Your cells are social butterflies. They constantly interact with their surroundings, taking in cues on when to divide and where to anchor themselves, among other critical tasks.
This networking is driven in part by proteins called integrin, which reside in a cell's outer plasma membrane. Their job is to convert mechanical forces from outside the cell into internal chemical signals that tell the cell what to do. That is, when they work properly. When they misfire, integrins can cause diseases such as atherosclerosis and several types of cancer.
Despite their importancegood and badscientists don't exactly know how integrins work. That's because it's very difficult to experimentally observe the protein's molecular machinery in action. Scientists have yet to obtain the entire crystal structure of integrin within the plasma membrane, which is a go-to way to study a protein's function. Roadblocks like this have ensured that integrins remain a puzzle despite years of research.
But what if there was another way to study integrin? One that doesn't rely on experimental methods? Now there is, thanks to a computer model of integrin developed by Berkeley Lab researchers. Like its biological counterpart, the virtual integrin snippet is about twenty nanometers long. It also responds to changes in energy and other stimuli just as integrins do in real life. The result is a new way to explore how the protein connects a cell's inner and outer environments.
"We can now run computer simulations that reveal how integrins in the plasma membrane translate external mechanical cues to chemical signals within the cell," says Mohammad Mofrad, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab's Physical Biosciences Division and associate professor of Bioengineering and Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley. He conducted the research with his graduate student Mehrdad Mehrbod.
|Contact: Dan Krotz|
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory