Energy saving saves cells

Storing excess ATP molecules helps cells to avoid protein aggregation.
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Budding yeast cells with high levels of ATP (left) do not lead to abnormal aggregation of proteins (magenta), while mutant cells with low levels of ATP (right) exhibit clumps of proteins (magenta). Image credit: Masak Takaine (CC BY 4.0)

Cells use a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as a controllable source of energy. Like a battery, each ATP molecule contains a specific amount of energy that can be released when needed. Cells just need enough ATP to survive, but most cells store a lot more than they need. It is unclear why cells keep so much ATP, or whether this excess ATP has any other purpose.

To answer these questions, Takaine et al. identified mutants of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae that had low levels of ATP, and studied how these cells differ from normal yeast The results showed that, in S. cerevisiae cells with lower and variable levels of ATP, proteins stick together, forming clumps. Proteins are molecules that perform diverse roles, keeping cells alive. When they clump together, they stop working and can cause cells to die. Further experiments showed that reducing the levels of ATP just for a short time increased the rate at which proteins stick together.

Taken together, Takaine et al.’s results suggest that ATP plays a role in stopping proteins from sticking together, explaining why cells may store excess ATP, since it could aid survival.

Protein clumps, also called aggregates, are a key feature of various illnesses, including neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Takaine et al. provide a possible cause for why proteins aggregate in these diseases, which may be worth further study.