Clumped proteins can be dissolved with the aid of cellular repair systems - a process of critical importance for cell survival especially under conditions of stress. Heidelberg researchers have now decrypted the fundamental mechanism for dissolving protein aggregates that involves specific molecular chaperones. Scientists from the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University and the German Cancer Research Center cooperated with experts from the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies on the project. The results of the research appeared in two simultaneously published articles in "Nature Structural & Molecular Biology".
Proteins consist of long chains of successive amino acids and perform vital functions in every cell. To function, every amino acid chain must first assume a specific three-dimensional structure - it has to fold itself. A change in growth conditions, such as an increase in ambient temperature, can cause proteins to lose their structure and unfold. Unfolded protein chains run the risk of clumping, forming protein aggregates. "If such aggregates form, the proteins cannot function, which can lead to cell death, which we see in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and even in ageing processes", explains Prof. Dr. Bernd Bukau, Director of the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University (ZMBH), who is also a researcher at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ).