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EMBO J. 1999 Dec 15;18(24):6880-9.

Crystal structure of calpain reveals the structural basis for Ca(2+)-dependent protease activity and a novel mode of enzyme activation.

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  • 1Department of Biochemistry, Queen's University and The Protein Engineering Network of Centres of Excellence, Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3N6.


The combination of thiol protease activity and calmodulin-like EF-hands is a feature unique to the calpains. The regulatory mechanisms governing calpain activity are complex, and the nature of the Ca(2+)-induced switch between inactive and active forms has remained elusive in the absence of structural information. We describe here the 2.6 A crystal structure of m-calpain in the Ca(2+)-free form, which illustrates the structural basis for the inactivity of calpain in the absence of Ca(2+). It also reveals an unusual thiol protease fold, which is associated with Ca(2+)-binding domains through heterodimerization and a C(2)-like beta-sandwich domain. Strikingly, the structure shows that the catalytic triad is not assembled, indicating that Ca(2+)-binding must induce conformational changes that re-orient the protease domains to form a functional active site. The alpha-helical N-terminal anchor of the catalytic subunit does not occupy the active site but inhibits its assembly and regulates Ca(2+)-sensitivity through association with the regulatory subunit. This Ca(2+)-dependent activation mechanism is clearly distinct from those of classical proteases.

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