Stoned Science: Cannabinoid Receptor-1

A picture is worth a thousand words.

This is a commonly used phrase to illustrate the depth of information and meaning a single picture can convey. The same principal applies to areas of biochemistry called “structural biology.”

Proteins are giant molecules (chemicals) that exist within our body. They often perform mechanical functions, like machines, in addition to chemistry. While there are ways to study these proteins, there is only so much we can infer without looking at them.

Cannabinoid Receptor-1 (CB-1) is the receptor that the ever-famous THC binds to. The 3-D structure has evaded scientists for decades. But what if I told you, it was discovered just a few months ago!

Image rendered using Visual Molecular Dynamics
Image rendered using Visual Molecular Dynamics

CB-1 belongs to a class of proteins called GPCRs, which is the most common class of receptor proteins in our bodies. Over 40 percent of drugs developed target this class, which makes them all the more interesting to look at. The structure of CB-1 and other such proteins have evaded us for so long due to a few reasons—how mobile/unstable they are and the fact that they are buried in a membrane makes them hard to image.

Recent advances in the field of X-ray crystallography have allowed structural biologists to grow crystals of CB-1—like actual crystals! Pretty neat, huh?!

Once the crystals have grown, we can shoot X-rays at them and eventually get detailed information telling us the position of every atom in the molecule.

Now that we have the structure of CB-1, the possibilities with what we do with it are endless.

Image rendered using Visual Molecular Dynamics
Image rendered using Visual Molecular Dynamics

We will start to understand with intimate detail how THC binding affects the protein differently from its usual binding partners: anandamide, and 2-AG.

You see, THC isn’t the only molecule that interacts with CB-1, and feeling high isn’t the only function of CB-1. What we know so far is that CB-1 is heavily influential in the brain. While it does not participate in a synapse, the primary neuronal communication, it acts in a recently discovered communication mechanism known as cross-talk. CB-1 modulates how a synapse will function and relays information to nearby neurons without exciting/inhibiting them.

Despite the federal government’s view on cannabis and cannabis-related subjects, CB-1 will likely receive a ton of attention, as well as federal funding for research due to its role in diseases such as obesity and epilepsy.

There is already abundant evidence that medical marijuana can treat epilepsy—competing with pharmaceuticals. Now, we will be able to understand how on an atomic scale, the future is neigh. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; I think the worth of CB-1’s structure is limitless.

Image rendered using Visual Molecular Dynamics
Image rendered using Visual Molecular Dynamics

Images were rendered by B.G. Schmidt using a program called Visual Molecular Dynamics (VMD).

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