BSB Seminar: Membranes under the lens: Using structural biology data to visualise receptor dynamics


How can we tell engaging stories about complex biological processes that are invisible to the naked eye?
Scientists utilise a variety of techniques to investigate and visualise membrane receptors (gatekeepers of information) that transfer signals across membranes.
Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), one such state-of-the-art technique, has been at the forefront of structure determination and drug discovery for G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), ubiquitously expressed membrane proteins that are involved in a variety of physiological functions. Receptor activation involves a number of transient steps, through conformational and compositional changes, which fine-tune the downstream signalling of receptors and their transducer molecules.  These processes are all highly dynamic.

To understand these receptors’ dynamics, we use 3D analysis of our cryo-EM data, e.g. 3D variability analysis in CryoSPARC and molecular dynamics simulations (MD). This dynamic data allows determination of key features for receptor activation and ligand selectivity. Moreover, the collective structural information provides a platform for the development of realistic and engaging 3D animations, illustrating important steps involved in receptor function. We can load our data into Blender3D, an open-source 3D computer graphics software, through which we can better analyse our data, inform drug development pipelines, and tell visual stories about these important proteins to a broad audience.


Dr Sarah Piper received her PhD at The University of Queensland in 2019, working in the groups of Prof Glenn King and Assoc Prof Michael Landsberg on cryo-electron microscopy of protein complexes. She is now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) in Melbourne, specialising in biochemistry and cryo-electron microscopy of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) in the labs of Prof Patrick Sexton and Prof Denise Wootten. She is also heavily involved in science communication and outreach at the ARC Centre for Cryo-electron Microscopy of Membrane Proteins (CCeMMP). Her animations and illustrations of protein structures through the centre, as well as through her social media accounts (@PiperProteins), are based on experimental data and can help to communicate biological processes or can simply be viewed as artistic pieces.