Towards the Chemical Control of Membrane Protein Function
The oligomerization of membrane proteins has been shown to play a critical role in a myriad of cellular processes, some of which include signal propagation, cell-to-cell communication, and a cell's ability to interact with its surroundings. Diseases that are associated with disruption of protein-protein interactions in the membrane include cystic fibrosis, certain cancers, and bone growth disorders. Although significant progress has been made in our mechanistic understanding of protein-protein interactions in membranes, it remains difficult to predict the oligomerization state of transmembrane domains and explain the physiological consequences of a point mutation within a membrane embedded protein. The development of novel classes of chemical tools will allow us to better understand the energetics of transmembrane domain association at the molecular level. Herein, we demonstrate that fluorinated aromatic amino acids offer intriguing potential as chemical mediators of transmembrane protein association. We have systematically examined the effects of fluorination on the physical properties of aromatic systems in the context of a soluble protein model system. Our results illustrate the ability of fluorinated aromatic amino acids to simultaneously stabilize protein structure and facilitate highly specific protein self-assembly. An improved understanding of the fundamental energetics of aromatic interactions should allow for their more efficient incorporation into designed inhibitors of transmembrane protein association. In addition to chemical tools, the development of simple methods for directly monitoring transmembrane domain association in vitro and in vivo is necessary to advance our understanding of these interactions. Towards this goal, we have established FlAsH-tetracysteine display as an effective approach to quantifying the association propensities of transmembrane α-helices (TMHs) in vitro. Our assay is compatible with two of the most commonly utilized model membrane systems, detergent micelles and vesicles. The high spatial resolution of FlAsH binding (˂ 10 Å) allows for the differentiation of parallel and antiparallel oligomerization events. Importantly, preliminary studies suggest the assay's ability to detect inhibition from exogenous TMHs. Encouraged by our understanding of aromatic interactions and the success of our assay, we are beginning to incorporate fluorinated aromatics in the model TMHs and monitoring their ability to associate. The ultimate goal is to modulate the association of endogenous TMHs such as ErbB2. Research in this direction is ongoing.