A pinboard by
Marija Iljina

PhD graduate in Biophysics, University of Cambridge, UK


I apply cutting-edge single-molecule fluorescence to study the mechanism of protein aggregation.

The aggregation of alpha-synuclein protein from soluble monomer into solid amyloid fibrils in the brain is associated with a range of devastating neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Small soluble oligomers formed during the aggregation process are highly neurotoxic and are thought to play a key role in the onset and spreading of disease. Despite their importance, these species are difficult to study by conventional experimental approaches owing to their transient nature, heterogeneity, low abundance and a remarkable sensitivity of the oligomerisation process to the chosen experimental conditions. Our laboratory has previously addressed the experimental challenge of oligomer characterisation by developing single-molecule fluorescence microscopy to study the transient and toxic oligomers of alpha-synuclein in great detail. Using these novel methods, I study the mechanism of alpha-synuclein aggregation and the interference of potential drug candidates with this process. In addition, I am interested in the ability of protein oligomers to spread and propagate the disease, and in the co-interactions of these species with other proteins and small molecules that may be present in brain cells.


Kinetic model of the aggregation of alpha-synuclein provides insights into prion-like spreading

Abstract: The protein alpha-synuclein (αS) self-assembles into small oligomeric species and subsequently into amyloid fibrils that accumulate and proliferate during the development of Parkinson’s disease. However, the quantitative characterization of the aggregation and spreading of αS remains challenging to achieve. Previously, we identified a conformational conversion step leading from the initially formed oligomers to more compact oligomers preceding fibril formation. Here, by a combination of single-molecule fluorescence measurements and kinetic analysis, we find that the reaction in solution involves two unimolecular structural conversion steps, from the disordered to more compact oligomers and then to fibrils, which can elongate by further monomer addition. We have obtained individual rate constants for these key microscopic steps by applying a global kinetic analysis to both the decrease in the concentration of monomeric protein molecules and the increase in oligomer concentrations over a 0.5–140-µM range of αS. The resulting explicit kinetic model of αS aggregation has been used to quantitatively explore seeding the reaction by either the compact oligomers or fibrils. Our predictions reveal that, although fibrils are more effective at seeding than oligomers, very high numbers of seeds of either type, of the order of 104, are required to achieve efficient seeding and bypass the slow generation of aggregates through primary nucleation. Complementary cellular experiments demonstrated that two orders of magnitude lower numbers of oligomers were sufficient to generate high levels of reactive oxygen species, suggesting that effective templated seeding is likely to require both the presence of template aggregates and conditions of cellular stress.

Pub.: 16 Feb '16, Pinned: 03 Jun '17

Single-molecule FRET studies on alpha-synuclein oligomerization of Parkinson's disease genetically related mutants.

Abstract: Oligomers of alpha-synuclein are toxic to cells and have been proposed to play a key role in the etiopathogenesis of Parkinson's disease. As certain missense mutations in the gene encoding for alpha-synuclein induce early-onset forms of the disease, it has been suggested that these variants might have an inherent tendency to produce high concentrations of oligomers during aggregation, although a direct experimental evidence for this is still missing. We used single-molecule Förster Resonance Energy Transfer to visualize directly the protein self-assembly process by wild-type alpha-synuclein and A53T, A30P and E46K mutants and to compare the structural properties of the ensemble of oligomers generated. We found that the kinetics of oligomer formation correlates with the natural tendency of each variant to acquire beta-sheet structure. Moreover, A53T and A30P showed significant differences in the averaged FRET efficiency of one of the two types of oligomers formed compared to the wild-type oligomers, indicating possible structural variety among the ensemble of species generated. Importantly, we found similar concentrations of oligomers during the lag-phase of the aggregation of wild-type and mutated alpha-synuclein, suggesting that the properties of the ensemble of oligomers generated during self-assembly might be more relevant than their absolute concentration for triggering neurodegeneration.

Pub.: 20 Nov '15, Pinned: 21 Jun '17

Quantitative analysis of co-oligomer formation by amyloid-beta peptide isoforms.

Abstract: Multiple isoforms of aggregation-prone proteins are present under physiological conditions and have the propensity to assemble into co-oligomers with different properties from self-oligomers, but this process has not been quantitatively studied to date. We have investigated the amyloid-β (Aβ) peptide, associated with Alzheimer's disease, and the aggregation of its two major isoforms, Aβ40 and Aβ42, using a statistical mechanical modelling approach in combination with in vitro single-molecule fluorescence measurements. We find that at low concentrations of Aβ, corresponding to its physiological abundance, there is little free energy penalty in forming co-oligomers, suggesting that the formation of both self-oligomers and co-oligomers is possible under these conditions. Our model is used to predict the oligomer concentration and size at physiological concentrations of Aβ and suggests the mechanisms by which the ratio of Aβ42 to Aβ40 can affect cell toxicity. An increased ratio of Aβ42 to Aβ40 raises the fraction of oligomers containing Aβ42, which can increase the hydrophobicity of the oligomers and thus promote deleterious binding to the cell membrane and increase neuronal damage. Our results suggest that co-oligomers are a common form of aggregate when Aβ isoforms are present in solution and may potentially play a significant role in Alzheimer's disease.

Pub.: 28 Jun '16, Pinned: 21 Jun '17