A simple cut to the skin unleashes a complex cascade of chemistry to stem the flow of blood. Now, scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have used evolutionary clues to reveal how a key clotting protein assembles. The finding sheds new light on common bleeding disorders.
The long tube-shaped protein with a vital role in blood clotting is called von Willebrand Factor (VWF). Made in cells that form the inner lining of blood vessels, VWF circulates in the blood seeking out sites of injury. When it finds them, its helical tube unfurls to catch platelets and form blood clots. Defects in VWF cause von Willebrand Disease, the most common inherited bleeding disorder in humans.
"The challenge for the cell is how to build this massive protein without clogging the machinery," says J. Evan Sadler, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and senior author of the study published in July in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. "The cell has solved this problem by making the assembly of von Willebrand Factor dependent on its location in the cell."
And VWF knows its location in a cell because pH, a measure of how acidic or basic a liquid is, varies from one cellular structure to the next. On a scale of 0 to 14, pure water has a neutral pH of about 7; human blood is slightly basic with a pH of 7.4.
In a cell, the building blocks of VWF form in an area with the same pH as blood. Then these building blocks are shipped to an area that is more acidic. Called the Golgi, this cellular compartment is known for its role in packaging proteins and has a pH of about 6.2. In this acidic environment, the building blocks of VWF are able to form long chains and fold into its signature helical tubules. But how this assembly process works has not been well understood.
From basic biophysics, Sadler and his colleagues knew that only one amino acid in the long protein chain is likely to "sense" a pH change from 7.4 to 6.2.
|Contact: Julia Evangelou Strait |
Washington University School of Medicine