Decoding the Cell’s Genetic Filing System (Nature Chemistry)

By Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry

A fully extended strand of human DNA measures about five feet in length. Yet it occupies a space just one-tenth of a cell by wrapping itself around histones—spool-like proteins—to form a dense hub of information called chromatin.

Access to these meticulously packed genes is regulated by post-translational modifications, chemical changes to the structure of histones that act as on-off signals for gene transcription. Mistakes or mutations in histones can cause diseases such as glioblastoma, a devastating pediatric brain cancer.

Source: Nature Chemistry

Source: Nature Chemistry

Researchers at Princeton University have developed a facile method to introduce non-native chromatin into cells to interrogate these signaling pathways. Published on April 6 in the journal Nature Chemistry, this work is the latest chemical contribution from the Muir lab towards understanding nature’s remarkable information indexing system.

Tom Muir, the Van Zandt Williams, Jr. Class of ’65 Professor of Chemistry, began investigating transcriptional pathways in the so-called field of epigenetics almost a decade earlier. Deciphering such a complex and dynamic system posed a formidable challenge, but his research lab was undeterred. “It’s better to fail at something important than to succeed at something trivial,” he said.

Muir recognized the value of introducing chemical approaches to epigenetics to complement early contributions that came mainly from molecular biologists and geneticists. If epigenetics was like a play, he said, molecular biology and genetics could identify the characters but chemistry was needed to understand the subplots.

These subplots, or post-translational modifications of histones, of which there are more than 100, can occur cooperatively and simultaneously. Traditional methods to probe post-translational modifications involved synthesizing modified histones one at a time, which was a very slow process that required large amounts of biological material.

Last year, the Muir group introduced a method that would massively accelerate this process. The researchers generated a library of 54 nucleosomes—single units of chromatin, like pearls on a necklace—encoded with DNA-barcodes, unique genetic tags that can be easily identified. Published in the journal Nature Methods, the high throughput method required only microgram amounts of each nucleosome to run approximately 4,500 biochemical assays.

“The speed and sensitivity of the assay was shocking,” Muir said. Each biochemical assay involved treatment of the DNA-barcoded nucleosome with a writer, reader or nuclear extract, to reveal a particular binding preference of the histone. The products were then isolated using a technique called chromatin immunoprecipitation and characterized by DNA sequencing, essentially an ordered readout of the nucleotides.

“There have been incredible advances in genetic sequencing over the last 10 years that have made this work possible,” said Manuel Müller, a postdoctoral researcher in the Muir lab and co-author on the Nature Methods article.

Schematic of approach using split inteins

Schematic of approach using split inteins

With this method, researchers could systematically interrogate the signaling system to propose mechanistic pathways. But these mechanistic insights would remain hypotheses unless they could be validated in vivo, meaning inside the cellular environment.

The only method for modifying histones in vivo was extremely complicated and specific, said Yael David, a postdoctoral researcher in the Muir lab and lead author on the recent Nature Chemistry study that demonstrated a new and easily customizable approach.

The method relied on using ultra-fast split inteins, protein fragments that have a great affinity for one another. First, one intein fragment was attached to a modified histone, by encoding it into a cell. Then, the other intein fragment was synthetically fused to a label, which could be a small protein tag, fluorophore or even an entire protein like ubiquitin.

Within minutes of being introduced into the cell, the labeled intein fragment bound to the histone intein fragment. Then like efficient and courteous matchmakers, the inteins excised themselves and created a new bond between the label and modified histone. “It’s really a beautiful way to engineer proteins in a cell,” David said.

Regions of the histone may be loosely or tightly packed, depending on signals from the cell indicating whether or not to transcribe a gene. By gradually lowering the amount of labeled intein introduced, the researchers could learn about the structure of chromatin and tease out which areas were more accessible than others.

Future plans in the Muir lab will employ these methods to ask specific biological questions, such as whether disease outcomes can be altered by manipulating signaling pathway. “Ultimately, we’re developing methods at the service of biological questions,” Muir said.

This research was supported by the US National Institutes of Health (grants R37-GM086868 and R01 GM107047).

Read the articles:

Nguyen, U.T.T.; Bittova, L.; Müller, M.; Fierz, B.; David, Y.; Houck-Loomis, B.; Feng, V.; Dann, G.P.; Muir, T.W. “Accelerated chromatin biochemistry using DNA-barcoded nucleosome libraries.” Nature Methods, 2014, 11, 834.

David, Y.; Vila-Perelló, M; Verma, S.; Muir, T.W. “Chemical tagging and customizing of cellular chromatin states using ultrafast trans-splicing inteins.” Nature Chemistry, Advance online publication, April 6, 2015.

Cytomegalovirus hijacks human enzyme for replication (Cell Reports)

DiagramBy: Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry

More than 60 percent of the world’s population is infected with a type of herpes virus called human cytomegalovirus. The virus replicates by commandeering the host cell’s metabolism but the details of this maneuver are unclear.

Researchers at Princeton University have discovered that cytomegalovirus manipulates a process called fatty acid elongation, which makes the very-long-chain fatty acids necessary for virus replication. Published in the journal Cell Reports on March 3, the research team identified a specific human enzyme—elongase enzyme 7—that the virus induces to turn on fatty acid elongation.

“Elongase 7 was just screaming, ‘I’m important, study me,’” said John Purdy, a postdoctoral researcher in the Rabinowitz lab and lead author on the study.

He found that once a cell was infected by cytomegalovirus, the level of elongase 7 RNA increased over 150-fold. Purdy then performed a genetic knockdown experiment to silence elongase 7 and established that in its absence the virus was unable to efficiently replicate.

“Elongases are a family of seven related proteins. The particular importance of elongase 7 for cytomegalovirus replication was a pleasant surprise, and enhances its appeal as a drug target,” said Joshua Rabinowitz, a professor of chemistry and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton and co-author on the paper.

Activation of the elongase enzyme led to an increase in very-long-chain fatty acids, which are used by the virus to build its viral envelope and replicate. The researchers fed infected cells a sugar called heavy isotope-labeled carbon-13 glucose, which is metabolized by the cell to form substrates for fatty acid elongation. The heavy isotope carbon-13 atoms were incorporated into new products that were detected and identified by their mass using a mass spectrometry method. This powerful technique provided insight into the amount of fatty acids produced and how they are constructed.

Cytomegalovirus infection mostly threatens populations with compromised immune systems and developing fetuses, and is the leading cause of hearing loss in children. Current treatments target the DNA replication step of the virus and are not very effective. These findings have advanced the understanding of the virus’s operations and identified fatty acid elongation as a key process that warrants further study.

This work was funded by National Institute of Health grants AI78063, CA82396, and GM71508 and an American Heart Association postdoctoral fellowship to J.G.P. (12POST9190001).

Read the full article here:

Purdy, J. G.; Shenk, T.; Rabinowitz, J. D. “Fatty Acid Elongase 7 Catalyzes the Lipidome Remodeling Essential for Human Cytomegalovirus Replication.” Cell Reports, 2015, 10, 1375.


Computational clues into the structure of a promising energy conversion catalyst (J. Physical Chemistry Letters)

Mosaic structure

Representation of the mosaic texture of β-NiOOH and its possible structures.

By Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry

Hydrogen fuel is a promising source of clean energy that can be produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen gas with the help of a catalyst, a material that can speed up the process. Although most known catalysts are inefficient, one called iron-doped nickel oxide is promising but not well understood.

Now researchers at Princeton University have reported new insights into the structure of an active component of the nickel oxide catalyst, known as β-NiOOH, using theoretical calculations. Led by Annabella Selloni, professor of chemistry at Princeton, the findings were published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters on October 28.

“Understanding the structure is the basis for any further study of the material’s properties. If you don’t know the material’s structure you can’t know what it’s doing,” Selloni said. Nickel oxide’s exact structure has been difficult to determine experimentally because it is constantly changing during the reaction.

The research team took a theoretical approach and employed a “genetic algorithm” to search for the structure. Genetic algorithms operate under a set of parameters that draw inspiration from evolution by creating generation after generation of structures to arrive at the most “fit” or most likely candidates.

Taking the results of the genetic algorithm search in combination with computational techniques known as hybrid density functional theory calculations—which estimate a molecule’s electronic structure—co-author Ye-Fei Li, a former postdoctoral researcher at Princeton who is now at Fudan University, and Selloni were able to identify structures of nickel oxide that supported existing observations.

One such observation is the material’s mosaic texture, composed of tiny grain-like microstructures. The researchers propose that these microstructures are stable tunnel structures that relieve stress between layers. Another observed feature is the doubling of the distance between layers made of the same material, referred to as its c axis periodicity, which represents the alternating layers of Ni(OH)2 and NiO2 formed during the reaction.

Armed with a better understanding of the material’s structure, the scientists hope to further map out its activity in the reaction. “I’m interested in the microscopic mechanisms, what are the electrons and atoms doing?” Selloni said.

Read the abstract

Li, Ye-Fei and Annabella Selloni. “Mosaic Texture and Double c-Axis Periodicity of β–NiOOH: Insights from First-Principles and Genetic Algorithm Calculations.” J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2014, 5, 3981.

This work was supported by the US Department of Energy, Division of Chemical Sciences, Geosciences and Biosciences under award DE-FG0212ER16286.

Quantum mechanical calculations reveal the hidden states of enzyme active sites (Nature Chemistry)

[2Fe–2S] cluster in front of a leaf. (Image by C. Todd Reichart)

Researchers at Princeton University have reported the first direct observation of the electronic states of iron-sulfur clusters, common to many enzyme active sites. Iron-sulfur cluster in front of a leaf. (Image by C. Todd Reichart)

By Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry

Enzymes carry out fundamental biological processes such as photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation and respiration, with the help of clusters of metal atoms as “active” sites. But scientists lack basic information about their function because the states thought to be critical to their chemical abilities cannot be experimentally observed.

Now, researchers at Princeton University have reported the first direct observation of the electronic states of iron-sulfur clusters, common to many enzyme active sites. Published on August 31 in the journal Nature Chemistry, the states were revealed by computing the complicated quantum mechanical behavior of the electrons in the clusters.

“These complexes were thought of as impossible to model, due to the complexity of the quantum mechanics,” said Garnet Chan, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Chemistry and corresponding author on the paper.

Iron-sulfur clusters

Caption: (a) [2Fe–2S] clusters (b) [4Fe–4S] (c) Area-law entanglement of the physical states can be used to reduce the complexity of quantum calculations (d) Wavefunctions with area-law entanglement can be written compactly as a tensor network where each tensor (represented here by a circle) denotes an active space orbital and the bonds between adjacent orbitals introduce local entanglement between them. (Source: Garnet Chan)

In these systems, the electrons interact strongly with each other, their movements resembling a complicated dance. To reduce the complexity, the researchers drew on a new understanding, gained from fundamental work in quantum information theory, that the motion of the electrons had a special pattern.

“At first glance, the electrons appear to move in a complicated way, but eventually you realize that they only care about what their immediate neighbors are doing, similar to being in a crowded room. This restriction on their behavior leads to important simplifications: the calculations become very difficult rather than impossible — it’s just on the edge of what can be done,” Chan said.

Using their new method, Chan and coworkers found that iron-sulfur clusters possess an order of magnitude more accessible electronic states than previously reported. The researchers suggested that this unusual richness might explain their ubiquity in biological processes.

This finding, that there are many more available electronic states than previously thought, presents many different chemical possibilities. What if these clusters simultaneously used a combination of mechanisms, instead of the accepted chemical idea that there is one distinct electronic pathway, Chan wondered. To test that idea and learn more about the clusters’ behavior, the researchers plan to extend their calculations to observe a chemical transformation in action.

“If you want to understand why iron-sulfur clusters are a ubiquitous biological motif and how we can create even better synthetic analogs, then you need to know what the electrons are doing,” Chan said. “Now we’ve caught a first glimpse as to what they are getting up to.”

Read the abstract.

Sharma, S.; Sivalingam, K.; Neese, F.; Chan, K.-L. G. “Low-energy spectrum of iron sulfur clusters directly from many-particle quantum mechanics.Nat. Chem. 2014, 6, 927.

This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation (CHE-1265277) and used software developed with the support of OCI-1265278. F.N. and K.S acknowledge financial support from the Max Planck Society, the University of Bonn and the SFB 813 “Chemistry at Spin Centers.”



Unstoppable magnetoresistance (Nature)

Mazhar Ali (left) and Steven Flynn (right), co-authors on the Nature paper. Photo by C. Todd Reichert.

Mazhar Ali (left) and Steven Flynn (right), co-authors on the Nature paper. Photo by C. Todd Reichart.

by Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry

Mazhar Ali, a fifth-year graduate student in the laboratory of Robert Cava, the Russell Wellman Moore Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University, has spent his academic career discovering new superconductors, materials coveted for their ability to let electrons flow without resistance. While testing his latest candidate, the semimetal tungsten ditelluride (WTe2), he noticed a peculiar result.

Ali applied a magnetic field to a sample of WTe2, one way to kill superconductivity if present, and saw that its resistance doubled. Intrigued, Ali worked with Jun Xiong, a student in the laboratory of Nai Phuan Ong, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics at Princeton, to re-measure the material’s magnetoresistance, which is the change in resistance as a material is exposed to stronger magnetic fields.

“He noticed the magnetoresistance kept going up and up and up—that never happens.” said Cava. The researchers then exposed WTe2 to a 60-tesla magnetic field, close to the strongest magnetic field mankind can create, and observed a magnetoresistance of 13 million percent. The material’s magnetoresistance displayed unlimited growth, making it the only known material without a saturation point. The results were published online on September 14 in the journal Nature.

Crystal structure of WTe2 (Source: Nature)

Crystal structure of WTe2 (Source: Nature)

Electronic information storage is dependent on the use of magnetic fields to switch between distinct resistivity values that correlate to either a one or a zero. The larger the magnetoresistance, the smaller the magnetic field needed to change from one state to another, Ali said. Today’s devices use layered materials with so-called “giant magnetoresistance,” with changes in resistance of 20,000 to 30,000 percent when a magnetic field is applied. “Colossal magnetoresistance” is close to 100,000 percent, so for a magnetoresistance percentage in the millions, the researchers hoped to coin a new term.

Their original choice was “ludicrous” magnetoresistance, which was inspired by “ludicrous speed,” the fictional form of fast-travel used in the comedy “Spaceballs.” They even included an acknowledgement to director Mel Brooks. After other lab members vetoed “ludicrous,” the researchers considered “titanic” before Nature editors ultimately steered them towards the term “large magnetoresistance.”

Terminology aside, the fact remained that the magnetoresistance values were extraordinarily high, a phenomenon that might be understood through the structure of WTe2. To look at the structure with an electron microscope, the research team turned to Jing Tao, a researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“Jing is a great microscopist. They have unique capabilities at Brookhaven,” Cava said. “One is that they can measure diffraction at 10 Kelvin (-441 °F). Not too many people on Earth can do that, but Jing can.”

Electron microscopy experiments revealed the presence of tungsten dimers, paired tungsten atoms, arranged in chains responsible for the key distortion from the classic octahedral structure type. The research team proposed that WTe2 owes its lack of saturation to the nearly perfect balance of electrons and electron holes, which are empty docks for traveling electrons. Because of its structure, WTe2 only exhibits magnetoresistance when the magnetic field is applied in a certain direction. This could be very useful in scanners, where multiple WTe2 devices could be used to detect the position of magnetic fields, Ali said.

“Aside from making devices from WTe2, the question to ask yourself as a scientist is: How can it be perfectly balanced, is there something more profound,” Cava said.

Read the abstract.

Ali, M. N.; Xiong, J.; Flynn, S.; Tao, J.; Gibson, Q. D.; Schoop, L. M.; Haldolaarachchige, N.; Hirschberger, M.; Ong, N. P.; Cava, R. J. “Large, non-saturating magnetoresistance in WTe2.” Nature. Published online September 14. 514, 205–208 (09 October 2014).

This research was supported by the Army Research Office, grants W911NF-12-1-0461 and W911NF-11-1-0379, and the NSF MRSEC Program Grant DMR-0819860. This work was supported by the US Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences (DOE BES) project “Science at 100 Tesla.” The electron microscopy study at Brookhaven National Laboratory was supported by the DOE BES, by the Materials Sciences and Engineering Division under contract DE-AC02-98CH10886, and through the use of the Center for Functional Nanomaterials.

Longstanding bottleneck in crystal structure prediction solved (Science)

By Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry

benzene crystal

Orthographic projections of a cluster cut from the benzene crystal along the two directions (Image courtesy of Science/AAAS)

Two years after its release, the HIV-1 drug Ritonavir was pulled from the market. Scientists discovered that the drug had crystallized into a slightly different form—called a polymorph—that was less soluble and made it ineffective as a treatment.

The various patterns that atoms of a solid material can adopt, called crystal structures, can have a huge impact on its properties. Being able to accurately predict the most stable crystal structure for a material has been a longstanding challenge for scientists.

“The holy grail of this particular problem is to say, I’ve written down this chemical formula for a material, and then just from the formula be able to predict its structure—a goal since the dawn of chemistry,” said Garnet K. L. Chan, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at Princeton University. One major bottleneck towards achieving this goal has been to compute the lattice energy—the energy associated with a structure—to sufficient accuracy to distinguish between several competing polymorphs.

Chan’s group has now accomplished this task, publishing their results in the journal Science on August 8. The research team demonstrated that new techniques could be used to calculate the lattice energy of benzene, a simple yet important molecule in pharmaceutical and energy research, to sub-kilojoule per mole accuracy—a level of certainty that allows polymorphism to be resolved.

Chan credited this success to the combined application of advances in the field of quantum mechanics over the last 15 years. “Some of these advances allow you to resolve the behavior of electrons more finely, do computations on more atoms more quickly, and allow you to consider more electrons at the same time,” Chan said. “It’s a triumph of the modern field of quantum chemistry that we can now determine the behavior of Nature to this level of precision.”

The group’s next goal is to shorten the time it takes to run the desired calculations. These initial calculations consumed several months of computer time, Chan said, but with some practical modifications, future predictions should take only a few hours.

Chan’s colleagues on the work included first author Jun Yang, an electronic structure theory specialist and lecturer in chemistry, and graduate student Weifeng Hu at Princeton University. Additional collaborators were Denis Usvyat and Martin Schutz of the University of Regensburg and Devin Matthews of the University of Texas at Austin.

The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy under grant no. DE-SC0008624, with secondary support from grant no. DE-SC0010530. Additional funding was received from the National Science Foundation under grant no. OCI-1265278 and CHE-1265277. D.M. was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy through a Computational Science Graduate Fellowship, funded by grant no. DE-FG02-97ER25308.

Read the abstract.

Yang J., Hu, W., Usvyat, D., Matthews, D., Schutz, M., Chan, G. K. L. Ab initio determination of the crystalline benzene lattice energy to sub-kilojoule/mol accuracy. Science 2014, 345, 640.

Solar panels light the way from carbon dioxide to fuel (Journal of CO2 Utilization)

By Tien Nguyen, Department of Chemistry

Research to curb global warming caused by rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, usually involves three areas: Developing alternative energy sources, capturing and storing greenhouse gases, and repurposing excess greenhouse gases. Drawing on two of these approaches, researchers in the laboratory of Andrew Bocarsly, a Princeton professor of chemistry, collaborated with researchers at start-up company Liquid Light Inc. of Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, to devise an efficient method for harnessing sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into a potential alternative fuel known as formic acid. The study was published June 13 in the Journal of CO2 Utilization.

Pictured with the photovoltaic-electrochemical cell system from left to right: Graduate student James White (Princeton), Professor Andrew Bocarsly (Princeton and Liquid Light) and principal engineer Paul Majsztrik (Liquid Light). (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Pictured with the photovoltaic-electrochemical cell system from left to right: Graduate student James White (Princeton), Professor Andrew Bocarsly (Princeton and Liquid Light) and principal engineer Paul Majsztrik (Liquid Light). (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

The transformation from carbon dioxide and water to formic acid was powered by a commercial solar panel provided by the energy company PSE&G that can be found atop electric poles across New Jersey. The process takes place inside an electrochemical cell, which consists of metal plates the size of rectangular lunch-boxes that enclose liquid-carrying channels.

To maximize the efficiency of the system, the amount of power produced by the solar panel must match the amount of power the electrochemical cell can handle, said Bocarsly. This optimization process is called impedance matching. By stacking three electrochemical cells together, the research team was able to reach almost 2 percent energy efficiency, which is twice the efficiency of natural photosynthesis. It is also the best energy efficiency reported to date using a man-made device.

A number of energy companies are interested in storing solar energy as formic acid in fuel cells. Additionally, formate salt—readily made from formic acid—is the preferred de-icing agent on airplane runways because it is less corrosive to planes and safer for the environment than chloride salts. With increased availability, formate salts could supplant more harmful salts in widespread use.

Using waste carbon dioxide and easily obtained machined parts, this approach offers a promising route to a renewable fuel, Bocarsly said.

This work was financially supported by Liquid Light, Inc., which was cofounded by Bocarsly, and the National Science Foundation under grant no. CHE-0911114.

Read the abstract.

White, J. L.; Herb, J. T.; Kaczur, J. J.; Majsztrik, P. W.; Bocarsly, A. B. Photons to formate: Efficient electrochemical solar energy conversion via reduction of carbon dioxide. Journal of CO2 Utilization. Available online June 13, 2014.