Structural basis of membrane disruption and cellular toxicity by α-synuclein oligomers

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Science  15 Dec 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6369, pp. 1440-1443
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan6160

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A structural look at α-synuclein oligomers

Fibrillar aggregates of the protein α-synuclein (αS) are the major constituents of Lewy bodies in Parkinson's disease. However, small oligomers that accumulate during the process of fibril formation are thought to cause the neuronal toxicity associated with the onset and progression of Parkinson's disease. Little is known about the detailed structural properties of αS oligomers and the molecular mechanisms that lead to their toxicity. Fusco et al. report the structural characterization of two forms of αS oligomers, which elucidates the fundamental structural elements giving rise to neuronal toxicity.

Science, this issue p. 1440


Oligomeric species populated during the aggregation process of α-synuclein have been linked to neuronal impairment in Parkinson’s disease and related neurodegenerative disorders. By using solution and solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance techniques in conjunction with other structural methods, we identified the fundamental characteristics that enable toxic α-synuclein oligomers to perturb biological membranes and disrupt cellular function; these include a highly lipophilic element that promotes strong membrane interactions and a structured region that inserts into lipid bilayers and disrupts their integrity. In support of these conclusions, mutations that target the region that promotes strong membrane interactions by α-synuclein oligomers suppressed their toxicity in neuroblastoma cells and primary cortical neurons.

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