The NLRP3 Inflammasome: Flipping the Switch

It’s been just over 10 years since the world lost a pioneering immunologist and biochemist, Dr. Jürg Tschopp. He died tragically during a hiking trip in the Swiss Alps on March 22, 2011. A host of academic journals, including Science, Nature and Cell, paid tribute to Dr. Tschopp with obituaries that highlighted his many accomplishments in the fields of apoptosis and immunology.

In 2002, a team led by Dr. Tschopp at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, was studying the role of the proinflammatory cytokine interleukin 1 beta (IL-1β). This cytokine is produced in the cytoplasm as an inactive precursor (pro-IL-1β). It is cleaved by caspase-1 to the active form, but the exact process by which caspase-1 itself is activated was unknown at the time. Several members of the caspase family contain a conserved region known as the caspase recruitment domain or CARD, and it was proposed that this domain was essential to caspase activation.

Based on similarity to another protein containing an N-terminal CARD motif (Apaf-1) that is involved in activation of caspase-9, the researchers examined the roles of a family of proteins known as NALP1, NALP2 and NALP3 (1). In particular, they were interested in NALP1, which is involved in the immune response. Unlike Apaf-1, NALP1 contains a CARD motif at the C terminus, while the N terminus contains a related motif known as a pyrin-like domain (PYD). The research team had previously showed that the PYD region of NALP1 interacted with an adapter protein known as PYCARD or ASC, which also contains an N-terminal PYD and C-terminal CARD.

The results of the team’s in vitro binding, activation and immunodetection studies showed that a multi-unit protein complex is responsible for caspase activation, and they called this complex the “inflammasome” (1). It is composed of caspase-1, caspase-5, PYCARD/ASC and NALP1.

Continue reading “The NLRP3 Inflammasome: Flipping the Switch”

Glycobiology Research and Training Opportunities are Plentiful

glycans on cell surface
Artist’s rendering of asymmetrically-branched carbohydrates on cell surface proteins.

Glycobiology is the study of glycans, the carbohydrate molecules that cover the surface of most human cells. Glycans attach to cell surface proteins and lipids, in a process called glycosylation. These cell surface structures are responsible for processes as varied at protein folding, cell signaling and cell-cell recognition, including sperm-egg recognition and immune cell interactions. Glycans play important roles in the red blood cell antigens that distinguish blood types O, A and B.

Opportunities in Glycomics Research
As more is learned about the role of glycans in cell communication, they are becoming important disease research targets, particularly the role of glycans in cancer and inflammatory diseases (2).

Some of the open questions surrounding glycans and glycosylation include glycan structural diversity. While some carbohydrates exist as straight or symmetrically branched chains, those populating the human glycome are asymmetrically branched, making them difficult to create and study in the laboratory (3). Continue reading “Glycobiology Research and Training Opportunities are Plentiful”