Protein Modifications

During and after translation, individual amino acids may be chemically modified, signal sequences may be appended, and the new protein “folds” into a distinct three-dimensional structure as a result of intramolecular interactions. A signal sequence is a short tail of amino acids that directs a protein to a specific cellular compartment. These sequences at the amino end or the carboxyl end of the protein can be thought of as the protein’s “train ticket” to its ultimate destination. Other cellular factors recognize each signal sequence and help transport the protein from the cytoplasm to its correct compartment. For instance, a specific sequence at the amino terminus will direct a protein to the mitochondria or chloroplasts (in plants). Once the protein reaches its cellular destination, the signal sequence is usually clipped off.

Many proteins fold spontaneously, but some proteins require helper molecules, called chaperones, to prevent them from aggregating during the complicated process of folding. Even if a protein is properly specified by its corresponding mRNA, it could take on a completely dysfunctional shape if abnormal temperature or pH conditions prevent it from folding correctly.

Chemical Modifications, Protein Activity, and Longevity

Proteins can be chemically modified with the addition of groups including methyl, phosphate, acetyl, and ubiquitin groups. The addition or removal of these groups from proteins regulates their activity or the length of time they exist in the cell. Sometimes these modifications can regulate where a protein is found in the cell—for example, in the nucleus, the cytoplasm, or attached to the plasma membrane.

Multiple ubiquitin groups bind to a protein. The tagged protein is then fed into the hollow tube of a proteasome. The proteasome degrades the protein.

Figure 1. Proteins with ubiquitin tags are marked for degradation within the proteasome.

Chemical modifications occur in response to external stimuli such as stress, the lack of nutrients, heat, or ultraviolet light exposure. These changes can alter epigenetic accessibility, transcription, mRNA stability, or translation—all resulting in changes in expression of various genes. This is an efficient way for the cell to rapidly change the levels of specific proteins in response to the environment. Because proteins are involved in every stage of gene regulation, the phosphorylation of a protein (depending on the protein that is modified) can alter accessibility to the chromosome, can alter translation (by altering transcription factor binding or function), can change nuclear shuttling (by influencing modifications to the nuclear pore complex), can alter RNA stability (by binding or not binding to the RNA to regulate its stability), can modify translation (increase or decrease), or can change post-translational modifications (add or remove phosphates or other chemical modifications).

The addition of an ubiquitin group to a protein marks that protein for degradation. Ubiquitin acts like a flag indicating that the protein lifespan is complete. These proteins are moved to the proteasome, an organelle that functions to remove proteins, to be degraded (Figure 1). One way to control gene expression, therefore, is to alter the longevity of the protein.