Membrane proteins are an important class of macromolecules found in all living organisms and many of them serve as important drug targets. In order to understand their biological and biochemical functions and to exploit them for structure-based drug design, high-resolution and accurate structures of membrane proteins are needed, but are still rarely available, e.g., predominantly from X-ray crystallography, and more recently from single particle cryo-EM — an increasingly powerful tool for membrane protein structure determination. However, while protein-lipid interactions play crucial roles for the structural and functional integrity of membrane proteins, for historical reasons and due to technological limitations, until recently, the primary method for membrane protein crystallization has relied on detergents. Bicelle and lipid cubic phase (LCP) methods have also been used for membrane protein crystallization, but the first step requires detergent extraction of the protein from its native cell membrane. The resulting, crystal structures have been occasionally questioned, but such concerns were generally dismissed as accidents or ignored. However, even a hint of controversy indicates that methodological drawbacks in such structural research may exist. In the absence of caution, structures determined using these methods are often assumed to be correct, which has led to surprising hypotheses for their mechanisms of action. In this communication, several examples of structural studies on membrane proteins or complexes will be discussed: Resistance-Nodulation-Division (RND) family transporters, microbial rhodopsins, Tryptophan-rich Sensory Proteins (TSPO), and Energy-Coupling Factor (ECF) type ABC transporters. These analyses should focus the attention of membrane protein structural biologists on the potential problems in structure determination relying on detergent-based methods. Furthermore, careful examination of membrane proteins in their native cell environments by biochemical and biophysical techniques is warranted, and completely detergent-free systems for membrane protein research are crucially needed.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited