Nanoscience and Microsystems ETDs


Emmalee Jones

Publication Date



A protein's sequence of amino acids determines how it folds. That folded structure is linked to protein function, and misfolding to dysfunction. Protein misfolding and aggregation into β-sheet rich fibrillar aggregates is connected with over 20 neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease (AD). AD is characterized in part by misfolding, aggregation and deposition of the microtubule associated tau protein into neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs). However, two questions remain: What is tau's fibrillization mechanism, and what is tau's cytotoxicity mechanism? Tau is prone to heterogeneous interactions, including with lipid membranes. Lipids have been found in NFTs, anionic lipid vesicles induced aggregation of the microtubule binding domain of tau, and other protein aggregates induced ion permeability in cells. This evidence prompted our investigation of ta's interaction with model lipid membranes to elucidate the structural perturbations those interactions induced in tau protein and in the membrane. We show that although tau is highly charged and soluble, it is highly surface active and preferentially interacts with anionic membranes. To resolve molecular-scale structural details of tau and model membranes, we utilized X-ray and neutron scattering techniques. X-ray reflectivity indicated tau aggregated at air/water and anionic lipid membrane interfaces and penetrated into membranes. More significantly, membrane interfaces induced tau protein to partially adopt a more compact conformation with density similar to folded protein and ordered structure characteristic of β-sheet formation. This suggests possible membrane-based mechanisms of tau aggregation. Membrane morphological changes were seen using fluorescence microscopy, and X-ray scattering techniques showed tau completely disrupts anionic membranes, suggesting an aggregate-based cytotoxicity mechanism. Further investigation of protein constructs and a 'hyperphosphorylation' disease mimic helped clarify the role of the microtubule binding domain in anionic lipid affinity and demonstrated even 'hyperphosphorylation' did not prevent interaction with anionic membranes. Additional studies investigated more complex membrane models to increase physiological relevance. These insights revealed structural changes in tau protein and lipid membranes after interaction. We observed tau's affinity for interfaces, and aggregation and compaction once tau partitions to interfaces. We observed the beginnings of β-sheet formation in tau at anionic lipid membranes. We also examined disruption to the membrane on a molecular scale.


lipid membrane, tau protein, Alzheimer's disease, neutron reflectivity, X-ray scattering


Alzheimers Association, National Science Foundation, National Cancer Institute'

Document Type




Degree Name

Nanoscience and Microsystems

Level of Degree


Department Name

Nanoscience and Microsystems

First Advisor

Chi, Eva

First Committee Member (Chair)

Evans, Deborah

Second Committee Member

Shreve, Andrew

Third Committee Member

Graves, Steven