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Scientists retrace evolution with first atomic structure of an ancient protein
Date:8/16/2007

in humans and other vertebrates that allows cells to respond to the hormone cortisol, which regulates the body's stress response. The scientists' goal was to understand the process of evolution behind the GR's ability to specifically interact with cortisol. They used computational techniques and a large database of modern receptor sequences to determine the ancient GR's gene sequence from a time just before and just after its specific relationship with cortisol evolved. The ancient genes which existed more than 400 million years ago were then synthesized, expressed, and their structures determined using X-ray crystallography, a state-of-the art technique that allows scientists to see the atomic architecture of a molecule. The project represents the first time the technique has been applied to an ancient protein.

The structures allowed the scientists to identify exactly how the new function evolved. They found that just seven historical mutations, when introduced into the ancestral receptor gene in the lab, recapitulated the evolution of GR's present-day response to cortisol. They were even able to deduce the order in which these changes occurred, because some mutations caused the protein to lose its function entirely if other "permissive" changes, which otherwise had a negligible effect on the protein, were not in place first.

"These permissive mutations are chance events. If they hadn't happened first, then the path to the new function could have become an evolutionary road not taken," Thornton said. "Imagine if evolution could be rewound and set in motion again: a very different set of genes, functions and processes might be the outcome."

The atomic structure revealed exactly how these mutations allowed the new function to evolve. The most radical one remodeled a whole section of the protein, bringing a group of atoms close to the hormone. A second mutation in this repositioned region then created a tight new interaction with cortisol
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Contact: Zack Barnett
zbarnett@uoregon.edu
541-346-3145
University of Oregon
Source:Eurekalert

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