Molecular insights into the interaction between alpha-synuclein and docosahexaenoic acid

J Mol Biol. 2009 Nov 20;394(1):94-107. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2009.09.008. Epub 2009 Sep 8.


alpha-Synuclein (alpha-syn) is a 140-residue protein of unknown function, involved in several neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson's disease. Recently, the possible interaction between alpha-syn and polyunsaturated fatty acids has attracted a strong interest. Indeed, lipids are able to trigger the multimerization of the protein in vitro and in cultured cells. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one of the main fatty acids (FAs) in cerebral gray matter and is dynamically released following phospholipid hydrolysis. Moreover, it has been found in high levels in brain areas containing alpha-syn inclusions in patients affected by Parkinson's disease. Debated and unsolved questions regard the nature of the molecular interaction between alpha-syn and DHA and the effect exerted by the protein on the aggregated state of the FA. Here, we show that alpha-syn is able to strongly interact with DHA and that a mutual effect on the structure of the protein and on the physical state of the lipid derives from this interaction. alpha-Syn acquires an alpha-helical conformation in a simple two-state transition. The binding of the protein to the FA leads to a reduction of the size of the spontaneously formed aggregated species of DHA as well as of the critical aggregate concentration of the lipid. Specifically, biophysical methods and electron microscopy observations indicated that the FA forms oil droplets in the presence of alpha-syn. Limited proteolysis experiments showed that, when the protein is bound to the FA oil droplets, it is initially cleaved in the 89-102 region, suggesting that this chain segment is sufficiently flexible or unfolded to be protease-sensitive. Subsequent proteolytic events produce fragments corresponding to the first 70-80 residues that remain structured and show high affinity for the lipid. The fact that a region of the polypeptide chain remains accessible to proteases, when interacting with the lipid, suggests that this region could be involved in other interactions, justifying the ambivalent propensity of alpha-syn towards folding or aggregation in the presence of FAs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Circular Dichroism
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / chemistry*
  • Electrophoresis, Polyacrylamide Gel
  • Endopeptidase K / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Models, Molecular*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational
  • Protein Structure, Secondary
  • alpha-Synuclein / chemistry*
  • alpha-Synuclein / ultrastructure


  • alpha-Synuclein
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Endopeptidase K