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Biochem Cell Biol. 1991 Dec;69(12):771-800.

The Ayerst Award Lecture 1990. Calcium-dependent mechanisms of regulation of smooth muscle contraction.

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Department of Medical Biochemistry, University of Calgary, Alta., Canada.


The contractile state of smooth muscle is regulated primarily by the sarcoplasmic (cytosolic) free Ca2+ concentration. A variety of stimuli that induce smooth muscle contraction (e.g., membrane depolarization, alpha-adrenergic and muscarinic agonists) trigger an increase in sarcoplasmic free [Ca2+] from resting levels of 120-270 to 500-700 nM. At the elevated [Ca2+], Ca2+ binds to calmodulin, the ubiquitous and multifunctional Ca(2+)-binding protein. The interaction of Ca2+ with CaM induces a conformational change in the Ca(2+)-binding protein with exposure of a site(s) of interaction with target proteins, the most important of which in the context of smooth muscle contraction is the enzyme myosin light chain kinase. The interaction of calmodulin with myosin light chain kinase results in activation of the kinase that catalyzes phosphorylation of myosin at serine-19 of each of the two 20-kDa light chains (native myosin is a hexamer composed of two heavy chains (230 kDa each) and two pairs of light chains (one pair of 20 kDa each and the other pair of 17 kDa each)). This simple phosphorylation reaction triggers cycling of myosin cross-bridges along actin filaments and the development of force. Relaxation of the muscle follows removal of Ca2+ from the sarcoplasm, whereupon calmodulin dissociates from myosin light chain kinase regenerating the inactive kinase; myosin is dephosphorylated by myosin light chain phosphatase(s), whereupon it dissociates and remains detached from the actin filament and the muscle relaxes. A substantial body of evidence has been accumulated in support of this central role of myosin phosphorylation-dephosphorylation in the regulation of smooth muscle contraction. However, a wide range of physiological and biochemical studies supports the existence of additional, secondary Ca(2+)-dependent mechanisms that can modulate or fine-tune the contractile state of the smooth muscle cell. Three such mechanisms have emerged: (i) the actin-, tropomyosin-, and calmodulin-binding protein, calponin; (ii) the actin-, myosin-, tropomyosin-, and calmodulin-binding protein, caldesmon; and (iii) the Ca(2+)- and phospholipid-dependent protein kinase (protein kinase C).

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