18 January 2011

Fragment linking in crystallo

Of the many ways to link fragments, one of the most intriguing is when the protein itself catalyzes or templates the assembly of two fragments (see for example here and here). The latest example of such target-directed fragment linking was published in last month’s issue of J. Appl. Cryst.

The researchers, led by Isao Tanaka at Hokkaido University, were interested in ligating fragments together in protein crystals. They first took crystals of the model protein trypsin and soaked these with an “anchor molecule,” in this case one of two benzamidine-containing aldehydes (benzamidines are classic trypsin binders). The crystals were then transferred to a second solution containing a “tuning molecule,” each of which contained either an aminooxy or hydrazine moiety that could react covalently with the aldehyde of the anchor molecule. Finally, the crystals were analyzed by X-ray and structures of any bound ligands solved.

A total of 33 different tuning molecules were examined, and two of these produced clear electron density in the active site showing that ligation with the anchor molecule had occurred (for example ALD2 and OXA9). Three others produced structures that suggested some disorder in the binding mode of the tuning molecule, and a fourth showed an assembled product that extended from the active site to a second trypsin molecule in the crystal lattice.
A study similar to this was published a number of years ago, but in that case it was not clear whether the ligation occurred in the crystal or in solution. In the present case, soaking pre-assembled molecules into the crystals produced inferior electron density to the two-step process. More excitingly, time-resolved experiments actually showed structural snapshots of the complex forming, both in the active site (which occurred in under a minute) as well as at the dimer interface (which took over an hour).

Unfortunately, the assembled products are not notably better binders than the initial fragment. The authors attribute this to the fact that their library of tuning molecules was very small. However, it is also possible that the approach selects not for the best binders but for those that can best form complexes within a fairly rigid crystal lattice. As we’ve seen before, protein crystals are far from physiological. It will be interesting to see whether in-crystal chemical ligation can generate superior binders.

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