Flexible cullins in cullin-RING E3 ligases allosterically regulate ubiquitination

Jin Liu, Ruth Nussinov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


How do the cullins, with conserved structures, accommodate substrate-binding proteins with distinct shapes and sizes? Cullin-RING E3 ubiquitin ligases facilitate ubiquitin transfer from E2 to the substrate, tagging the substrate for degradation. They contain substrate-binding, adaptor, cullin, and Rbx proteins. Previously, we showed that substrate-binding and Rbx proteins are flexible. This allows shortening of the E2-substrate distance for initiation of ubiquitination or increasing the distance to accommodate the polyubiquitin chain. However, the role of the cullin remained unclear. Is cullin a rigid scaffold, or is it flexible and actively assists in the ubiquitin transfer reaction? Why are there different cullins, and how do these cullins specifically facilitate ubiquitination for different substrates? To answer these questions, we performed structural analysis and molecular dynamics simulations based on Cul1, Cul4A, and Cul5 crystal structures. Our results show that these three cullins are not rigid scaffolds but are flexible with conserved hinges in the N-terminal domain. However, the degrees of flexibilities are distinct among the different cullins. Of interest, Cul1 flexibility can also be changed by deletion of the long loop (which is absent in Cul4A) in the N-terminal domain, suggesting that the loop may have an allosteric functional role. In all three cases, these conformational changes increase the E2-substrate distance to a specific range to facilitate polyubiquitination, suggesting that rather than being inert scaffold proteins, cullins allosterically regulate ubiquitination.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)40934-40942
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Biological Chemistry
Issue number47
StatePublished - 25 Nov 2011


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