Researchers at the Crick are tackling the big questions about human health and disease, and new findings are published every week. Our faculty have picked some of the most significant papers published by Crick scientists, all of which are freely available thanks to our open science policy.
Mouse retinal cell behaviour in space and time using light sheet fluorescence microscopy
We successfully performed the first lightsheet 3D/4D imaging of mouse retinas (focussing on vessels and neurons) to demonstrate that current confocal methods distort vessel tissue. This brings a much improved way to observe and quantify the devastating changes to vessels and neurons in retinopathy mouse models.
Reconstitution of a functional human thymus by postnatal stromal progenitor cells and natural whole-organ scaffolds
In this paper we define the heterogeneity and the clonogenic potential of human thymus stroma; characterise progenitor cells capable of extensive expansion in vitro, thereby achieving clinically relevant numbers with resilience to long-term storage; and report an epithelial-mesenchymal hybrid phenotype of thymus epithelial cells in vivo and in vitro that affects cell behaviour, a unique feature among any epithelia so far reported. We describe a protocol for organs that lack a main vascular access that allowed us to specify the role of natural ECM in supporting organ morphogenesis ex vivo and in vivo; and reconstitute a functional human thymus long-term in vivo.
Versatile humanized niche model enables study of normal and malignant human hematopoiesis
Immunodeficient mouse models have been instrumental in improving our understanding of human healthy haemopoietic stem cells and their hierarchical organisation as well as of the functional and phenotypic heterogeneity of leukaemic stem cells in acute myeloid leukaemia. However, xenotransplantation models failed at reconstituting the human bone marrow niche which remains of mouse origin. Using a bioengineered scaffold, we developed a new versatile humanised bone marrow niche which supports the engraftment of both normal and leukaemia stem cells in vivo. This 3D scaffold represents a suitable model to study and dissect the human bone marrow composition and test the effect of specific stroma cell types and niche factor functions during both normal human haemopoiesis and leukaemia.
Decoding of position in the developing neural tube from antiparallel morphogen gradients
Like many developing tissues, the vertebrate neural tube is patterned by antiparallel morphogen gradients. Using quantitative gene expression and signalling measurements we derived and validated a characteristic decoding map that relates morphogen input to the positional identity of neural progenitors. This revealed a strategy that minimises patterning errors in response to the joint input of noisy opposing gradients. The study illustrates how we integrate quantitative data, developmental and microfluidic experiments with phenological and mechanistic models.
Species-specific pace of development is associated with differences in protein stability
Despite evolutionarily conservation of molecular mechanisms, the speed of development varies substantially between species. Using in vitro directed differentiation of embryonic stem cells to motor neurons, we show that the programme of motor neuron differentiation runs twice as fast in mouse as in human. We provide evidence that a two-fold increase in protein stability and cell cycle duration in human cells compared to mouse can account for the slower pace of human development, indicating that global differences in kinetic parameters play a major role in interspecies differences in developmental tempo. This study establishes a new experimental system in which to address fundamental questions.
Restriction of memory B cell differentiation at the germinal center B cell positive selection stage
Memory B cells (MBCs) are key for protection from reinfection. However, it is mechanistically unclear how germinal center (GC) B cells differentiate into MBCs. MYC is transiently induced in cells fated for GC expansion and plasma cell (PC) formation, so-called positively selected GC B cells. We found that these cells coexpressed MYC and MIZ1 (MYC-interacting zinc-finger protein 1 [ZBTB17]). MYC and MIZ1 are transcriptional activators; however, they form a transcriptional repressor complex that represses MIZ1 target genes. Mice lacking MYC-MIZ1 complexes displayed impaired cell cycle entry of positively selected GC B cells and reduced GC B cell expansion and PC formation. Notably, absence of MYC-MIZ1 complexes in positively selected GC B cells led to a gene expression profile alike that of MBCs and increased MBC differentiation. Thus, at the GC positive selection stage, MYC-MIZ1 complexes are required for effective GC expansion and PC formation and to restrict MBC differentiation. We propose that MYC and MIZ1 form a module that regulates GC B cell fate.
D-Cycloserine destruction by alanine racemase and the limit of irreversible inhibition
D-cycloserine is an antibiotic used for decades to treat drug resistant tuberculosis. Its inhibition mechanism came into question when in a previous paper we determined alanine racemase activity in “fully inhibited” cells. This study demonstrated a previously unknown path during the assumed irreversible inhibition of alanine racemase that leads to the destruction of the antibiotic, meaning that alanine racemase is not irreversibly inhibited by the drug. The paper highlights the complexity of studying the chemical mechanisms of inhibition of enzymes and points to a novel strategy to design D-cycloserine analogues with improved properties.
A supramolecular assembly mediates lentiviral DNA integration
Lentiviral IN proteins are notoriously poorly behaved in vitro, and the HIV 1 intasome has eluded structural biologists for over two decades. Prior research resulted in a collection of partial crystal and NMR structures that did not explain how lentiviral integrase synapses viral DNA ends. This paper described the first structure of the lentiviral intasome, solving the long-standing mystery and reconciling years of HIV-1 integrase structural biology and biochemistry.
Structural basis of second-generation HIV integrase inhibitor action and viral resistance
HIV integrase inhibitors represent some of the most impactful antimicrobial inhibitors. The second-generation drugs display improved barriers to the emergence of resistance, which spearheaded their worldwide rollout. Yet not even the most advanced compounds are immune to viral resistance. Our results explained the mechanism of viral resistance associated with the most common drug resistance mutations. Furthermore, we established the key difference between the first and second-generation strand transfer inhibitors, which will inform further development of this drug class.
Pandemic peak SARS-CoV-2 infection and seroconversion rates in London frontline health-care workers
This important paper showed very high levels of infection amongst healthcare workers in a local hospital. It has influenced government policy – asymptomatic healthcare workers are to be screened as per our recommendation (announced October 12th).
Bidirectional eukaryotic DNA replication is established by quasi-symmetrical helicase loading
This paper shows that loading of the MCM double hexamer is a quasi-symmetrical reaction: two ORC molecules bound at two opposing sites of different affinity each recruit and load a single hexamer. The distance between the ORC binding sites is not critical. Subsequent work has provided further evidence for this from cryo-EM.
Chromatin controls DNA replication origin selection, lagging-strand synthesis, and replication fork rates
In this and the accompanying paper (Yeeles et al. 2017 Mol Cel 65, 105-116) we describe the reconstitution of full chromatin replication. We first identified all of the factors required for complete and rapid replication of naked DNA. Then we identified and characterised factors required to replicate chromatinised templates. We showed FACT is essential for chromatin replication, whilst nucleosome remodellers and histone acetylases help chromatin replication. In addition, chromatin enforces origin specificity and Okazaki fragment processing. Finally, we found that histones are efficiently transferred to nascent DNA.
Oncogenic RAS signaling promotes tumor immunoresistance by stabilizing PD-L1 mRNA
This work establishes for the first time a link between oncogenic RAS signalling and increased immuno-suppressive expression of the immune checkpoint protein PD-L1. RAS signalling results in phosphorylation and inactivation of TTP, a factor involved in degrading PD-L1 mRNA transcripts. As TTP inactivation causes accumulation of PD-L1 mRNA, interfering with the RAS pathway increases TTP binding to AU-rich elements of the transcripts, decreases PD-L1 protein production, and leads to enhanced antitumor immunity.
Modular microfluidics enables kinetic insight from time-resolved cryo-EM
Cryo-EM has the potential to study any native conformation of a macromolecule. However, the sample preparation time is high, compared to the timescale of most protein interactions and conformational changes. In this paper, we established a robust method of time-resolved cryo-EM sample preparation. We produced high-quality samples for microscopy while speeding up the process of making them by several orders of magnitude. This allowed samples to be collected within 30ms of the initiation of a biochemical reaction, within the timeframe of many critically important and interesting processes. This enables a whole new class of experiments in structural biology research.
SARS-CoV-2 and bat RaTG13 spike glycoprotein structures inform on virus evolution and furin-cleavage effects
We have been able to apply the knowledge we have gained from our work on the infectivity of the influenza virus to the challenge presented by the recent SARS-CoV-2 virus outbreak. In this paper we present high resolution cryo EM structures of the SARS-CoV-2 and bat RaTG13 spike glycoproteins. We describe from a structural perspective the significant differences between the strains. We draw particular attention to the addition of a furin cleavage site into the human virus spike protein. We discuss its potential role in infectivity and on the evolution of this virulent strain.
Published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology
Receptor binding and priming of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 for membrane fusion
Here we describe the conformational changes that the SARS-Cov2 spike protein undergoes in binding to the human ACE2 receptor. This represents the initial stages of the mechanism of cell invasion by the virus particle during infection. We show a series of ten cryoEM reconstructions of the spike protein binding to ACE2 through its receptor binding domain (RBD), ranging from a closed unbound spike ectodomain trimer to the fully open conformation with each RBD in the trimer bound to an ACE2 receptor. Binding to ACE2 releases the so-called fusion peptide segment and promotes membrane fusion leading to cell invasion.
Alpha synuclein aggregation drives ferroptosis: an interplay of iron, calcium and lipid peroxidation
Aberrant protein-lipid interactions occur in neurodegeneration, although their role is unclear. We show how the protein α-synuclein interacts with lipids to drive a form of cell death, ferroptosis. As α-synuclein aggregates, oligomeric species with hydrophobic domains incorporate into the plasmalemmal membrane, leading to altered membrane conductance and abnormal calcium influx following glutamatergic and dopaminergic stimuli. Aggregates induce iron dependent generation of free radicals, and peroxidation of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which underlies the incorporation of aggregates into the membranes. Targeted inhibition of lipid peroxidation prevents the aggregate-membrane interaction, abolishes aberrant calcium fluxes, and restores physiological calcium signaling in human neurons, highlighting a new causative role for lipid homeostasis in Parkinson’s disease.
aPKC cycles between functionally distinct PAR protein assemblies to drive cell polarity
Through the use of aPKC inhibitors and genetic mutations, we demonstrate that aPKC cycles between distinct PAR-3 and CDC-42 dependent states, which define, respectively, the ability of the aPAR network to respond to spatial cues and to displace pPAR proteins from the membrane. We further show that cue sensing depends crucially on the oligomeric nature of the PAR-3 state, that the integrity of this cycle is required for coupling of cue-sensing and effector functions of the aPAR network, and that this cycle is enforced by activity of aPKC.
High-throughput phenotyping reveals expansive genetic and structural underpinnings of immune variation
The immune system is increasingly acknowledged to be integrated with general physiology, but the genetic pathways underpinning those are largely unknown. This study demonstrated that high-content immunophenotyping could be accomplished at scale, compatible with a genetic screen and in so doing identified 80 novel immunoregulators (“hits”) and established striking correlations of immunological traits with blood biochemistry markers such as cholesterol and sodium. The paper formed a basis for the successful and rapid application of high-content high-throughput profiling to COVID-IP and to cancer immunomonitoring, and has spawned mechanistic follow-up studies of several of the hits.