Cryo-electron tomography and the structure of doublet microtubules

In a new paper in PNAS entitled “Cryo-electron tomography reveals conserved features of doublet microtubules“, Assistant Professor of Biology Daniela Nicastro and coworkers describe in striking new detail the structure and organization of the doublet microtubules (DMTs), the most conserved feature of eukaryotic cilia and flagella.

Cilia and flagella are thin, hair-like appendages on the surface of most animal and lower plant cells, which use these organelles to move, and to sense the environment. Defects in cilia and flagella are known to cause disease and developmental disorders, including polycystic kidney disease, respiratory disease, and neurological disorders. An essential feature of these organelles is the presence of nine outer DMTs (hollow protein tubes) that form the cylindrical core of the structure known as the axoneme. The doublet microtubule is formed by tubulin protofilaments and other structural proteins, which provide a scaffold for the attachment of dynein motors (that drive ciliary and flagellar motility) and regulatory components in a highly specific and ordered manner.

To address long-standing questions and controversies about the assembly, stability, and detailed structure of DMTs , the Nicastro lab used a high-resolution imaging technique, cryo-electron microscope tomography (cryo-ET), to probe the structure of DMTs from Chlamydomonas (single-celled algae) and sea urchin sperm flagella. Cryo-ET involves:

  1. rapid freezing of the sample to cryo-immobilize the molecules without forming ice crystals,
  2. tilting the specimen in the electron microscope to collect ~70 different views from +65° to –65°,
  3. computational alignment of the views to calculate a tomogram (a three-dimensional reconstruction of the imaged sample), and
  4. computational averaging of repeating structures in the tomogram to reduce noise and increase resolution.

Cryo-ET provided the necessary resolution to show that the B-tubules of DMTs are composed of 10 protofilaments, not 11, and that the inner and outer junctions between the A- and B-tubules are fundamentally different (see figure). The outer junction, crucial for the initial formation of the DMT, appears to be formed by interactions between the tubulin subunits of three protofilaments with unusual tubulin interfaces, but one of these protofilaments does not fit with the conventionally accepted orientation for tubulin protofilaments. This outer junction is important physiologically, as shown by mutations affecting the usual pattern of posttranslational modifications of tubulin. In contrast, the inner junction is not formed by direct interactions between tubulin protofilaments. Instead, a ladder-like structure that is clearly thinner than tubulin connects protofilaments of the A- and B-tubules.

The level of detail also allowed the Nicastro lab to show that the recently discovered microtubule inner proteins (MIPs) located within the A- and B-tubules are more complex than previously thought. MIPs 1 and 2 are both composed of alternating small and large subunits recurring every 16 and/or 48 nm along the inner A-tubule wall. MIP 3 forms small protein arches connecting the two B-tubule protofilaments closest to the inner junction, but does not form the inner junction itself. MIP 4 is associated with the inner surface of the A-tubule along the partition protofilaments, i.e., the five protofilaments of the A-tubule bounded by the two junctions with the B-tubule.

The Nicastro lab plans to build on this foundation in future work on the molecular assembly and stability of the doublet microtubule and axoneme, and hope to use it to elucidate molecular mechanisms of ciliary and flagellar motility and signal transduction in normal and disease states.

Other authors on the paper include Brandeis postdocs Xiaofeng Fu and Thomas Heuser, Brandeis undergrad Alan Tso (’10), and collaborators Mary Porter and Richard Linck from the University of Minnesota.

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