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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Dec 18;109(51):20901-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1217094110. Epub 2012 Dec 3.

Structural mechanism of Bax inhibition by cytomegalovirus protein vMIA.

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  • 1Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.


The human protein Bax sits at a critical regulatory junction of apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Bax exists in equilibrium between cytosolic and mitochondria-associated forms that shifts toward the latter when Bax is activated by proapoptotic proteins. Activated Bax changes conformation, inserts into the mitochondrial outer membrane (MOM), oligomerizes, and induces MOM permeabilization, causing the release of cytochrome c, which effectively commits the cell to die. Because apoptosis is also a basic defense mechanism against invading pathogens, many viruses have developed counteractive measures. Such is the case of human cytomegalovirus, the replication of which hinges on vMIA (viral mitochondria-localized inhibitor of apoptosis), a virus-encoded protein with a unique, albeit poorly understood antiapoptotic activity by which it binds and recruits Bax to mitochondria. Here we show, via the structure determination of the complex between Bax and a peptide comprising vMIA's Bax-binding domain, that vMIA contacts Bax at a previously unknown regulatory site. Notably, using full-length vMIA, the structure is independently confirmed by assays in human cells that measure Bax subcellular localization and cytochrome c release. Mutants that disrupt key intermolecular interactions disfavor vMIA's mitochondrial recruitment of Bax, and increase cytochrome c release upon apoptosis induction. In a more stringent test, an engineered binding interface that achieves wild-type-like charge complementarity, although in a reversed fashion, recovers wild-type behavior. The structure suggests that by stabilizing key elements in Bax needed to unravel for its MOM insertion and oligomerization, vMIA prevents these important steps in apoptosis.

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