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Open Access Research article

The N-terminus and alpha-5, alpha-6 helices of the pro-apoptotic protein Bax, modulate functional interactions with the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-xL

Neha Parikh, Caroline Koshy, Vaigundan Dhayabaran, Lakshmi R Perumalsamy, R Sowdhamini and Apurva Sarin*

Author Affiliations

National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bellary Road, Bangalore 560065, Karnataka, India

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BMC Cell Biology 2007, 8:16  doi:10.1186/1471-2121-8-16

Published: 23 May 2007

Abstract

Background

Bcl-2 family proteins are key regulators of mitochondrial integrity and comprise both pro- and anti-apoptotic proteins. Bax a pro-apoptotic member localizes as monomers in the cytosol of healthy cells and accumulates as oligomers in mitochondria of apoptotic cells. The Bcl-2 homology-3 (BH3) domain regulates interactions within the family, but regions other than BH3 are also critical for Bax function. Thus, the N-terminus has been variously implicated in targeting to mitochondria, interactions with BH3-only proteins as well as conformational changes linked to Bax activation. The transmembrane (TM) domains (α5-α6 helices in the core and α9 helix in the C-terminus) in Bax are implicated in localization to mitochondria and triggering cytotoxicity. Here we have investigated N-terminus modulation of TM function in the context of regulation by the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-xL.

Results

Deletion of 29 amino acids in the Bax N-terminus (Bax 30–192) caused constitutive accumulation at mitochondria and triggered high levels of cytotoxicity, not inhibited by Bcl-xL. Removal of the TM domains (Bax 30–105) abrogated mitochondrial localization but resulted in Bcl-xL regulated activation of endogenous Bax and Bax-Bak dependent apoptosis. Inclusion of the α5-α6 helices/TMI domain (Bax 30–146) phenocopied Bax 30–192 as it restored mitochondrial localization, Bcl-xL independent cytotoxicity and was not dependent on endogenous Bax-Bak. Inhibition of function and localization by Bcl-xL was restored in Bax 1–146, which included the TM1 domain. Regardless of regulation by Bcl-xL, all N-terminal deleted constructs immunoprecipitated Bcl-xLand converged on caspase-9 dependent apoptosis consistent with mitochondrial involvement in the apoptotic cascade. Sub-optimal sequence alignments of Bax and Bcl-xL indicated a sequence similarity between the α5–α6 helices of Bax and Bcl-xL. Alanine substitutions of three residues (T14A-S15A-S16A) in the N-terminus (Bax-Ala3) attenuated regulation by the serine-threonine kinase Akt/PKB but not by Bcl-xL indicative of distinct regulatory mechanisms.

Conclusion

Collectively, the analysis of Bax deletion constructs indicates that the N-terminus drives conformational changes facilitating inhibition of cytotoxicity by Bcl-xL. We speculate that the TM1 helices may serve as 'structural antagonists' for BH3-Bcl-xL interactions, with this function being regulated by the N-terminus in the intact protein.