This shows mRNA and neurons.
So far, researchers attributed the carrier role to spherical compartments inside the cell. Credit: Neuroscience News

Hitching a Ride: mRNA’s Transport System in Brain Cells Revealed

Summary: Researchers made significant advancements in understanding how mRNA is distributed in brain cells. They discovered that a protein complex called FERRY aids Early Endosomes (EEs) to carry mRNAs to distant parts of the neuron.

Using cryo-electron microscopy, they elucidated the structure of FERRY and how it binds to mRNAs. These findings could deepen our comprehension of neurological disorders caused by mRNA transport failure.

Key Facts:

  1. A protein complex, FERRY, discovered by MPI scientists, has been identified as a critical component in mRNA transport within brain cells.
  2. Early Endosomes (EEs), previously underestimated, play a pivotal role in mRNA distribution by acting as mRNA carriers, facilitated by FERRY.
  3. Using cryo-electron microscopy, researchers revealed the intricate structure of FERRY and its novel mode of RNA binding which implicates in certain neurological disorders.

Source: Max Planck Institute

Teams from MPI Institutes in Dresden, Dortmund, Frankfurt am Main and Göttingen have joined forces to gain the first evidence of a protein complex responsible for the transport of messenger RNA in neurons.

Faraway, so close!

“These publications provide a major advancement to elucidate the mechanisms underlying mRNA distribution in brain cells,” Marino Zerial says. Cells produce vital proteins using mRNA as a blueprint and ribosomes as 3D printers.

“Yet, brain cells have a logistic challenge to overcome: A tree-like shape with branches that can span centimeters in the brain.

“This implies that thousands of mRNAs need to be transported far away from the nucleus, resembling the logistic effort of properly supplying supermarkets in an entire country,”  Jan Schuhmacher says, first author of the study.

So far, researchers attributed the carrier role to spherical compartments inside the cell, called Late Endosomes. However, MPI scientists argue that a different form of the compartments, called Early Endosomes (EEs), are also suitable as mRNA carriers, due to their ability to travel in both directions along intracellular road networks.

In the first publication, led by Marino Zerial from MPI in Dresden, scientists discovered the function of a protein complex that they called FERRY (Five-subunit Endosomal Rab5 and RNA/ribosome intermediarY).

In neurons, FERRY is linked to EEs and works similarly to a tie-down strap during transport: It interacts directly with mRNA and holds it onto EEs, which hence become logistic carriers for mRNA transport and distribution in brain cells.

Complex details

But how does FERRY bind to mRNA? That’s when Stefan Raunser’s group from the MPI Dortmund comes into play.

In the second publication, Dennis Quentin et al. used cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to infer the structure of FERRY and the molecular features that allow the complex to bind to both EEs and mRNAs.

The new 3D atomic model of FERRY, with a resolution of 4 Ångstroms, shows a novel mode of binding RNA, which involves coiled-coil domains. Scientists also explained how some genetic mutations affect FERRY’s ability to link mRNA thus leading to neurological disorders.

“Our research sets the groundwork for a more comprehensive understanding of neurological disorders caused by a failure of mRNA transport or distribution that might also lead to the identification of therapeutically relevant targets,” Raunser says.

About this genetics and neuroscience research news

Author: Johann Jarzombek
Source: Max Planck Institute
Contact: Johann Jarzombek – Max Planck Institute
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Structural basis of mRNA binding by the human FERRY Rab5 effector complex” by Stefan Raunser et al. Molecular Cell


Structural basis of mRNA binding by the human FERRY Rab5 effector complex


  • FERRY links mRNA to early endosomes in long-range transport of transcripts
  • Unique clamp-like architecture of the pentameric FERRY Rab5 effector complex
  • Complex RNA binding interface mainly involves flexible coiled-coil domains of Fy-2
  • Neurological disorder-related mutations impair Rab5 binding and FERRY assembly


The pentameric FERRY Rab5 effector complex is a molecular link between mRNA and early endosomes in mRNA intracellular distribution.

Here, we determine the cryo-EM structure of human FERRY. It reveals a unique clamp-like architecture that bears no resemblance to any known structure of Rab effectors.

A combination of functional and mutational studies reveals that while the Fy-2 C-terminal coiled-coil acts as binding region for Fy-1/3 and Rab5, both coiled-coils and Fy-5 concur to bind mRNA.

Mutations causing truncations of Fy-2 in patients with neurological disorders impair Rab5 binding or FERRY complex assembly. Thus, Fy-2 serves as a binding hub connecting all five complex subunits and mediating the binding to mRNA and early endosomes via Rab5.

Our study provides mechanistic insights into long-distance mRNA transport and demonstrates that the particular architecture of FERRY is closely linked to a previously undescribed mode of RNA binding, involving coiled-coil domains.

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