blueprint, the Bpe fluoride-specific ion channel resembles an hourglass and is actually composed of two Bpe protein molecules. At the center where the hourglass constricts is a sodium ion that may act like a pin that fastens the two Bpe proteins together. However, rather than having a central pore like an hourglass, the arrangement of the two Bpe molecules forms two parallel tunnels through which fluoride ions could flow. The blueprint also helps explain why Bpe only exports fluoride; the tunnels are just the right size for fluoride ions, but are too narrow for the biologically abundant chloride ion, fluoride’s larger but chemically similar cousin.

Notably, the researchers observed two unidentifiable “hazy shadows” in each tunnel, which they concluded were fluoride ions. First, many of the amino acids along the walls of each channel that protrude toward the shadows are chemically attracted to fluoride ions. Consistently, when the researchers mutated some of these amino acids to change their chemical properties, Bpe’s ability to export fluoride ions out of the bacteria was dramatically reduced. The researchers also studied the structure of a related fluoride-specific ion channel, Ec2, and found similar hazy shadows in its tunnels.

The researchers also noted a peculiar feature of Bpe that has implications for how the protein moves fluoride out. At one point in each of the tunnels, the side chain, or chemical appendage, of a particular amino acid protrudes inward, contacts the fluoride ion, and impedes its path to the exit. The side chain can swivel though, so it may be that the fluoride ion grasps it as though it were a turnstile and is then pulled to the other side when the side chain rotates.

Armed with Bpe’s blueprints, researchers can exploit structural weaknesses and develop strategies that kill bacteria by preventing fluoride from being moved out. Chemical compounds could be designed that pull the sodium ion pin and dismantle Bpe or that lock the turnstile causing a fluoride traffic jam that backs up into the cell.

In addition to Stockbridge, Miller and Newstead, the paper’s other authors are Ludmila Kolmakova-Partensky, Tania Shane, Akiko Koide and Shohei Koide.

The research was supported in part by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award and grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (RO1-GM107023 and U54-GM087519). Stockbridge also was supported by an NIH grant (K99-GM-111767). Miller is a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator.

Biophysical Society announces MPSDC Chair Eduardo Perozo as 2016 Society Fellow

On August 31, 2015 the Biophysical Society announced that MPSDC Chair Eduardo Perozo was elected as a 2016 Society Fellow. This award honors the Society’s distinguished members who have demonstrated excellence in science, contributed to the expansion of the field of biophysics, and supported the Biophysical Society. The Fellows will be honored at the Awards Ceremony during the Biophysical Society’s 60th Annual Meeting on Monday February 29, 2016 at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, California. Perozo was elected for his leadership and fundamental contributions in ion channel biophysics.

Highlights and overview of selected recent Consortium-sponsored publications

Biomolecular DNP- supported NMR spectroscopy using site directed spin labeling

Authors: Elwin A.W. van der Cruijsen, Eline J. Koers, Claire Sauvee, Raymond E. Hulse, Markus Weingarth, Olivier Ouari, Eduardo Perozo, Paul Tordo, and Marc Baldus.

In the press, Journal of the American Chemical Society. (Consortium project: Dynamics of Ion Permeation and Conformation Coupling in KcsA)

Molecular probes that combine the benefits of enhanced spectroscopic sensitivity with site-specific localization have significantly expanded our ability to track molecular structure and function in applications ranging from cell biology to material science . In the field of magnetic resonance, dynamic nuclear polarization (DNP) has become a widely usable method to significantly enhance overall spectroscopic sensitivity in NMR and MRI. Here, the authors show that DNP can be established by creating local spin clusters via site-directed spin labeling using mono- or biradicals. Applied to a membrane-embedded potassium channel, we show that this approach can significantly enhance NMR sensitivity while preserving the intrinsic spectroscopic properties of (bi)radicals as paramagnetic relaxation enhancers.

The results suggest that the creation of local spin clusters can generate sizable DNP enhancements while preserving the intrinsic benefits of PRE-based NMR approaches. Our results are consistent with the idea that the magnitude in DNP enhancement are highly dependent on the nearest neighbor electron-electron distances.

13C NMR detects conformational change in the 100-kD membrane transporter Cl-C-ec1

Authors: Sherwin J. Abraham, Ricky C. Cheng, Thomas A. Chew, Chandra M. Khantwal, Corey W. Liu, Shimei Gong, Robert K. Nakamoto, and Merritt Maduke.

J Biomol NMR. 2015 Jan 29. (Consortium project: Conformational Dynamics in the CLC Channel Transporter Family. Consortium core: Membrane Protein Production)

Members of the Cl-C (‘‘Chloride-Channel’’) family play central roles in cardiovascular, neuronal, bone, and epithelial function. Cl-C transporters catalyze the exchange of Cl--for H+ across cellular membranes. To do so, they must couple Cl-- and H+ binding and unbinding to protein conformational change. However, the sole conformational changes distinguished crystallographically are small movements of a glutamate side chain that locally gates the ion transport pathways. Therefore, our understanding of whether and how global protein dynamics contribute to the exchange mechanism has been severely limited. To overcome the limitations of crystallography, the authors used solution-state 13Cmethyl NMR with labels on methionine, lysine, and engineered cysteine residues to investigate substrate (H+) dependent conformational change outside the restraints of crystallization. They show that methyl labels in several regions report H+-dependent spectral changes. They  identify one of these regions as Helix R, a helix that extends from the center of the protein, where it forms the part of the inner gate to the Cl-–permeation pathway, to the extracellular solution. The H+-dependent spectral change does not occur when a label is positioned just beyond Helix R, on the unstructured C-terminus of the protein.

Together, the results suggest that H+ binding is mechanistically coupled to Cl-osing of the intracellular access-pathway for Cl--. These studies set the stage for investigating the structural details and dynamics of this change.

Room-Temperature Distance Measurements of Immobilized Spin-Labeled Protein by DEER/PELDOR

Authors: Virginia Meyer, Michael A. Swanson, Laura J. Clouston, Przemyslaw J. Boratynski, Richard A. Stein, Hassane S. Mchaourab, Andrzej Rajca, Sandra S. Eaton, and Gareth R. Eaton.

Biophys J. 2015 Mar 10;108(5):1213-9. (Consortium Core: Membrane Protein Production)

Nitroxide spin labels are used for double electron-electron resonance (DEER) measurements of distances between sites in biomolecules. Rotation of gem-dimethyls in commonly used nitroxides causes spin echo dephasing times (Tm) to be too short to perform DEER measurements at temperatures between ~80 and 295 K, even in immobilized samples. A spirocyclohexyl spin label has been prepared that has longer Tm between 80 and 295 K in immobilized samples than conventional labels. Two of the spirocyclohexyl labels were attached to sites on T4 lysozyme introduced by site-directed spin labeling. Interspin distances up to ~4 nm were measured by DEER at temperatures up to 160 K in water/glycerol glasses. In a glassy trehalose matrix the Tm for the doubly labeled T4 lysozyme was long enough to measure an interspin distance of 3.2 nm at 295 K, which could not be measured for the same protein labeled with the conventional 1-oxyl-2,2,5,5-tetramethyl-3-pyrroline-3-(methyl) methanethio-sulfonate label.

The leap from 80 K DEER measurements to room temperature is an important step toward DEER measurement in physiological environments. The current fundamental requirement for DEER of protein immobilization provides additional avenues toward improvement of the technique.

Architecture of the nuclear pore complex coat

Authors: Tobias Stuwe, Ana R. Correia, Daniel H. Lin, Marcin Paduch, Vincent T. Lu, Anthony A. Kossiakoff, and André Hoelz.

Science. 2015 Mar 6;347(6226):1148-52. (Consortium core: Synthetic Antigen Binder (SAB) Generation and Crystallography)

The nuclear pore complex (NPC) constitutes the sole gateway for bidirectional nucleocytoplasmic transport. Despite half a century of structural characterization, the architecture of the NPC remains unknown. In this research report, the authors present the crystal structure of a reconstituted ~400-kilodalton coat nucleoporin complex (CNC) from Saccharomyces cerevisiae at a 7.4 angstrom resolution. The crystal structure revealed a curved Y-shaped architecture and the molecular details of the coat nucleoporin interactions forming the central “triskelion” of the Y. A structural comparison of the yeast CNC with an electron microscopy reconstruction of its human counterpart suggested the evolutionary conservation of the elucidated architecture. Moreover, 32 copies of the CNC crystal structure docked readily into a cryoelectron tomographic reconstruction of the fully assembled human NPC, thereby accounting for ~16 megadalton of its mass.

Multilevel Summation Method for Electrostatic Force Evaluation

Authors: David J. Hardy, Zhe Wu, James C. Phillips, John E. Stone, Robert D. Skeel, and Klaus Schulten.

J Chem Theory Comput. 2015 Feb 10;11(2):766-779. PMCID: PMC4325600. (Consortium core: Computational Modeling Core)

Significant long-range electrostatic interactions arise in many biomolecular systems, such as negatively charged DNA and RNA, polar or charged membranes, ion channels, and electrostatic steering of protein−protein and enzyme−substrate association. Accordingly, electrostatic interactions need to be accurately represented in molecular modeling calculations. The computational cost increases in principle as N2, where N is the number of charged partiCl-es in the system.

The multilevel summation method (MSM) offers an efficient algorithm utilizing convolution for evaluating long-range forces arising in molecular dynamics simulations. Shifting the balance of computation and communication, MSM provides key advantages over the ubiquitous partiCl-e−mesh Ewald (PME) method, offering better scaling on parallel computers and permitting more modeling flexibility, with support for periodic systems as does PME but also for semiperiodic and nonperiodic systems. The version of MSM available in the simulation program NAMD is described, and its performance and accuracy are compared with the PME method. The accuracy feasible for MSM in practical applications reproduces PME results for water property calculations of density, diffusion constant, dielectric constant, surface tension, radial distribution function, and distance dependent Kirkwood factor, even though the numerical accuracy of PME is higher than that of MSM. Excellent agreement between MSM and PME is found also for interface potentials of air−water and membrane−water interfaces, where long-range Coulombic interactions are crucial. Applications demonstrate also the suitability of MSM for systems with semiperiodic and nonperiodic boundaries. For this purpose, simulations have been performed with periodic boundaries along directions parallel to a membrane surface but not along the surface normal, yielding membrane pore formation induced by an imbalance of charge across the membrane. Using a similar semiperiodic boundary condition, ion conduction through a graphene nanopore driven by an ion gradient has been simulated. Furthermore, proteins have been simulated inside a single spherical water droplet. Finally, parallel scalability results show the ability of MSM to outperform PME when scaling a system of modest size (less than 100 K atoms) to over a thousand processors, demonstrating the suitability of MSM for large-scale parallel simulation.

Ongoing is the development of improved interpolation for MSM to provide higher accuracy for a given polynomial degree p without increasing the computational cost. Future work inCl-udes also the calculation of dispersion forces without truncation with MSM-based NAMD; these forces, in particular, their long-range contribution, are considered to be important for membrane properties. With support in NAMD also for long-range dispersion forces, the present CHARMM-prescribed 12 Å cutoff/splitting distance can be used as a true control for MSM accuracy. High performance simulations will then be able to achieve practical accuracy with a reduced splitting distance, where a splitting distance of between 8 and 9 Å is expected to double the overall simulation performance.

Potential Application of Alchemical Free Energy Simulations to Discriminate GPCR Ligand Efficacy

Authors: Hui Sun Lee, Chaok Seok, and Wonpil Im.

J. Chem. Theory Comput. 2015 Feb 10;11:1255-1266. (Consortium core: Computational Modeling Core)

G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) constitute the largest protein superfamily in the human genome with almost 1,000  members. They play key functional roles as major contributors of information flow from the outside to the inside of the cell, making them one of the most important protein families. As a result of their broad influence on human physiology and behavior, GPCRs are arguably the most promising targets for development of new and more effective therapeutic agents.

Based on the fact that GPCR-mediated signaling is modulated in a ligand-specific manner such as agonist, inverse agonist, and neutral antagonist (termed ligand efficacy), quantitative characterization of the ligand efficacy is essential for rational design of selective modulators for GPCR targets. As experimental approaches for this purpose are time-, cost-, and labor-intensive, computational tools that can systematically predict GPCR ligand efficacy can have a big impact on GPCR drug design. Here, the authors have performed free energy perturbation molecular dynamics simulations to calculate absolute binding free energy of an inverse agonist, a neutral antagonist, and an agonist to β2-adrenergic receptor (β2-AR) active and inactive states, respectively, in explicit lipid bilayers. Relatively short alchemical free energy calculations reveal that both the time series of the total binding free energy and decomposed energy contributions can be used as relevant physical properties to discriminate β2-AR ligand efficacy. This study illustrates a merit of the current approach over simple, fast docking calculations or highly expensive millisecond-time scale simulations.

It is the authors’ hope that their computational approach improves research and development efficiency in designing novel lead compounds targeting various GPCRs for the treatment of various human diseases.

Publication by S.M. Islam and B. Roux about spin-labels selected for J. Phys. Chem. B cover illustration

A publication by Computational Modeling Core participant Benoît Roux and postdoc Shahidul Islam titled “Simulating the Distance Distribution between Spin-Labels Attached to Proteins,” published in Journal of Physical Chemistry B 119(10) on February 2nd, was selected as the cover illustration for that issue.

Cover Art: Simplified representation of spin-labels inserted in protein were used in molecular dynamics (MD) simulation to obtain spin-pair distance distributions that could be directly compared to those obtained from EPR/DEER for the validation of the structural models of proteins and the simplified spin-labels could also be used in restrained-ensemble MD simulation for the structural refinement of proteins by using the EPR/DEER distance distribution data.

Room reservations now available at the DoubleTree Hotel

DoubleTree by Hilton Chicago – Magnificent Mile
300 East Ohio Street, Chicago, IL 60611 (Map and Directions)
Phone: (312) 787-6100

Hotel fact sheet:

The Consortium will cover all related costs for the Consortium PI and one postdoc/student. Any additional attendees will be responsible for covering all costs related to the meeting.

A block of rooms has been reserved under the name of MPSDC 2015 Annual Meeting for additional attendees from April 28 to May 1st. Please visit this page to access reservations under this block (group code: UCG)

If you have any questions about booking, please contact Lisa Anderson at

MPSDC 2015 Annual Meeting program now available

The program for the MPSDC 2015 Annual Meeting has been posted to the website. Please visit the program page to see the schedule for each day.

MPSDC 2015 Annual Meeting announced

MPSDC 2013 Annual Meeting attendees at the Gleacher Center

The Membrane Protein Structural Dynamics (MPSDC) 2015 Annual Meeting website has been launched, and we are ready to receive registrations! Please note that unlike last year’s Frontiers in Membrane Protein Dynamics conference, this annual meeting is open to Consortium participants and invited guests only.

Program at a glance

The Gleacher Center, Chicago IL

DAY 1: Wednesday, April 29th
1:00pm-5:00pm | Workshop: Exploring the Interface Between Computation and Experiment

DAY 2: Thursday, April 30th
8:30am-5:00pm | Scientific Sessions

DAY 3: Friday, May 1st
8:00am-12:30pm | Featured Talks

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