Insight on Research


How the poly(A) tail is added to the end of mRNAs

polymerase module structure

Genes are encoded in DNA and need to be copied into an intermediate mRNA molecule that contains the instructions to allow synthesis of protein. Almost every mRNA has a repetitive sequence at one end called a poly(A) tail. The length of this tail specifies the amount of time that the mRNA is present in the cell, and how often it is translated into protein. Errors or changes in the tail are found in human diseases including β-thalassemia, thrombophilia and cancer, as well as viral infections.

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Network control principles predict neuron function in the C. elegans connectome

Image of a nematode worm brain

The connectome of an animal is the comprehensive map, or wiring diagram, of all the neural connections in the brain. However, an important challenge is how to make sense of this information.  The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, still the only animal for which the entire connectome has been described, illustrates the problem. Although it has only 302 neurons, these make thousands of connections.

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Folate and formaldehyde: from vitamin to genotoxin to DNA building block

Cell growth requires the synthesis of molecules, such as nucleotides to make DNA and amino acids to make proteins. One essential building block of these is the one carbon unit. This is produced by the one carbon (1C) cycle, which requires the vitamin folate and the amino acid serine (the main source of the 1C unit). 1C metabolism is important for human health, and folate deficiency causes birth defects, nerve damage and anaemia.

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Amino acid homorepeats influence the function and evolution of proteins

A section of a protein containing an amino acid homorepeat.

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Just twenty different amino acids are strung together in different orders – like beads – to build all the proteins in living organisms. When a single type of amino acid is found consecutively within a protein, this is known as a homorepeat. Abnormal variation in the length of amino acid homorepeats has long been known to be associated with disease, such as Huntington’s.

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Mechanism for cleaning up leftover proteins

Clearing up leftover parts of a complex machine

The cells in our body contain numerous molecular machines that carry out nearly all biological processes essential for life. These machines are built from proteins that are often assembled into complex structures. For example ribosomes contain 80 distinct proteins on a scaffold of four different RNAs. The assembly of such structures from so many parts is a complicated process and inevitably results in ‘leftover’ proteins.

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Uncovering the action of a selective holophosphatase inhibitor

Proteins can be reversibly phosphorylated – phosphate groups are added to proteins by the action of kinase enzymes and can be removed by phosphatases. This controls a huge variety of cellular processes and targeting phosphorylation thus offers a board range of therapeutic opportunities. Indeed, kinases have received much attention in pharmaceutical research, yet phosphatases have been largely untapped.

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Reprogramming gene expression with small molecules

A small molecule stabilises a secondary structure in replicating DNA

When cells divide, they must accurately copy their genetic material (DNA) and also ensure that their pattern of gene expression is maintained – genes that were ‘on’ before the cell divides need to remain on in the daughter cell, and genes that were ‘off’ need to remain off. These patterns of gene expression are determined by epigenetic signals, and it is possible to alter these signals to reprogram gene expression.

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A new tool to study neural networks

Diagram to show how use of SiR allows permanent labelling, manipulation and genetic alterations of neural networks

Neural networks, circuits of neurons, are emerging as the fundamental computational unit of the brain and it is becoming progressively clearer that neural network dysfunction is at the core of a number of psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. Yet our ability to target and study specific neural networks remains limited. Until now Rabies virus, which can jump synapses, has been used to investigate neural networks.

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First atomic structures of Tau filaments from Alzheimer’s disease brain

Tau filament structures

Alzheimer’s disease, the most common neurodegenerative disease, is characterised by the formation of filamentous Tau protein inside nerve cells and amyloid-beta peptides outside cells.  Despite more than three decades of research into Tau filaments from a range of different neurodegenerative diseases, atomic structures were still lacking.

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First 3D structure of the complete human dynein

Process of dynein’s activation

Dyneins are a family of motor proteins that move along microtubules to transport various important cargos, including proteins and RNAs, to different parts of the cell and are crucial to correct cell function. Gradually, the structure of various components of dynein have been revealed.

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