William R Montfort
Professor, Applied Mathematics - GIDP
Professor, BIO5 Institute
Professor, Cancer Biology - GIDP
Professor, Genetics - GIDP
Professor, Molecular and Cellular Biology
Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry-Sci
Primary Department
(520) 621-1884
Work Summary
We investigate how proteins work in healthy organisms and how they fail in disease. We determine the atomic structures of proteins and the underlying biochemistry that gives rise to protein function. We also develop new proteins as drug targets for treating cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Research Interest
William Montfort, PhD, determines the atomic structures of proteins and seeks to understand how protein structure gives rise to protein function – both in vitro and in living cells. At their heart, the problems have a fundamental structure-function question, but also address questions of importance to human health. Approaches include X-ray crystallography, rapid kinetic measurements, spectroscopy, theory, protein expression, drug discovery, molecular genetics and related techniques.Dr. Montfort is particularly interested in nitric oxide signaling mechanisms. Nitric oxide (NO) is a small reactive molecule produced by all higher organisms for the regulation of an immensely varied physiology, including blood pressure regulation, memory formation, tissue development and programmed cell death. He is interested in two NO signaling mechanisms: binding of NO to heme and the nitrosylation (nitrosation) of cysteines. NO, produced by NO synthase, binds to soluble guanylate cyclase (sGC) at a ferrous heme center, either in the same cell or in nearby cells. Binding leads to conformational changes in heme and protein, and to induction of the protein’s catalytic function and the production cGMP. NO can also react with cysteine residues in proteins, giving rise to S-nitroso (SNO) groups that can alter protein function. He continues to study the mechanistic details surrounding cGMP and SNO production, and the signaling consequences of their formation.For reversible Fe-NO chemistry, Dr. Montfort is studying soluble guanylate cyclase and the nitrophorins, a family of NO transport proteins from blood-sucking insects. Our crystal structures of nitrophorin 4 extend to resolutions beyond 0.9 angstroms, allowing us to view hydrogens, multiple residue conformations and subtle changes in heme deformation. For reversible SNO chemistry, he is studying thioredoxin, glutathione S-nitroso reductase (GSNOR) and also sGC. For regulation in the cell, Dr. Montfort and his group have constructed a model cell system based on a human fibrosarcoma called HT-1080, where sGC, NO synthase, thioredoxin and GSNOR can be manipulated in a functional cellular environment. With these tools, they are exploring the molecular details of NO signaling and whole-cell physiology, and undertaking a program of drug discovery for NO-dependent diseases. Keywords: Structural Biology, Drug Discovery, Cancer, Cardiovascular Disease


Molnar, I., Xu, Y., Zhou, T., Zhou, Z., Su, S., Roberts, S. A., Montfort, W. R., Zeng, J., Chen, M., Zhang, W., Lin, M., Zhan, J., & Molnar, I. -. (2013). Rational reprogramming of fungal polyketide first-ring cyclization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(14).
BIO5 Collaborators
Istvan Molnar, William R Montfort

Resorcylic acid lactones and dihydroxyphenylacetic acid lactones represent important pharmacophores with heat shock response and immune system modulatory activities. The biosynthesis of these fungal polyketides involves a pair of collaborating iterative polyketide synthases (iPKSs): a highly reducing iPKS with product that is further elaborated by a nonreducing iPKS (nrPKS) to yield a 1,3-benzenediol moiety bridged by a macrolactone. Biosynthesis of unreduced polyketides requires the sequestration and programmed cyclization of highly reactive poly-β-ketoacyl intermediates to channel these uncommitted, pluripotent substrates to defined subsets of the polyketide structural space. Catalyzed by product template (PT) domains of the fungal nrPKSs and discrete aromatase/cyclase enzymes in bacteria, regiospecific first-ring aldol cyclizations result in characteristically different polyketide folding modes. However, a few fungal polyketides, including the dihydroxyphenylacetic acid lactone dehydrocurvularin, derive from a folding event that is analogous to the bacterial folding mode. The structural basis of such a drastic difference in the way a PT domain acts has not been investigated until now. We report here that the fungal vs. bacterial folding mode difference is portable on creating hybrid enzymes, and we structurally characterize the resulting unnatural products. Using structure-guided active site engineering, we unravel structural contributions to regiospecific aldol condensations and show that reshaping the cyclization chamber of a PT domain by only three selected point mutations is sufficient to reprogram the dehydrocurvularin nrPKS to produce polyketides with a fungal fold. Such rational control of first-ring cyclizations will facilitate efforts to the engineered biosynthesis of novel chemical diversity from natural unreduced polyketides.

Purohit, R., Fritz, B. G., The, J., Issaian, A., Weichsel, A., David, C. L., Campbell, E., Hausrath, A. C., Rassouli-Taylor, L., Garcin, E. D., Gage, M. J., & Montfort, W. R. (2014). YC-1 binding to the β subunit of soluble guanylyl cyclase overcomes allosteric inhibition by the α subunit. Biochemistry, 53(1), 101-114.

PMID: 24328155;Abstract:

Soluble guanylate cyclase (sGC) is a heterodimeric heme protein and the primary nitric oxide receptor. NO binding stimulates cyclase activity, leading to regulation of cardiovascular physiology and making sGC an attractive target for drug discovery. YC-1 and related compounds stimulate sGC both independently and synergistically with NO and CO binding; however, where the compounds bind and how they work remain unknown. Using linked equilibrium binding measurements, surface plasmon resonance, and domain truncations in Manduca sexta and bovine sGC, we demonstrate that YC-1 binds near or directly to the heme-containing domain of the β subunit. In the absence of CO, YC-1 binds with a K d of 9-21 μM, depending on the construct. In the presence of CO, these values decrease to 0.6-1.1 μM. Pfizer compound 25 bound ∼10-fold weaker than YC-1 in the absence of CO, whereas compound BAY 41-2272 bound particularly tightly in the presence of CO (Kd = 30-90 nM). Additionally, we found that CO binds much more weakly to heterodimeric sGC proteins (Kd = 50-100 μM) than to the isolated heme domain (K d = 0.2 μM for Manduca β H-NOX/PAS). YC-1 greatly enhanced binding of CO to heterodimeric sGC, as expected (Kd ∼ 1 μM). These data indicate the α subunit induces a heme pocket conformation with a lower affinity for CO and NO. YC-1 family compounds bind near the heme domain, overcoming the α subunit effect and inducing a heme pocket conformation with high affinity. We propose this high-affinity conformation is required for the full-length protein to achieve high catalytic activity. © 2013 American Chemical Society.

Wales, J. A., Chen, C. Y., Breci, L., Weichsel, A., Bernier, S. G., Sheppeck, J. E., Solinga, R., Nakai, T., Renhowe, P. A., Jung, J., & Montfort, W. R. (2018). Discovery of stimulator binding to a conserved pocket in the heme domain of soluble guanylyl cyclase. The Journal of biological chemistry, 293(5), 1850-1864.

Soluble guanylyl cyclase (sGC) is the receptor for nitric oxide and a highly sought-after therapeutic target for the management of cardiovascular diseases. New compounds that stimulate sGC show clinical promise, but where these stimulator compounds bind and how they function remains unknown. Here, using a photolyzable diazirine derivative of a novel stimulator compound, IWP-051, and MS analysis, we localized drug binding to the β1 heme domain of sGC proteins from the hawkmothand from human. Covalent attachments to the stimulator were also identified in bacterial homologs of the sGC heme domain, referred to as H-NOX domains, including those fromsp. PCC 7120,,, and, indicating that the binding site is highly conserved. The identification of photoaffinity-labeled peptides was aided by a signature MS fragmentation pattern of general applicability for unequivocal identification of covalently attached compounds. Using NMR, we also examined stimulator binding to sGC fromand bacterial H-NOX homologs. These data indicated that stimulators bind to a conserved cleft between two subdomains in the sGC heme domain. L12W/T48W substitutions within the binding pocket resulted in a 9-fold decrease in drug response, suggesting that the bulkier tryptophan residues directly block stimulator binding. The localization of stimulator binding to the sGC heme domain reported here resolves the longstanding question of where stimulators bind and provides a path forward for drug discovery.

Cheng, M., Brookes, J. F., Montfort, W. R., & Khalil, M. (2013). pH-dependent picosecond structural dynamics in the distal pocket of nitrophorin 4 investigated by 2D IR spectroscopy. The journal of physical chemistry. B, 117(49), 15804-11.

Nitrophorin 4 (NP4) belongs to a family of pH-sensitive, nitric oxide (NO) transporter proteins that undergo a large structural change from a closed to an open conformation at high pH to allow for NO delivery. Measuring the pH-dependent structural dynamics in NP4-NO around the ligand binding site is crucial for developing a mechanistic understanding of NO binding and release. In this study, we use coherent two-dimensional infrared (2D IR) spectroscopy to measure picosecond structural dynamics sampled by the nitrosyl stretch in NP4-NO as a function of pH at room temperature. Our results show that both the closed and open conformers of the protein are present at low (pD 5.1) and high (pD 7.9) pH conditions. The closed and open conformers are characterized by two frequencies of the nitrosyl stretching vibration labeled A0 and A1, respectively. Analysis of the 2D IR line shapes reveals that at pD 5.1, the closed conformer experiences structural fluctuations arising from solvation dynamics on a ∼3 ps time scale. At pD 7.9, both the open and closed conformers exhibit fluctuations on a ∼1 ps time scale. At both pD conditions, the closed conformers maintain a static distribution of structures within the experimental time window of 100 ps. This is in contrast to the open conformer, which is able to interconvert among its substates on a ∼100 ps time scale. Our results directly measure the time scales of solvation dynamics in the distal pocket, the flexibility of the open conformation at high pH, and the rigidity of the closed conformers at both pH conditions. We discuss how the pH-dependent equilibrium structural fluctuations of the nitrosyl ligand measured in this study are related to the uptake and delivery of nitric oxide in NP4.

Purohit, R., Weichsel, A., & Montfort, W. R. (2013). Crystal structure of the Alpha subunit PAS domain from soluble guanylyl cyclase. Protein science : a publication of the Protein Society, 22(10), 1439-44.

Soluble guanylate cyclase (sGC) is a heterodimeric heme protein of ≈ 150 kDa and the primary nitric oxide receptor. Binding of NO stimulates cyclase activity, leading to regulation of cardiovascular physiology and providing attractive opportunities for drug discovery. How sGC is stimulated and where candidate drugs bind remains unknown. The α and β sGC chains are each composed of Heme-Nitric Oxide Oxygen (H-NOX), Per-ARNT-Sim (PAS), coiled-coil and cyclase domains. Here, we present the crystal structure of the α1 PAS domain to 1.8 Å resolution. The structure reveals the binding surfaces of importance to heterodimer function, particularly with respect to regulating NO binding to heme in the β1 H-NOX domain. It also reveals a small internal cavity that may serve to bind ligands or participate in signal transduction.