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Cell Death Differ. 2014 Feb;21(2):206-15. doi: 10.1038/cdd.2013.153. Epub 2013 Oct 25.

The rheostat in the membrane: BCL-2 family proteins and apoptosis.

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Bioinformatics and Systems Biology Program, Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA.
Apoptosis and Cell Death Research Program, Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA.
Division of Immune Regulation, La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, La Jolla, CA, USA.


Apoptosis, a mechanism for programmed cell death, has key roles in human health and disease. Many signals for cellular life and death are regulated by the BCL-2 family proteins and converge at mitochondria, where cell fate is ultimately decided. The BCL-2 family includes both pro-life (e.g. BCL-XL) and pro-death (e.g. BAX, BAK) proteins. Previously, it was thought that a balance between these opposing proteins, like a simple 'rheostat', could control the sensitivity of cells to apoptotic stresses. Later, this rheostat concept had to be extended, when it became clear that BCL-2 family proteins regulate each other through a complex network of bimolecular interactions, some transient and some relatively stable. Now, studies have shown that the apoptotic circuitry is even more sophisticated, in that BCL-2 family interactions are spatially dynamic, even in nonapoptotic cells. For example, BAX and BCL-XL can shuttle between the cytoplasm and the mitochondrial outer membrane (MOM). Upstream signaling pathways can regulate the cytoplasmic-MOM equilibrium of BAX and thereby adjust the sensitivity of cells to apoptotic stimuli. Thus, we can view the MOM as the central locale of a dynamic life-death rheostat. BAX invariably forms extensive homo-oligomers after activation in membranes. However, recent studies, showing that activated BAX monomers determine the kinetics of MOM permeabilization (MOMP), perturb the lipid bilayer and form nanometer size pores, pose questions about the role of the oligomerization. Other lingering questions concern the molecular mechanisms of BAX redistribution between MOM and cytoplasm and the details of BAX/BAK-membrane assemblies. Future studies need to delineate how BCL-2 family proteins regulate MOMP, in concert with auxiliary MOM proteins, in a dynamic membrane environment. Technologies aimed at elucidating the structure and function of the full-length proteins in membranes are needed to illuminate some of these critical issues.

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