Unveiling the Role of Protein Glycosylation: Insights into Conformational Dynamics and Disease Mechanisms

Glycosylation plays a critical role in controlling normal cell functions as well as disease-related conditions. Understanding how sugar modifications impact proteins, including their conformations and interactions, is crucial for unraveling the causes of diseases and developing targeted treatments.

Introduction: Proteins are vital players in the intricate web of cellular processes, and their proper functioning is essential for maintaining normal physiological conditions. The dynamic behavior of proteins, including their conformational changes and interactions with other molecules, underlies their diverse functions within the cell. However, deviations from normal protein dynamics can lead to malfunction and contribute to the development of various diseases. One crucial aspect influencing protein dynamics is post-translational modifications (PTMs), such as glycosylation. Recent studies have shed light on the significance of PTMs in regulating both normal physiological conditions and disease states. In particular, glycosylation, the addition of sugar molecules to proteins, has emerged as a pivotal PTM with important roles in various biological processes. Understanding the impact of glycosylation on protein dynamics and function is crucial for unraveling disease mechanisms and developing targeted therapeutic interventions.

Glycosylation: A Key Regulator of Protein Function: Among the diverse array of PTMs, glycosylation has garnered significant attention due to its multifaceted roles in cellular processes. Glycosylation influences protein function through modulating conformational dynamics and molecular interactions. Notably, recent investigations on the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein have highlighted the pivotal role of glycosylation in viral entry mechanisms and as a potential protection against host immune recognition. Additionally, aberrant glycosylation has been implicated in cancer, inflammation, and other diseases, where it can remodel cellular localization and protein assemblies, leading to pathological consequences.

The Case of GRP94 and Glycosylation-Dependent Dysfunction: One exemplar of the impact of glycosylation is the chaperone protein GRP94. GRP94, a member of the Hsp90 family, plays a crucial role in protein folding and activation. In normal physiological conditions, GRP94 is glycosylated at specific sites, confining it to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) and facilitating the folding of client proteins. However, a recent study showed that aberrant glycosylation at distinct sites alters GRP94's conformational state, leading to its localization at the plasma membrane (PM) where it establishes stable interactions with PM proteins. This conformational shift transforms GRP94 from a folding protein to a scaffolding protein, disrupting protein assemblies and remodeling protein-protein interactions (PPIs). Consequently, cellular protein pathways are dysregulated, resulting in proteome-wide dysfunction and disease phenotypes.

Exploring the Mechanisms: Unveiling Protein Dynamics and Functional Perturbations: To comprehend the atomistic mechanisms underlying glycosylation's influence on protein functions, researchers have turned to long-timescale Molecular Dynamics (MD) simulations. MD permits to characterize both the range of alternative states that can be sampled under specific conditions and the dynamics of the processes connecting them. Through these simulations, recent research uncovered how glycosylation affects the internal dynamics of GRP94, influencing its interaction with client proteins and nucleotide processing. By elucidating the relationship between glycosylation patterns, conformational dynamics, and functional outcomes, researchers aim to develop a comprehensive understanding of the impact of PTMs on protein behavior.

Implications for Drug Development: The insights gained from studying glycosylation-dependent conformational dynamics hold promise for the development of pharmacological interventions. Disease-associated, aberrantly glycosylated protein variants and their altered assemblies have emerged as potential targets in infectious diseases, inflammation, and cancer. By designing ligands that selectively target specific disease-associated conformations of glycosylated proteins, researchers aim to develop drugs that modulate protein dynamics and disrupt disease-specific protein interactions while sparing the unmodified forms of normal cells. This approach can enhance our ability to target and study the complex mechanisms of chaperones in their native cellular contexts.

Conclusion: The impact of protein glycosylation on conformational dynamics and cellular functions is a field of growing importance in understanding disease mechanisms. Aberrant glycosylation can disrupt normal protein-protein interactions, reshaping them in alternative forms, and leading to proteome-wide dysfunction and disease phenotypes. By investigating the role of glycosylation in proteins such as GRP94, researchers are uncovering fundamental insights into the interplay between covalent modifications, protein dynamics, and their impact on cellular functions. This knowledge paves the way for the development of targeted therapeutic strategies that exploit glycosylation-dependent conformational states and protein assemblies for the treatment of various diseases. While the focus has been on GRP94, the approaches and models discussed here are transferable to other systems, allowing for a broader understanding of the interplay between protein modifications, dynamics, and their implications in health and disease.


  1. Yan P, Patel HJ, Sharma S, Corben A, Wang T, Panchal P, Yang C, Sun W, Araujo TL, Rodina A, Joshi S, Robzyk K, Gandu S, White JR, de Stanchina E, Modi S, Janjigian YY, Hill EG, Liu B, Erdjument-Bromage H, Neubert TA, Que NLS, Li Z, Gewirth DT, Taldone T, Chiosis G. Molecular Stressors Engender Protein Connectivity Dysfunction through Aberrant N-Glycosylation of a Chaperone. Cell Rep. 2020 Jun 30;31(13):107840. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2020.107840. PMID: 32610141; PMCID: PMC7372946.
  2. Matteo Castelli, Pengrong Yan, Anna Rodina, Chander S. Digwal, Palak Panchal, Gabriela Chiosis, Elisabetta Moroni, Giorgio Colombo, How aberrant N-glycosylation can alter protein functionality and ligand binding: An atomistic view, Structure, 2023, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.str.2023.05.017; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0969212623001934

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