Eukaryotic cells are characterized by their exquisite compartmentalization. Membrane-bound organelles form highly dynamic and interconnected networks. This complexity makes a permanent crosstalk between the organelles a necessity for the coordination of cellular functions. The tight juxtaposition of membranes from different types of organelles is essential to the controlled exchanges of matter and information within cells and is mediated by various organelle-tethering protein complexes. Small metabolites and messengers such as phospholipids (PLs) and Ca2+ are exchanged at these membrane contact sites (MCSs). Understanding the molecular mechanisms that regulate interactions between organelles will offer new insights into this fundamental aspect of eukaryotic cell biology. Our research focuses on the Endoplasmic Reticulum- Mitochondrion Encounter Structure (ERMES), a tether identified in the model eukaryote organism yeast, and functioning at ER-mitochondrial junctions also named Mitochondrion-Associated Membranes (MAMs). While many groups investigate MCSs, most of them use approaches based on genetic screens and cellular imaging methods combined with proteomics or metabolomics. We bring to bear biochemical, biophysical and structural methods to characterize ERMES at the level of molecular structure to understand its precise cellular functions and mechanism of action. ERMES is composed of five subunits, but besides its subunit composition nothing else is known about its architecture and mode of assembly at MAMs. Three of these subunits, the ER- anchored protein Mmm1, the soluble subunit Mdm12, and the mitochondrial membrane protein Mdm34, contain a SMP domain, a lipid-binding protein domain exclusively found in proteins located at MCSs from yeast to humans. Using mass-spectrometry, we showed that Mdm12 preferentially binds phosphatidylcholines while our 17- resolution negative-stain EM structure of the Mmm1/Mdm12 hetero-tetramer revealed that the soluble SMP domains not only bind phospholipids but also function as specific protein scaffolds to assemble the tether. This led us to propose a first and very rudimentary structural model for the ERMES-mediated exchange of PLs at MAMs. The lack of a biochemically tractable system reconstituted in vitro has hindered efforts to definitely establish the function(s) of ERMES. Here, we propose to complete the reconstitution of ERMES to characterize its subunit stoichiometry and identify its bona-fide lipid ligands. Using purified subunits we will reconstitute the SMP-core of ERMES on two distinctly labeled types of proteoliposomes and assess tethering and PL exchange using fluorescence-based biophysical methods in vitro. With this system, we will also dissect the mechanisms of ERMES regulation by the tail-anchored mitochondrial GTPase Gem1, an integral ERMES subunit that was shown to control tether assembly and lipid exchange. Last, we will determine the structure of ERMES by a `hybrid' approach combining single particle high-resolution cryo-EM analysis to improve the resolution of our current reconstructions, and X-ray diffraction analysis of recently obtained crystals of complex.

Public Health Relevance

Protein complexes mediating close apposition of the endoplasmic reticulum and the mitochondrial membranes are thought to favor the essential exchanges of lipids and other cellular signals between the two organelles. Dysfunctional membrane contact sites in humans are associated with diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's but also diabetes, obesity, and cancer. The goal of this research is to elucidate the structure and involvement in lipid transport of the ER-to-mitochondrion tether ERMES using yeast as model system, and advance our understanding of the links between membrane contact sites, lipid metabolism, and diseases in humans.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)
Research Project (R01)
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Membrane Biology and Protein Processing Study Section (MBPP)
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Flicker, Paula F
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University of California Los Angeles
Schools of Medicine
Los Angeles
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AhYoung, Andrew P; Lu, Brian; Cascio, Duilio et al. (2017) Crystal structure of Mdm12 and combinatorial reconstitution of Mdm12/Mmm1 ERMES complexes for structural studies. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 488:129-135