The Body’s Transformers

Feb 25, 2015

UCSB researchers examine a shape-shifting protein in the brain to learn more about how form affects function. Like the shape-shifting robots of “Transformers” fame, a unique class of proteins in the human body also has the ability to alter their configuration. These so-named intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs) lack a fixed or ordered three-dimensional structure, which can be influenced by exposure to various chemicals and cellular modifications.

A new study by a team of UCSB scientists, including MCDB’s Stu Feinstein and his lab members, looked at a particular IDP called tau, which plays a critical role in human physiology. Abundant in neurons located in the nervous system, tau stabilizes microtubules, the cytoskeletal elements essential for neuronal functions such as intracellular transport. Lacking a fixed 3-D structure, tau can change shape so that it forms clumps or aggregates, which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. The researchers’ findings appear online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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