Structural biology of the Bcl-2 family and its mimicry by viral proteins Academic Article uri icon


  • Intrinsic apoptosis in mammals is regulated by protein-protein interactions among the B-cell lymphoma-2 (Bcl-2) family. The sequences, structures and binding specificity between pro-survival Bcl-2 proteins and their pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 homology 3 motif only (BH3-only) protein antagonists are now well understood. In contrast, our understanding of the mode of action of Bax and Bak, the two necessary proteins for apoptosis is incomplete. Bax and Bak are isostructural with pro-survival Bcl-2 proteins and also interact with BH3-only proteins, albeit weakly. Two sites have been identified; the in-groove interaction analogous to the pro-survival BH3-only interaction and a site on the opposite molecular face. Interaction of Bax or Bak with activator BH3-only proteins and mitochondrial membranes triggers a series of ill-defined conformational changes initiating their oligomerization and mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization. Many actions of the mammalian pro-survival Bcl-2 family are mimicked by viruses. By expressing proteins mimicking mammalian pro-survival Bcl-2 family proteins, viruses neutralize death-inducing members of the Bcl-2 family and evade host cell apoptosis during replication. Remarkably, structural elements are preserved in viral Bcl-2 proteins even though there is in many cases little discernible sequence conservation with their mammalian counterparts. Some viral Bcl-2 proteins are dimeric, but they have distinct structures to those observed for mammalian Bcl-2 proteins. Furthermore, viral Bcl-2 proteins modulate innate immune responses regulated by NF-κB through an interface separate from the canonical BH3-binding groove. Our increasing structural understanding of the viral Bcl-2 proteins is leading to new insights in the cellular Bcl-2 network by exploring potential alternate functional modes in the cellular context. We compare the cellular and viral Bcl-2 proteins and discuss how alterations in their structure, sequence and binding specificity lead to differences in behavior, and together with the intrinsic structural plasticity in the Bcl-2 fold enable exquisite control over critical cellular signaling pathways.

publication date

  • November 2013