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SFVAMC-UCSF scientists solve a key protein structure

Completing a decades old quest by biochemists and biophysicists scattered around the world, a multi-institutional team of researchers has discovered the structure of Complex II, a protein essential to the production of energy within cells. Complex II is a generic name for one of the five proteins in the process.

This discovery is important because it increases scientists' understanding of one of the most fundamental processes of biological systems, says Gary Cecchini, PhD, San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center chief of molecular biology, UC San Francisco research biochemist, and co-principal investigator of the study. According to Cecchini, their findings may also facilitate the development of therapies to correct defects within this essential energy production system.

Team members from the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco crystallized the protein -- a critical but painstaking process of trial and error that is essential to be able to view protein structure under ultra high magnification.

Once Complex II was crystallized, team members from the California Institute of Technology imaged its three-dimensional structure with a technique called X-ray crystallography. Armed with this image, biochemists can use computer modeling to unravel the mysteries of Complex II. The results of team's research are published in the June 18 issue of Science.

Every human cell has its own energy source - numerous tiny power plants called mitochondria. These mitochondria use five protein complexes (multi-protein units), collectively known as the respiratory chain, to generate most of our cells' energy. Basically, Complexes I through IV pass electrons to each other down the chain and eventually to an oxygen molecule. At the same time, at least three of the complexes "pump" protons through the wall of the mitochondria, which produces a gradient of electrical energy.

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Contact: James Larkin
jlarkin@pubaff.ucsf.edu
415-750-6633
University of California - San Francisco
18-Jun-1999


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