Toxic, hot, and spicy: 

Nanodiscs improve membrane protein resolution in cryo-EM

The last few years have seen a tremendous increase in high-resolution protein structures solved by cryo electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Novel electron detecting cameras and sophisticated analysis software have expanded the capacity of cryo-EM to smaller and asymmetric proteins (1). As a true competitor to X-ray crystallography, cryo-EM is particularly interesting for hard-to-crystallize targets such as membrane proteins.


The importance of sample preparation methods for high-resolution cryo-EM data cannot be underestimated. Two recent Nature publications have shown that nanodiscs are not only excellent tools for membrane protein stabilization, but that they can also improve resolution, in particular of the transmembrane region, and enable analysis of interacting phospholipids.






Nanodiscs and cell-free expression: the perfect match for functional membrane proteins

Toxic: Near-atomic detail of a bacterial Tc toxin membrane insertion (2). Stefan Raunser's team at the Max-Planck Institute in Dortmund, Germany unveiled the mechanism used by bacterial Tc toxin as it enters the cell. Besides the high medical relevance of this project - Tc toxins include anthrax, plague, and scarlet-like fever toxins - the conformational changes these toxins undergo are simply fascinating. Secreted by bacteria as soluble proteins, toxins fold into channels that perforate the host membrane by a putative entropic spring mechanism. In previous attempts with detergent-solubilized protein, it was not possible to resolve the transmembrane region of the toxin. Now, using nanodisc-stabilized TcdA1 protein, researchers were able to achieve an overall resolution of 3.5 Angstrom, allowing them to describe this mechanically enforced membrane insertion mechanism for the first time. Read more.



Hot & spicy: Functional lipids enable detection of heat and hot spices (3). Yifan Cheng's team at UCSF analyzed the tetrameric transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1) ion channel at 2.9 Angstrom resolution. TRPV1 reacts to many physical and chemical stimuli, including heat and capsaicin, an ingredient of chilli peppers. Nanodiscs were crucial to obtain a high resolution structure, as previous attempts with amphipol-stabilized complexes had only yielded a 3.8 A resolution.

But nanodiscs played another important role in this analysis: By providing a phospholipid bilayer, they enabled the discovery of lipids with a structural function in ligand binding. Similar to the results of the Dortmund group, the transmembrane regions were those with the highest resolution, stressing the value of nanodiscs for cryo-EM analysis. Read more.

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Literature references:
Kühlbrandt, W. Cryo-EM enters a new era. eLIFE (2014) doi:10.7554/eLife.03678
Gatsogiannis, C. et al. Membrane insertion of a Tc toxin in near-atomic detail. Nature structural and molecular biology (2016),23,884-890. doi:10.1038/nsmb.3281

TRPV1 structures in nanodiscs reveal mechanisms of ligand and lipid action

Gao, Y. et al. TRPV1 structures in nanodiscs reveal mechanisms of ligand and lipid action. Nature (2016) 534(7607):347-351. doi:10.1038/nature17964 

TRPV1 structures in nanodiscs reveal mechanisms of ligand and lipid action