Research led by Trinity Physics Professor, Martin Hegner, has made progress in understanding the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The international team of researchers led by Professor Hegner focused on individual ribosomes within the human cell. Ribosomes are the part of a cell that synthesise protein. An individual protein can measure 10 nanometers in length.
The proteins that are synthesised speed up cell reactions without getting used up in the process. During protein synthesis, carbon compounds called amino acids link together to form a peptide chain. The peptide is bent and folded into complex 3D structures of that particular protein. Neurodegenerative diseases occur when peptides are misfolded.
The Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) Institute in Trinity collaborated with a German research team to design an optical device that is able to seize a peptide chain and observe the folding on a nanometer scale. This is the first time researchers have been able to observe the occurrence of protein folding.
When speaking to Trinity News, Professor Hegner said that the “protein folding occurs directly in the ribosome. With the tool that we have, we can follow the protein in real time.” The protein is hooked up to a measurement system and “ the change in length is measured when the protein is folding. A healthy protein follows the same path and they are functioning as they should.” Professor Henger continued by saying that “if there are changes in a biological level of the protein, they are not made correctly and these can accumulate.”
Speaking in terms of physics, Professor Hegner noted that “the molecules are bouncing due to Brownian Motion.” Brownian motion is the erratic and random movement of molecules due to thermal energy. When the molecules are “wiggling, you can measure the length. The sensitivity is on an atomic scale.”
The publication in the scientific journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ on Tuesday follows previous findings in Trinity. In 2015, Trinity researchers found that the accumulation of a protein called amyloid-beta in the brain is a major factor in the triggering of Alzheimer’s.