Acetylcholinesterase Active Site Cube© Teaching Points

The acetylcholinesterase gene and the protein it encodes can be used to demonstrate a number of biological concepts, including enzyme specificity, competitive inhibition, mutation, characteristics of the genetic code, alternate splice sites, natural selection, bioinformatics, and disease transmission.

ACHASC Teaching Points

Teaching Points

These materials explore the structure-function relationship of a single protein, acetylcholinesterase.  The acetylcholinesterase gene and the protein it encodes can be used to demonstrate a number of biological concepts, including enzyme specificity, competitive inhibition, mutation, characteristics of the genetic code, alternate splice sites, natural selection, bioinformatics, and disease transmission.  Many of these materials can be presented either at an introductory or an advanced level.  For instance, materials are provided to allow students to compare DNA and protein sequences by hand, or these comparisons can be completed using programs available on the Internet.  Furthermore, it is not necessary to incorporate ALL the materials in the classroom at one time.  We often use acetylcholinesterase as one of a few ‘anchor’ proteins that serve as examples to help tie together a number of biological concepts.  Our hope is that when students leave our classes, they can provide specific examples of a few proteins that illustrate a number of biological concepts. 

Nerves send signals to muscles by way of neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine.  Once the signal has been received, the neurotransmitter must be broken down and recycled, or the cell would not be able to distinguish a new signal as it enters the receptors.   Acetylcholinesterase, which breaks down acetylcholine into acetic acid and choline, is the target of nerve agents such as sarin as well as insecticides like DDT and Malathion.  For more background information on acetylcholinesterase, check out David Goodsell’s Molecule of the Month on the Protein Databank

Aside from being pesky nuisances, mosquitoes often transmit blood-borne diseases, such as malaria and West Nile virus.  In an attempt to control the spread of disease, insecticides have been used widely.  Variation in the acetylcholinesterase gene has allowed some mosquitoes to be resistant to insecticides.  When mosquitoes are exposed repeatedly to insecticides, those with resistance to the chemicals survive to reproduce, resulting in a population of mosquitoes that are no longer able to be controlled with the insecticide.  This material explores the nature of the mutation that confers resistance at the molecular level and is based on a paper published by Weill, et al. (2003).

First, students explore the structure of acetylcholinesterase using computer simulations as well as physical models available from the MSOE Model Lending Library.  They discover that the catalytic triad consists of serine, histidine and glutamic acid residues that are separated by many amino acids in the single polypeptide, but that the three residues lie physically near each other, buried at the base of a long, narrow pocket within the protein.  Although the substrate fits neatly in the active site and is physically in contact with each of the residues in the catalytic triad, students quickly discover that the only way for the substrate to access the active site is if the protein undergoes a conformational change – appearing to ‘breathe’ to allow the substrate to reach the catalytic site.

After exploring the active site of acetylcholinesterase, students compare the DNA sequence from two strains of mosquito, one sensitive, and the other resistant, to insecticides.  They discover that there are 28 nucleotide differences between the two strains.  Next, they align the protein sequences, and discover that there is only ONE difference between the two strains.  This activity demonstrates silent mutations – changes at the DNA level that are not expressed as changes in the protein level.  This is a great opportunity to review the characteristics of the genetic code – it is a degenerate code – more than one codon can code for a specific amino acid), and that there is third base ‘wobble’ (often mutations in the third base position still code for the same amino acid).

After examining acetylcholinesterase bioinformatics, students then go on to study the impact of the specific amino acid change on the protein function. They return to the computer simulations and physical models.  They discover that the mutation is not in the catalytic site of the protein, but in the long narrow pocket leading to the catalytic site.  Insecticides serve as competitive inhibitors, blocking the path to the active site of the molecule.  Students discover that the mutation causes a glycine residue to be replaced by a serine residue, and that this minor change still allows the substrate to squeeze through the gorge.  They also discover that, although the residue in the resistant strain is only slightly larger, it is sufficiently large to block the inhibitor from entering the gorge. 

After students have discovered the nature of the mutation and the impact on protein structure, you might have them go one step further by asking them to propose a design for a better insecticide – one that would inhibit the enzyme regardless of what mutations might arise.  Students might suggest an inhibitor that binds directly at the catalytic site, providing another teaching opportunity.  (Insects with mutations at the catalytic site would not survive, since the protein would not function normally.)

This manual is organized in sections for those instructors interested in presenting only a portion of the material.  Most sections are divided into subsections.  Throughout the material, Section A is more appropriate for introductory courses.  Students are provided with the aligned sequences and are required to identify the differences between the sequences.  In section B, students actually use Internet tools for bioinformatics to align the sequences.  There are additional suggestions in section C to allow for more in depth study of bioinformatics. 

Models in this Collection

  • Four Acetylcholinesterase Active Site Cubes

Model Details

  • Acetylcholinesterase Active Site Cube
    • Fold out model of acetylcholinesterase active site gorge in four sections, including substrate (acetylcholinesterase), competitive inhibitor (insecticide), serine 238 cap, and mutant side chain
    • Catalytic site residues (ser238, his480 and glu367) in cpk colors; rest of model in muted Goodsell colors (pink is oxygen, pale blue is nitrogen, white is carbon)
    • Magnets join the four sections, as well as the substrate, inhibitor, ser38 cap and mutant side chain, all of which are in cpk colors
    • Mutant side chain converts a glycine to a serine residue
    • Based on PDB file 1QON
    • Made of plaster on the Z-Corp printer

Documentation included

  • Teaching points and inventory
  • How do the models fit back in the suitcase?
  • Evolution in Action: Modeling Insecticide Resistance in Mosquitoes
  • Copy of Weill et al. paper: Insecticide resistance in mosquito vectors.  Nature 423:136-137.