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Biochim Biophys Acta. 2004 Mar 1;1644(2-3):83-94.

Structural biology of the Bcl-2 family of proteins.

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Global Pharmaceutical Research and Development, Abbott Laboratories, Department 460, Bldg. AP10-LL, 100 Abbott Park Road, Abbott Park, IL 60064-6048, USA.


The proteins of the Bcl-2 family are important regulators of programmed cell death. Structural studies of Bcl-2 family members have provided many important insights into their molecular mechanism of action and how members of this family interact with one another. To date, structural studies have been performed on six Bcl-2 family members encompassing both anti- (Bcl-x(L), Bcl-2, KSHV-Bcl-2, Bcl-w) and pro-apoptotic (Bax, Bid) members. They all show a remarkably similar fold despite an overall divergence in amino acid sequence and function (pro-apoptotic versus anti-apoptotic). The three-dimensional structures of Bcl-2 family members consist of two central, predominantly hydrophobic alpha-helices surrounded by six or seven amphipathic alpha-helices of varying lengths. A long, unstructured loop is present between the first two alpha-helices. The structures of the Bcl-2 proteins show a striking similarity to the overall fold of the pore-forming domains of bacterial toxins. This finding led to experiments which demonstrated that Bcl-x(L), Bcl-2, and Bax all form pores in artificial membranes. A prominent hydrophobic groove is present on the surface of the anti-apoptotic proteins. This groove is the binding site for peptides that mimic the BH3 region of various pro-apoptotic proteins such as Bak and Bad. Structures of Bcl-x(L) in complex with these BH3 peptides showed that they bind as an amphipathic alpha-helix and make extensive hydrophobic contacts with the protein. These data have not only helped to elucidate the interactions important for hetero-dimerization of Bcl-2 family members but have also been used to guide the discovery of small molecules that block Bcl-x(L) and Bcl-2 function. In the recently determined structure of the anti-apoptotic Bcl-w protein, the protein was also found to have a hydrophobic groove on its surface capable of binding BH3-containing proteins and peptides. However, in the native protein an additional carboxy-terminal alpha-helix interacts with the hydrophobic groove. This is reminiscent of how the carboxy-terminal alpha-helix of the pro-apoptotic protein Bax binds into its hydrophobic groove. This interaction may play a regulatory role and for Bax may explain why it is found predominately in the cytoplasm prior to activation. The hydrophobic groove of the pro-apoptotic protein, Bid protein, is neither as long nor as deep as that found in Bcl-x(L), Bcl-2, or Bax. In addition, Bid contains an extra alpha-helix, which is located between alpha1 and alpha2 with respect to Bcl-x(L), Bcl-2, and Bax. Although there are still many unanswered questions regarding the exact mechanism by which the Bcl-2 family of proteins modulates apoptosis, structural studies of these proteins have deepened our understanding of apoptosis on the molecular level.

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