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Visualization of modifications in the human ribosome structure, a new feat for cryo electron microscopy

Lleft to right: structure of the entire ribosome, map details obtained by high-resolution cryo electron microscopy, and two types of characteristic modifications.

Visualization of chemical modifications in the human 80S ribosome structure.

Natchiar SK(1)(2)(3)(4)(5), Myasnikov AG(1)(2)(3)(4)(5), Kratzat H(1)(2)(3)(4)(5), Hazemann I(1)(2)(3)(4)(5), Klaholz BP(1)(2)(3)(4)(5).

Nature Nov. 23, 2017

Nov. 15, 2017

Ribosomes play a vital role in living beings: they are protein production stations in all cell types. These large complexes are made up of two kinds of molecules: proteins and ribosomal RNA (rRNA). Through structural studies, Bruno Klaholz's team at the IGBMC revealed more than 130 chemical modifications of the rRNAs. Published in the journal Nature on November 15 2017, these results not only provide a better understanding of the structural and functional roles of human ribosome modifications, but also open up new therapeutic pathways for the treatment of pathologies such as cancer or certain genetic diseases in which dysregulation of protein synthesis is involved.

Genuine molecular machines, ribosomes decipher the information contained in a copy of DNA, called messenger RNA, to synthesize proteins. During ribosomes biogenesis, chemical modifications occur at precise locations of rRNAs. The alteration of these modifications is sometimes associated with disruptions in protein synthesis. Moreover, these modifications in the rRNA structure seem to modulate the activity of antibiotics, indicating that they can influence the ribosome interaction with this kind of drugs.


Chemical modifications of rRNA have been known for decades, particularly in microbes, but their observation remained difficult. In this study, Bruno Klaholz's team at the IGBMC determined the localization and three-dimensional structure of 136 various types of modifications (methylations, acetylations, etc.) of human ribosome rRNAs. The researchers have thus uncovered the role of these chemical modifications which consists in stabilizing the rRNA structure.

The researchers also analyzed the structure of three antibiotics-binding sites, revealing that these molecules are either in direct contact or very close to the rRNAs modifications sites, implying a role of these modifications in the mechanism of action and specificity of these inhibitors. Moreover, the unexpected presence of certain rRNA modifications suggests that rRNA modifications in human ribosomes could vary between different cell types, especially between normal cells and cancer cells, and could thus constitute a signature for cancer states.

This study represents a major result made possible by cryo electron microscopy, a revolutionary method for the observation of macromolecules coupled with image processing and 3D reconstruction, by which the researchers were able to construct a detailed atomic model of the human ribosome. Recognized recently by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017, this technique provides the double advantage of being able to study biological samples without altering their properties and also allows to fix the orientation of the objects to enable a 3D reconstruction. This work was carried out using a high-resolution electron microscope (Titan Krios) within the French and European infrastructures, FRISBI and Instruct, hosted at the Centre for Integrative Biology at IGBMC.


Beyond mapping at the atomic level, the visualization of rRNA chemical modifications provides unprecedented insights into their role in the stabilization of rRNA structure, in the translation process and in diseases related to ribosome dysfunctions, paving the way for the development of new drug.

This study was supported by the INCa, the Ligue, the ANR, the CPER 2007-2013 (the Greater Region, the Eurometropole of Strasbourg, the General Council of the Bas-Rhin, the Ministry of National Education, higher education and research), FRM, Inserm, CNRS, FRISBI and Instruct-ERIC.


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