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Biochim Biophys Acta. 2004 Sep 1;1701(1-2):1-14.

Cytotoxic ribosome-inactivating lectins from plants.

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  • 1Department of Biological Sciences, University of Warwick, Gibbet Hill Road, Coventry, West Midlands CV4 7AL, UK.


A class of heterodimeric plant proteins consisting of a carbohydrate-binding B-chain and an enzymatic A-chain which act on ribosomes to inhibit protein synthesis are amongst the most toxic substances known. The best known example of such a toxic lectin is ricin, produced by the seeds of the castor oil plant, Ricinnus communis. For ricin to reach its substrate in the cytosol, it must be endocytosed, transported through the endomembrane system to reach the compartment from which it is translocated into the cytosol, and there avoid degradation making it possible for a few molecules to inactivate a large proportion of the ribosomes and hence kill the cell. Cell entry by ricin involves the following steps: (i) binding to cell-surface glycolipids and glycoproteins bearing beta-1,4-linked galactose residues through the lectin activity of the B-chain (RTB); (ii) uptake by endocytosis and entry into early endosomes; (iii) transfer by vesicular transport to the trans-Golgi network; (iv) retrograde vesicular transport through the Golgi complex and into the endoplasmic reticulum (ER); (v) reduction of the disulfide bond connecting the A- and B-chains; (vi) a partial unfolding of the A-chain (RTA) to enable it to translocate across the ER membrane via the Sec61p translocon using the pathway normally followed by misfolded ER proteins for targeting to the ER-associated degradation (ERAD) machinery; (vi) refolding in the cytosol into a protease-resistant, enzymatically active structure; (vii) interaction with the sarcin-ricin domain (SRD) of the large ribosome subunit RNA followed by cleavage of a single N-glycosidic bond in the RNA to generate a depurinated, inactive ribosome. In addition to the highly specific action on ribosomes, ricin and related ribosome-inactivating proteins (RIPs) have a less specific action in vitro on DNA and RNA substrates releasing multiple adenine, and in some instances, guanine residues. This polynucleotide:adenosine glycosidase activity has been implicated in the general antiviral, and specifically, the anti HIV-1 activity of several single-chain RIPs which are homologous to the A-chains of the heterodimeric lectins. However, in the absence of clear cause and effect evidence in vivo, such claims should be regarded with caution.

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