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J Cell Biol. 2003 Sep 1;162(5):877-87.

Proapoptotic BH3-only proteins trigger membrane integration of prosurvival Bcl-w and neutralize its activity.

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  • 1Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Victoria 3050, Australia.


Prosurvival Bcl-2-like proteins, like Bcl-w, are thought to function on organelles such as the mitochondrion and to be targeted to them by their hydrophobic COOH-terminal domain. We unexpectedly found, however, that the membrane association of Bcl-w was enhanced during apoptosis. In healthy cells, Bcl-w was loosely attached to the mitochondrial membrane, but it was converted into an integral membrane protein by cytotoxic signals that induce binding of BH3-only proteins, such as Bim, or by the addition of BH3 peptides to lysates. As the structure of Bcl-w has revealed that its COOH-terminal domain occupies the hydrophobic groove where BH3 ligands bind, displacement of that domain by a BH3 ligand would displace the hydrophobic COOH-terminal residues, allowing their insertion into the membrane. To determine whether BH3 ligation is sufficient to induce the enhanced membrane affinity, or to render Bcl-w proapoptotic, we mimicked their complex by tethering the Bim BH3 domain to the NH2 terminus of Bcl-w. The chimera indeed bound avidly to membranes, in a fashion requiring the COOH-terminal domain, but neither promoted nor inhibited apoptosis. These results suggest that ligation of a proapoptotic BH3-only protein alters the conformation of Bcl-w, enhances membrane association, and neutralizes its survival function.

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