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Eur J Biochem. 1997 Mar 15;244(3):675-93.

Molecular structures and interactions of pulmonary surfactant components.

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Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.


The dominating functional property of pulmonary surfactant is to reduce the surface tension at the alveolar air/liquid interface, and thereby prevent the lungs from collapsing at the end of expiration. In addition, the system exhibits host-defense properties. Insufficient amounts of pulmonary surfactant in premature infants causes respiratory distress syndrome, a serious threat which nowadays can be effectively treated by airway instillation of surfactant preparations. Surfactant is a mixture of many molecular species, mainly phospholipids and specific proteins, surfactant protein A (SP-A), SP-B, SP-C and SP-D. SP-A and SP-D are water-soluble and belong to the collectins, a family of large multimeric proteins which structurally exhibit collagenous/lectin hybrid properties and functionally are Ca2+-dependent carbohydrate binding proteins involved in innate host-defence functions. SP-A and SP-D also bind lipids and SP-A is involved in organization of alveolar surfactant phospholipids. SP-B belongs to another family of proteins, which includes also lipid-interacting polypeptides with antibacterial and lytic properties. SP-B is a 17.4-kDa homodimer and each subunit contains three intrachain disulphides and has been proposed to contain four amphipathic helices oriented pairwise in an antiparallel fashion. SP-A, SP-B and SP-D all have been detected also in the gastrointestinal tract. SP-C, in contrast, appears to be a unique protein with extreme structural and stability properties and to exist exclusively in the lungs. SP-C is a lipopeptide containing covalently linked palmitoyl chains and is folded into a 3.7-nm alpha-helix with a central 2.3-nm all-aliphatic part, making it perfectly suited to interact in a transmembranous way with a fluid bilayer composed of dipalmitoylglycerophosphocholine, the main component of surfactant. Homozygous genetic deficiency of proSP-B causes lethal respiratory distress soon after birth and is associated with aberrant processing of the precursor of SP-C. This review focuses on the chemical composition, structures and interactions of the pulmonary surfactant, in particular the associated proteins.

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