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Study Reveals Proteins Most Associated With Aging

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Certain proteins known to be associated with aging and age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, are also at a high risk for destabilization caused by oxidation. This finding by a team of researchers at the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology at Stony Brook University provides an understanding of how oxidative damage, which is a natural process in aging cells, affects proteins. It could also prove to be a foundation to a better understanding of age-related diseases. The paper, titled “Highly charged proteins: the Achilles’ heel of aging proteomes,” is published in the journal Structure.

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Kenneth Dill, center, and co-authors Adam de Graff, right, and Michael Hazoglou, left, standing behind a computerized display of three proteins: left to right, the catalytic domain of telomerase is at risk because of high net positive charge (blue area); the RbAp48 protein, which is part of a complex that modifies histones and is implicated in memory loss, is at risk because of a high negative charge (red area); a normal protein called ubiquitin that has a balance of charges and thus is at low risk for oxidative destabilization.

By the time people turn about 80 years of age, approximately half of the body’s proteins are damaged by oxidation. Oxidation occurs because of random chemical degradations that are associated with converting food to energy in the presence of oxygen. Oxidation in the human body, mediated by free radicals, damages cellular proteins, lipids, DNA, and other cellular structures that contribute to disease processes.

The Stony Brook research team, led by senior author Ken A. Dill, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Physics and Director of the Laufer Center of Physical and Quantitative Biology, used physics principles and computer analysis to evaluate protein electrostatics, or charges. They found that short, highly charged proteins are particularly susceptible to large destabilization and that even a single oxidation event within these proteins is sufficient to unfold its normally balled-up, folded structure.

“Our paper explains the molecular mechanism by which natural chemical processes of aging affect our proteins,” says Dr. Dill. “Our method predicts which proteins are the most at risk of unfolding when they get damaged. We then applied the principle in searching protein databases. Interestingly, we found that the proteins most at-risk for oxidative unfolding included 20 proteins that span a wide-spectrum of functionalities, all of which had been known by researchers previously to be associated with aging.”

The list of proteins includes telomerase proteins, which play a major role in aging of cells and cancer development by the extending of telomeres; and histones, which are DNA-binding proteins known to be relevant for many processes, including memory loss and cancer.


Ken Dill explains his research.

Dr. Dill explained that the mechanism provides a foundation for scientists to better understand how oxidative damage affects proteins in aging cells. The team will continue to use the method to search further databases of proteins to seek additional proteins that may be important to aging and age-related diseases.

The research, he added, could be a first step toward finding other proteins, not currently suspected, that are susceptible to high oxidation, instability and age-related diseases. The proteins could prove to be the key to targeted treatments against certain age-related diseases.

Co-authors on the paper include Adam M.R. de Graff and Michael Hazoglou of the Stony Brook University Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Laufer Center.

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