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Oncogene. 2008 Dec;27 Suppl 1:S114-27. doi: 10.1038/onc.2009.49.

BNIP3 subfamily BH3-only proteins: mitochondrial stress sensors in normal and pathological functions.

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  • 1Institute for Molecular Virology, Doisy Research Center, Saint Louis University Medical Center, St Louis, MO 63104, USA.


The BNIP3 subfamily of BH3-only proteins consists of BNIP3 and BNIP3-like (BNIP3L) proteins. These proteins form stable homodimerization complexes that localize to the outer membrane of the mitochondria after cellular stress. This promotes either apoptotic or non-apoptotic cell death such as autophagic cell death. Although the mammalian cells contain both members of this subfamily, the genome of Caenorhabditis elegans codes for a single BNIP3 ortholog, ceBNIP3, which shares homology in the transmembrane (TM) domain and in a conserved region close to the BH3 domain of mammalian BNIP3 protein. The cell death activities of BNIP3 and BNIP3L are determined by either the BH3 domain or the C-terminal TM domain. The TM domain of BNIP3 is unique, as it is capable of autonomous stable dimerization and contributes to mitochondrial localization of BNIP3. In knockout mouse models, BNIP3L was shown to be essential for normal erythrocyte differentiation and hematopoietic homeostasis, whereas BNIP3 plays a role in cellular responses to ischemia/reperfusion injury in the heart. Both BNIP3 and BNIP3L play a role in cellular responses to stress. Under hypoxia, both BNIP3 and BNIP3L expression levels are elevated and contribute to hypoxia-induced cell death. In addition, these proteins play critical roles in disease states. In heart disease, both BNIP3 and BNIP3L play a critical role in cardiomyocyte cell death following ischemic and non-ischemic injuries. In cancer, expression of BNIP3 and BNIP3L is downregulated by promoter hypermethylation or by homozygous deletion of the gene locus in certain cancers, whereas their expression was increased in other cancers. In addition, BNIP3 expression has been correlated with poor prognosis in some cancers. The results reviewed here suggest that BNIP3 and BNIP3L may be novel therapeutic targets for intervention because of their pathological roles in regulating cell death in disease states.

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