New & Noteworthy

A GLAMorous New Role for Prefoldin

October 17, 2013

The glass slipper screen couldn’t find the hidden glamour of the prefoldin complex. But the GLAM assay did.

The prefoldin complex seemed like an ordinary housekeeper. It sat in the cytoplasm and folded protein after protein, just as Cinderella spent her days folding laundry for her stepsisters.

In the old story, the handsome prince searched the kingdom for a girl whose foot would fit the glass slipper. Using this crude screen, he finally found Cinderella and revealed her to be the true princess that she was.

In a new study, Millán-Zambrano and coworkers did essentially the same thing for the prefoldin complex.  They searched the genome of S. cerevisiae for new mutations that would affect transcription elongation. They found the prefoldin complex subunit PFD1 and went on to establish that in addition to its humdrum cytoplasmic role, prefoldin has a surprising and glamorous role in the nucleus facilitating transcriptional elongation.

The researchers decided to cast a wide net in their search for genes with previously undiscovered roles in transcriptional elongation. Their group had already worked out the GLAM assay (Gene Length-dependent Accumulation of mRNA), which can uncover elongation defects.

The assay uses two different reporter gene constructs that both encode Pho5p, an acid phosphatase. One generates an mRNA of average length, while the other generates an unusually long mRNA when fully transcribed. The acid phosphatase activity of Pho5p is simple to measure, and correlates well with abundance of its mRNA. If there is a problem with transcriptional elongation in a particular mutant strain, there will be much less phosphatase activity generated from the longer form than from the shorter one. So the ratio of the two gives a good indication of how well elongation is working in that mutant strain.

Millán-Zambrano and coworkers used this assay to screen the genome-wide collection of viable deletion mutants. They came up with mutations in lots of genes that were already known to affect transcriptional elongation, confirming that the assay was working. They also found some genes that hadn’t been shown to be involved in elongation before.  One of these was PFD1, a gene encoding a subunit of the prefoldin complex. As this deletion had one of the most significant effects on elongation, they decided to investigate it further.

Prefoldin is a non-essential complex made of six subunits that helps to fold proteins in the cytoplasm as they are translated. The authors tested mutants lacking the other subunits and found that most of them also had transcriptional elongation defects in the GLAM assay, although none quite as strong as the pfd1 mutant.

Since prefoldin is important in folding microtubules and actin filaments, the researchers wondered whether the GLAM assay result was the indirect effect of cytoskeletal defects. They were able to rule this out by showing that drugs that destabilize the cytoskeleton didn’t affect the GLAM ratio in wild-type cells, and that mutations in prefoldin subunits didn’t confer strong sensitivity to those drugs.

If prefoldin has a role in transcription, it would obviously need to get inside the nucleus. It had previously been seen in the cytoplasm, but when the authors took another look, they found it in the nucleus as well. Furthermore, Pfd1p was bound to the chromatin of actively transcribed genes! And besides its effect on transcription elongation, the pfd1 mutant has lower levels of RNA polymerase II occupancy and abnormal patterns of histone binding on transcribed genes.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to figure out exactly what prefoldin is doing during transcriptional elongation. Right now, the evidence points to its involvement in evicting histones from genes in order to expose them for transcription. But even before all the details of this story are worked out, this is a good reminder never to assume that an everyday housekeeper is only that.

With the right screen we can find new and exciting things about the most humdrum of characters. A glass slipper screen revealed the princess under that apron and chimney soot. And a GLAM assay revealed the sexy, exciting transcription elongation factor that is prefoldin.