Author: Nicoletta Lanese
LOCKR, a synthetic protein complex, transforms from a locked state (background) to an open state when a molecular “key” (black) is inserted, thus exposing a bioactive peptide (yellow).
Image Source: IAN HAYDON/UW MEDICINE INSTITUTE FOR PROTEIN DESIGN
Unlike biotech tools adapted from nature, the invention was entirely conceived by humans and represents one of the few proteins made from scratch in the lab.
Scientists have invented a synthetic protein designed to control the inner workings of cells. In a pair of papers, published yesterday (July 24) in Nature, the researchers demonstrate how the tool can be used to tweak gene expression, orchestrate protein binding events, and cue functional changes in the cell in response to environmental conditions.
“Cells receive stimuli, then have to figure out what to do about it. They use natural systems to tune gene expression or degrade proteins, for example,” says Bobby Langan, a coauthor of both studies and a former graduate student at the University of Washington in an announcement. The newly designed tool—named LOCKR for Latching, Orthogonal Cage/Key pRotein—fiddles with these inbuilt systems by introducing bioactive peptides in their circuitry. The peptides only pop out when released by specific molecular “keys.”
LOCKR consists of six helixes, tightly bound to form a cage. One of the helical structures, bound more loosely than the others, can be displaced by a specific molecule, the key. When the key clicks into place, the helix moves aside and reveals a peptide customized to perform a particular function.
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