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J Biol Chem. 2006 Sep 15;281(37):27633-42. Epub 2006 Jul 14.

Contribution of presenilin transmembrane domains 6 and 7 to a water-containing cavity in the gamma-secretase complex.

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  • 1Neuronal Cell Biology and Gene Transfer Laboratory, Center for Human Genetics, VIB4 and K. U. Leuven, Herestraat 49, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.


Gamma-secretase is a multiprotein complex responsible for the intramembranous cleavage of the amyloid precursor protein and other type I transmembrane proteins. Mutations in Presenilin, the catalytic core of this complex, cause Alzheimer disease. Little is known about the structure of the protein and even less about the catalytic mechanism, which involves proteolytic cleavage in the hydrophobic environment of the cell membrane. It is basically unclear how water, needed to perform hydrolysis, is provided to this reaction. Presenilin transmembrane domains 6 and 7 seem critical in this regard, as each bears a critical aspartate contributing to catalytic activity. Current models imply that both aspartyl groups should closely oppose each other and have access to water. This is, however, still to be experimentally verified. Here, we have performed cysteine-scanning mutagenesis of both domains and have demonstrated that several of the introduced residues are exposed to water, providing experimental evidence for the existence of a water-filled cavity in the catalytic core of Presenilin. In addition, we have demonstrated that the two aspartates reside within this cavity and are opposed to each other in the native complex. We have also identified the conserved tyrosine 389 as a critical partner in the catalytic mechanism. Several additional amino acid substitutions affect differentially the processing of gamma-secretase substrates, implying that they contribute to enzyme specificity. Our data suggest the possibility that more selective gamma-secretase inhibitors could be designed.

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