Tiny protein clusters drive big decisions

Inside human cells, pairs of IRE1 proteins form larger groups to send alarm signals to the nucleus when the endoplasmic reticulum is under stress.

Colorized transmission electron micrograph of Vero E6 Cells in cell culture infected with Yellow Fever Virus particles found within distended regions of the endoplasmic reticulum. Image credit: NIAID (CC BY 2.0)

Our cells contain many different compartments that each perform specific tasks. A cellular compartment known as the endoplasmic reticulum is responsible for making many of the proteins the cell requires and transporting them around the cell.

It is important that the endoplasmic reticulum remains healthy and, therefore, cells use a protein called IRE1 that senses when this compartment is under stress. IRE1 then sends a signal to the control center of the cell (known as the nucleus) to ask for help. Previous studies suggest that IRE1 assembles into either pairs or larger groups of molecules known as oligomers when it senses that the endoplasmic reticulum is under stress. However, it remains unclear whether such assembly is the main switch that turns IRE1 on and, if so, how many molecules need to come together to flip the switch.

Here, Belyy et al. genetically engineered human bone cancer cells to attach a mark known as a HaloTag to IRE1.The team developed a microscopy approach to count, in living cells, how many tagged IRE1 molecules join. The experiments indicated that IRE1 proteins were generally found as pairs in unstressed cells. When the endoplasmic reticulum experienced stress, IRE1 proteins briefly assembled into oligomers before disassembling back into pairs. Mutated versions of IRE1 revealed the exact parts of IRE1 that connect the pairs and the larger oligomers.

These findings suggest that the assembly of IRE1 pairs into oligomers plays a major part in the activation of IRE1 to send a stress signal to the nucleus. IRE1 signaling is closely implicated in both cancer biology and aging, and therefore, understanding how it works may aid the development of new therapies for cancer, dementia, and other health conditions affecting older people. Furthermore, the microscopy approach developed in this work could be adapted to study other proteins that relay signals in living cells.