Command and control in the cellular fatty acid factory

Researchers in Göttingen discover first protein that regulates fatty acid synthase

March 10, 2020

No other infectious disease kills more people than tuberculosis. It is caused by mycobacteria, which mainly attack the lungs but can also affect almost any other organ. To fight the pathogens, the fatty acid factory of the bacteria is an important starting point. The fatty acid synthase (FAS) is considered one of the most complex cellular machines. But how it is controlled remains a mystery to scientists even after 50 years of intensive research. The team led by Holger Stark and Ashwin Chari of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biophysical Chemistry, in cooperation with Kai Tittmann at the University of Göttingen, has now discovered a protein that regulates the work of FAS. This opens up new possibilities in medicine for developing active substances, particularly against tuberculosis. For biotechnology, it offers opportunities for tailor-made fatty acid synthases that synthesize products so far been obtained from for example crude oil.

The illustration shows how the FAS of yeast fungi produces fatty acids, symbolized as oil river.  One of the two branches of the river slowly transforms into the major cellular end-product of fatty acid synthesis – the biomembrane. The second branch of the oil river illustrates the emerging application of fatty acid synthases in biotechnology and industry.

“The fatty acid synthase was a project that no one in our department was initially keen to tackle. Such large nanomachines as the FAS impose difficulties both for biochemistry and structural biology; success is not guaranteed,” said Max Planck Director Stark, who heads the Department of Structural Dynamics at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry.

Fatty acid factories are indispensable for living organisms – as are the fatty acids they produce, which are often frowned upon as fatteners. Fatty acids serve as energy stores, building blocks for biological membranes, or cellular messenger substances. In yeast and higher organisms, FAS forms a higher order structure of several enzymes. In bacteria, isolated enzymes perform the same tasks. Although FAS architecture is considerably divergent in different organisms, the enzymes involved in fatty acid production are structurally very similar. This is especially true for FAS enzymes from yeast, fungi and tuberculosis infectious mycobacteria. Therefore, findings on yeast FAS can be directly transferred to the bacterial fatty acid factory: If mycobacterial FAS are specifically inhibited, the pathogen’s proliferation can be stopped – and this without affecting the fatty acid factory in human cells, since the two differ sufficiently in their three-dimensional architecture.

Molecular shuttle through the fatty acid factory

In yeast fungi, the FAS has the shape of a barrel and consists of two domes with a total of six reaction chambers. Just like its human counterpart, it forms fatty acids, mainly palmitic acid, from different molecular groups in seven individual reaction steps. Each of these steps is catalyzed by its own enzyme at a different part of the fatty acid factory. Therefore, the fatty acids must be transported from one enzyme to the next within the FAS. This task is performed by a molecular shuttle, the so-called acyl carrier protein (ACP). “We were particularly interested in how this transport through the intricate labyrinth of FAS reaction chambers from one enzyme to the next works,” project leader Chari says.

It actually took six years of work and two doctoral theses to answer this question – the results came as a big surprise to the researchers. PhD student Kashish Singh remembers the moment of shock when presenting the first results to Ashwin Chari: “Ashwin immediately saw that our purified FAS contained an additional subunit.” His colleague Benjamin Graf adds: “Our first thought was that the sample was contaminated and the whole effort was futile.” 

First regulator of fatty acid synthase

But Chari interpreted the results of his doctoral students differently: What if the building block is not an impurity at all, but a previously unknown, integral part of the FAS? After two more years of hard work, it was clear: The building block indeed belongs to the FAS! Its identity and interaction with FAS could be confirmed by mass spectrometric analysis carried out in the research group of Henning Urlaub at the same institute. The researchers from Göttingen gave it the name gamma subunit. “With the harsher purification methods used so far, it probably was dissociated from the FAS, which probably explains how the gamma subunit was overlooked in the many decades of FAS research,” Chari comments.

The next challenge for the PhD students was to solve the three-dimensional structures of the FAS with and without gamma subunit to elucidate the function of this component. To do this, Graf and Singh combined X-ray structure analyses with cryo-electron microscopy.

“The lengthy experiments have paid off. We were able to prove that the gamma subunit is indispensable for start of fatty acid production and for transport of fatty acids from one enzyme to another. The subunit initially puts the fatty acid factory in the starting position.  How this works has been determined by the research group of enzymologist Kai Tittmann at the University of Göttingen with help of detailed kinetic analysis. Only then can the FAS start fatty acid production. And it helps the ACP shuttle loaded with fatty acids finding its way from one enzyme to the next. In doing so, it changes the FAS structure in such a way that the shuttle's path is much shorter,” explains Max Planck Director Stark.

Benefits for medicine and biotechnology

 The understanding of FAS activity control is an important breakthrough in research into fatty acid synthase. “Our findings open up new possibilities to enzymatically modify FAS in yeasts or to develop novel active compounds in the future that inhibit the fatty acid biosynthetic factory in mycobacteria. This could make FAS an even better starting point in the fight against this infectious disease,” Chari stresses. New therapeutic approaches are increasingly important because there is a growing number of resistant tuberculosis pathogens. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around nine million people worldwide are infected with tuberculosis every year, around 1.4 million die each year as a result of the disease.

The improved methods developed by the researchers in Göttingen could also lead to new insights into FAS function in human cells, which could possibly be used in the fight against cancer, which require a lot of energy for their rapid growth. Many tumor types have far more fatty acid biosynthetic factories for this purpose than normal body cells. Reducing their fatty acid production could also inhibit proliferation of cancer cells.

The researchers led by Stark and Chari see further important applications in biotechnology. Fatty acids are components of cosmetics, soaps, and flavorings, but they are also contained in active pharmaceutical ingredients and biofuels. For the researchers, there are chances to produce fatty acids more sustainably: “Up to now, the fatty acids required for this purpose have mainly been produced chemically from crude oil or extracted laboriously from oil-containing plants. Yeast cells with tailor-made fatty acid factories could produce fatty acids with the desired properties. These could replace fossil fuels in the future,” reports Chari. (cr)

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