Molecular mechanisms of conformational specificity: A study of Hox in vivo target DNA binding specificities and the structure of a Ure2p mutation that affects fibril formation rates
Bauer, William Joseph, Jr.
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The fate of an individual cell, or even an entire organism, is often determined by minute, yet very specific differences in the conformation of a single protein species. Very often, proteins take on alternate folds or even side chain conformations to deal with different situations present within the cell. These differences can be as large as a whole domain or as subtle as the alteration of a single amino acid side chain. Yet, even these seemingly minor side chain conformational differences can determine the development of a cell type during differentiation or even dictate whether a cell will live or die. Two examples of situations where minor conformational differences within a specific protein could lead to major differences in the life cycle of a cell are described herein. The first example describes the variations seen in DNA conformations which can lead to slightly different Hox protein binding conformations responsible for recognizing biologically relevant regulatory sites. These specific differences occur in the minor groove of the bound DNA and are limited to the conformation of only two side chains. The conformation of the bound DNA, however, is not solely determined by the sequence of the DNA, as multiple sequences can result in the same DNA conformation. The second example takes place in the context of a yeast prion protein which contains a mutation that decreases the frequency at which fibrils form. While the specific interactions leading to this physiological change were not directly detected, it can be ascertained from the crystal structure that the structural changes are subtle and most likely involve another binding partner. In both cases, these conformational changes are very slight but have a profound effect on the downstream processes.