Mystery Rays from Outer Space

Meddling with things mankind is not meant to understand. Also, pictures of my kids

May 7th, 2008

Quick platypus note

Human chromosome 5

Human chromosome 5

One of the genes I’m interested in is an aminopeptidase called “ERAP1”1 that’s involved in antigen presentation.2 ERAP1 is a member of a family of closely-related genes, roughly 50% identity, that in humans and many other mammals are adjacent on a chromosome. That is, on human chromosome 5 (figure to the right), there are three genes side by side: ERAP1; ERAP2; and LNPEP, all of which are clearly the result of gene-duplication events at some point. Several other mammals have the same arrangement. The neighbouring (non-ERAP-related) genes are the same, also, for that matter.

In mice and rats, however, there’s a different arrangement. ERAP1 is on chromosome 13, LNPEP is on chromosome 17, and there’s no ERAP2.

So it seemed that the most likely scenario was the in the rodent lineage, there was a chromosome break right between ERAP1 and LNPEP, right in the middle of ERAP2, that destroyed ERAP2. However, it was also possible (though I thought less likely) that there was a fusion — that having ERAP1 and LNPEP on different chromosomes was the basal situation, but that the chromosomes merged in the non-rodent lineage, with a gene duplication arising from the chromosome fusion. Or something like that.

Fish have members of the ERAP family, but I wasn’t confident in assigning them to ERAP1, ERAP2, or LNPEP — the mammalian genes are too similar for me to be confident in my feeble bioinformatic understanding.

Playpus ERAPs

But the platypus genome that just come out gives a lot of support to the idea that rodents split their chromosome from the basal patterns. To the left (click for a larger version) is the appropriate platypus chromosome. ERAP1 (here called “similar to type I tumor necrossis factor receptor shedding aminopeptidase regulator”) and LNPEP (here called “similar to leucyl/cystinyl aminopeptidase”) are on the same chromosome, and in between them is “LOC10081647” — something the annotation called a pseudogene, which it may well be, but it’s ERAP2. I haven’t had time to do any careful alignments, but it aligns more closely with mammalian ERAP2 than anything else.

So almost certainly mice and rats lost ERAP2, though it may have been a pseudogene at that point, and other species either kept a functional ERAP2, or somewhere along the line turned a pseudogene into a functional enzyme.

This is not a big deal and likely won’t lead anywhere, but it’s an answer to a piece of trivia that’s been bothering me a little on and off for about 5 years. So yay for the platypus genome.

  1. by us, anyway: York IA, Chang SC, Saric T, Keys JA, Favreau JM, Goldberg AL, Rock KL (2002) The ER aminopeptidase ERAP1 enhances or limits antigen presentation by trimming epitopes to 8-9 residues. Nat Immunol 3:1177–184. []
  2. For example, York IA, Brehm MA, Zendzian S, Towne CF, Rock KL (2006) Endoplasmic reticulum aminopeptidase 1 (ERAP1) trims MHC class I-presented peptides in vivo and plays an important role in immunodominance. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 103:9202–9207.[]
May 4th, 2008

The weak conquers the strong

Ectromelia mouse (from McFadden)I’ve talked several times about Charlie Janeway’s “dirty little secrets“, and the insights into fundamental immunity that arose from the concept. I’ve also mentioned a couple of potential clinical advances arising from it. Here’s another one, that I find particularly elegant for its use of the weak to conquer the powerful. 1

As a very quick reminder: Janeway’s insight2 was that an immune response wouldn’t start unless there were signals present, indicating that a hazardous situation was at hand. Janeway proposed that the immune system would be on the alert for molecular patterns that are generic to many pathogens. Without such patterns the immune system would ignore “foreign” antigen; when pathogen-associated molecular patterns (“PAMPs”) appear, the immune system kicks on and starts looking for trouble. (By the way, sorry about all the acronyms in this. I usually try to avoid using too many, but it’s unavoidable this time. There’s a glossary in the footnote here if you need it.)3

Janeway, and subsequently many others, went on to identify some of the PAMP receptors; first the toll-like receptors (TLRs) and then several other types. There are quite a few — maybe a dozen TLRs, maybe a couple dozen other types, in mice or humans. The different PAMP receptors recognize different subsets of PAMPs, and we have relatively recently reached the point where we understand enough about the receptors to make occasional predictions: Researchers can analyze a virus, say, and say with some confidence that a certain PAMP receptor is likely to recognize it.

Immune recognition of mousepox virus
Hubertus Hochrein’s group is interested in smallpox, the archetypal poxvirus, and they’re using ectromelia (mousepox) as their model for smallpox. Poxviruses are large DNA viruses that are remarkably versatile in their dealings with the immune system; as a group, and as individual viruses, they have evolved molecules that evade multiple components of the immune system. One of those components is the TLR system, apparently, because at least some poxviruses encode molecules that block TLR signalling. 4

There’s an interesting general question, by the way, about how to interpret immune evasion molecules in viruses. If we find that vaccinia virus encodes blockers of TLR signaling, do we argue that TLRs must be important in protecting against vaccinia virus? Or do we instead say that TLRs must not be important, because the virus has defenses against them? In this case, at any rate, Hochrein’s group guessed that TLRs are important, and further guessed that TLR9 might be important.

TLR9 recognizes DNA, both viral and bacterial, but until now there haven’t been any instances of virus recognition that’s strictly dependent on TLR9. Ectromelia, however, turned out to be the first; immune activation by ectromelia is almost entirely dependent on TLR9 signaling, and mice lacking TLR9 were highly sensitive to ectromelia infection:

The in vivo relevance of this TLR9-only dependence for ECTV5 recognition was clearly illustrated by our in vivo studies that revealed that the lack of TLR9 rendered mice more than 100-fold more susceptible to infection with ECTV. … We calculated an LD506 of 19 TCID507 for the TLR9-deficient mice and an LD50 of about 2,120 TCID50 for the WT mice.

Cells infected wth vaccinia
Cells (actin cytoskeleton in green)
infected with vaccinia virus (red)

Broader recognition of a weakened poxvirus
Does TLR9, and only TLR9, recognize poxviruses in general? Ectromelia is a highly virulent virus even as poxviruses go. There are plenty of more benign viruses, such as vaccinia virus; and even within vaccinia viruses there is a wide range of virulence. Probably the least virulent vaccinia virus is a semi-artificial version of it called “Modified vaccinia Ankara” (MVA). 8 MVA has lost about 13% of its genome compared to its more virulent ancestor, and many of its remaining genes are damaged as well.9

Like ectromelia, TLR9 drove an immune response to MVA. Unlike ectromelia, that isn’t the whole story; even without TLR9, the immune system recognizes MVA.

This is almost certainly an immune evasion function that has been lost in MVA. That is, both wild-type vaccinia virus and ectromelia virus seem to have a gene (or genes) that blocks recognition by PAMP receptors other than TLR9, whereas the massively defective MVA has lost this gene and is recognized by both TLR9 and this other, unknown, receptor.

Overriding blindness
So if immune activation by ectromelia is partially blocked by its immune evasion function, would we reduce its virulence by artificially activating the immune system after ectromelia infection? Ideally, of course, we’d want to only activate the components that are involved in protecting against poxviruses. Like, for example, the aspects that the poxvirus MVA activates.

You see where this is going. Can MVA act almost like an adjuvant, turning on the immune components that ectromelia virus has blinded? And the answer is yes. If you infect mice with a lethal dose of ectromelia, and then superinfect them with MVA, they survive:

MVA given at the same time or immediately after challenge with a high lethal dose of ECTV of 1 × 105 TCID50 completely protected WT mice against death, whereas all control mice died with the 10-fold-lower dose of 1 × 104 TCID50.

You wouldn’t normally think that two viruses would be better than one; and you wouldn’t normally think that the dainty little MVA could override its brutally virulent cousin’s lethality. But at least in mice, it seems that therapeutic infection worked.

  1. Samuelsson, C., Hausmann, J., Lauterbach, H., Schmidt, M., Akira, S., Wagner, H., Chaplin, P., Suter, M., O’Keeffe, M., Hochrein, H. (2008). Survival of lethal poxvirus infection in mice depends on TLR9, and therapeutic vaccination provides protection. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 118(5), 1776-1784. DOI: 10.1172/JCI33940[]
  2. And Polly Matzinger’s[]
  3. PAMP: Pathogen-associated molecular pattern;
    TLR: toll-like receptor;
    ECTV: ectromelia virus;
    LD50: Dose of virus that kills half the recipients;
    TCID50: 50% tissue-culture infectious dose – more or less, the number of infectious particles of virus;
    MVA: Modified vaccinia Ankara[]
  4. Bowie A, Kiss-Toth E, Symons JA, Smith GL, Dower SK, O’Neill LA (2000) A46R and A52R from vaccinia virus are antagonists of host IL-1 and toll-like receptor signaling. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 97:10162-10167.[]
  5. ectromelia virus[]
  6. LD50: Dose of virus that kills half the recipients.[]
  7. TCID50: 50% tissue-culture infectious dose – more or less, the number of infectious particles of virus[]
  8. MVA was produced by repeatedly passing a wild vaccinia virus (Ankara strain) through chicken cells more then 570 times. In the process of becoming chicken-adapted, it lost its mammalian adaptations and barely replicates in mammalian cells. Since it’s so enfeebled, there’s interest in using it as a vaccine, since the standard smallpox vaccine is quite dangerous as vaccines go.[]
  9. Meisinger-Henschel C, Schmidt M, Lukassen S, Linke B, Krause L, Konietzny S, Goesmann A, Howley P, Chaplin P, Suter M et al. (2007) Genomic sequence of chorioallantois vaccinia virus Ankara, the ancestor of modified vaccinia virus Ankara. J Gen Virol 88:3249-3259.[]
May 3rd, 2008


After spending a week1 trying to find a bug in XPlasMap, I just realized that “[-\d]+” should have been “[-\d\.]+”


  1. Well, a half-hour every other night for a week[]