Structural biology of membrane proteins
Membrane proteins are fundamental to cell life and regulation. A large number of transporters, signalling and metabolic proteins are anchored to or are completely embedded in biological membranes. It has been estimated that a third of the human genome encodes for membrane proteins and for this reason they represent a growing field of research in structural biology. MsbA, a member of the large family of ATP-binding cassette transporters (ABC), hydrolyses ATP to promote the translocation of lipid A through the inner membrane of Gram negative bacteria. This is a crucial step to the formation of biofilms protecting bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa from the attack of the immune system are composed of lipid A. For this reason, MsbA and similar ABC-transporters represents a promising target of antibiotics research. I use biochemical and biophysical techniques to achieve better insight in the structure/function relationships of paMsbA, with particular emphasis in the crystallographic aspect and toward the design of new antibiotics.
Human calcium binding proteins
Calcium is widely exploited in eukaryotic cells, especially to trigger specific responses to signalling events. The release of calcium from intracellular stores triggers a number of cellular events, usually mediated by proteins such Calmodulin, which undergo major structural rearrangements upon Ca-binding. The cross-talk among various forms of signalling, including extracellular receptors, phosphorylation and other second messengers, are crucial for the correct tuning of the calcium response to stimuli. Spatial and temporal control of calcium signalling is therefore fundamental for muscle contraction, neurotransmission, cell growth and motility. A detailed structural description of these proteins and complexes would let us better understand the regulation of calcium signalling within eukaryotic cells. I am studying a group of calcium-binding proteins and their interactions with some of their regulators. In particular I am interested in the Sarco-Endoplasmic reticulum P-type Ca-ATPase (SERCA) and some of its functional partners. I make use of CD, SAXS and X-ray crystallography to understand how the crosstalk among these proteins finely regulates the contraction of the cardiac muscle.
Protein kinases and phosphatases
Post-translational modifications tagging proteins are widely used as molecular switches. In humans a large number of kinases and phosphatases control pathways by catalysing the reversible phosphorylation of nucleophilic protein side chains. Deregulation of the complex phosphorylation network of a cell often results in pathologies such as metabolic and proliferative diseases. For this reason, protein kinases are considered a hot topic both from academia and from pharmaceutical companies. Currently I am helping to develop techniques for the biochemical characterisation of some members of this class of enzymes. I am also continuing to work with older collaborations, on the structural description of kinase-inhibitor complexes as well as on protein phosphatases and their physiological modulators
Crystal handling tools
Together with the staff of the MX beamline I02, I am also working on novel crystal handling tools for the improvement of room temperature and humidity-controlled x-ray diffraction experiments.