Proteasomes are large protein complexes inside all eukaryotes and archaea, as well as in some bacteria. In eukaryotes, they are located in the nucleus and the cytoplasm. The main function of the proteasome is to degrade unneeded or damaged proteins by proteolysis, a chemical reaction that breaks peptide bonds. Enzymes that carry out such reactions are called proteases. Proteasomes are part of a major mechanism by which cells regulate the concentration of particular proteins and degrade misfolded proteins. The degradation process yields peptides of about seven to eight amino acids long, which can then be further degraded into amino acids and used in synthesizing new proteins. Proteins are tagged for degradation by a small protein called ubiquitin. The tagging reaction is catalyzed by enzymes called ubiquitin ligases. Once a protein is tagged with a single ubiquitin molecule, this is a signal to other ligases to attach additional ubiquitin molecules. The result is a polyubiquitin chain that is bound by the proteasome, allowing it to degrade the tagged protein.
In structure, the proteasome is a large barrel-like complex containing a "core" of four stacked rings around a central pore. Each ring is composed of seven individual proteins. The inner two rings are made of seven β subunits that contain the six protease active sites. These sites are located on the interior surface of the rings, so that the target protein must enter the central pore before it is degraded. The outer two rings each contain seven α subunits whose function is to maintain a "gate" through which proteins enter the barrel. These α subunits are controlled by binding to "cap" structures or regulatory particles that recognize polyubiquitin tags attached to protein substrates and initiate the degradation process. The overall system of ubiquitination and proteasomal degradation is known as the ubiquitin-proteasome system.
The proteasomal degradation pathway is essential for many cellular processes, including the cell cycle, the regulation of gene expression, and responses to oxidative stress. The importance of proteolytic degradation inside cells and the role of ubiquitin in proteolytic pathways was acknowledged in the award of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Aaron Ciechanover, Avram Hershko and Irwin Rose.
Much of the early work leading up to the discovery of the ubiquitin proteasome system occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s at the Technion in the laboratory of Avram Hershko, where Aaron Ciechanover worked as a graduate student. Hershko's year-long sabbatical in the laboratory of Irwin Rose at the Fox Chase Cancer Center provided key conceptual insights, though Rose later downplayed his role in the discovery. The three shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in discovering this system.
Although electron microscopy data revealing the stacked-ring structure of the proteasome became available in the mid-1980s, the first structure of the proteasome core particle was not solved by X-ray crystallography until 1994. As of 2006, no structure has been solved of the core particle in complex with the most common form of regulatory cap.
In archaea such as Thermoplasma acidophilum, all the α and all the β subunits are identical, while eukaryotic proteasomes such as those in yeast contain seven distinct types of each subunit. In mammals, the β1, β2, and β5 subunits are catalytic; although they share a common mechanism, they have three distinct substrate specificities considered chymotrypsin-like, trypsin-like, and peptidyl-glutamyl peptide-hydrolyzing (PHGH). Alternative β forms denoted β1i, β2i, and β5i can be expressed in hematopoietic cells in response to exposure to pro-inflammatory signals such as cytokines, in particular, interferon gamma. The proteasome assembled with these alternative subunits is known as the immunoproteasome, whose substrate specificity is altered relative to the normal proteasome.
In general, less is known about the assembly and maturation of the 19S regulatory particles. They are believed to assemble as two distinct subcomponents, the ATPase-containing base and the ubiquitin-recognizing lid. The six ATPases in the base may assemble in a pairwise manner mediated by coiled-coil interactions. The order in which the nineteen subunits of the regulatory particle are bound is a likely regulatory mechanism that prevents exposure of the active site before assembly is complete.
The mechanism by which a polyubiquitinated protein is targeted to the proteasome is not fully understood. Ubiquitin-receptor proteins have an N-terminal ubiquitin-like (UBL) domain and one or more ubiquitin-associated (UBA) domains. The UBL domains are recognized by the 19S proteasome caps and the UBA domains bind ubiquitin via three-helix bundles. These receptor proteins may escort polyubiquitinated proteins to the proteasome, though the specifics of this interaction and its regulation are unclear.
The ubiquitin protein itself is 76 amino acids long and was named due to its ubiquitous nature, as it has a highly conserved sequence and is found in all known eukaryotic organisms. The genes encoding ubiquitin in eukaryotes are arranged in tandem repeats, possibly due to the heavy transcription demands on these genes to produce enough ubiquitin for the cell. It has been proposed that ubiquitin is the slowest-evolving protein identified to date.
The gate formed by the α subunits prevents peptides longer than about four residues from entering the interior of the 20S particle. The ATP molecules bound before the initial recognition step are hydrolyzed before translocation. While energy is needed for substrate unfolding it is not required for translocation. . The assembled 26S proteasome can degrade unfolded proteins in the presence of a non-hydrolyzable ATP analog, but cannot degrade folded proteins, indicating that energy from ATP hydrolysis is used for substrate unfolding. Passage of the unfolded substrate through the opened gate occurs via facilitated diffusion if the 19S cap is in the ATP-bound state.
The mechanism for unfolding of globular proteins is necessarily general, but somewhat dependent on the amino acid sequence. Long sequences of alternating glycine and alanine have been shown to inhibit substrate unfolding decreasing the efficiency of proteasomal degradation; this results in the release of partially degraded byproducts, possibly due to the decoupling of the ATP hydrolysis and unfolding steps. Such glycine-alanine repeats are also found in nature, for example in silk fibroin; in particular, certain Epstein-Barr virus gene products bearing this sequence can stall the proteasome, helping the virus propagate by preventing antigen presentation on the major histocompatibility complex.
The mechanism of proteolysis by the β subunits of the 20S core particle is through a threonine-dependent nucleophilic attack. This mechanism may depend on an associated water molecule for deprotonation of the reactive threonine hydroxyl. Degradation occurs within the central chamber formed by the association of the two β rings and normally does not release partially degraded products, instead reducing the substrate to short polypeptides typically 7–9 residues long, though they can range from 4 to 25 residues depending on the organism and substrate. The biochemical mechanism that determines product length is not fully characterized. Although the three catalytic β subunits have a common mechanism, they have slightly different substrate specificities, which are considered chymotrypsin-like, trypsin-like, and peptidyl-glutamyl peptide-hydrolyzing (PHGH)-like. These variations in specificity are the result of interatomic contacts with local residues near the active sites of each subunit. Each catalytic β subunit also possesses a conserved lysine residue required for proteolysis.
Although the proteasome normally produces very short peptide fragments, in some cases these products are themselves biologically active and functional molecules. Certain transcription factors, including one component of the mammalian complex NF-κB, are synthesized as inactive precursors whose ubiquitination and subsequent proteasomal degradation converts them to an active form. Such activity requires the proteasome to cleave the substrate protein internally: rather than processively degrading it from one terminus. It has been suggested that long loops on these proteins' surfaces serve as the proteasomal substrates and enter the central cavity, while the majority of the protein remains outside. Similar effects have been observed in yeast proteins; this mechanism of selective degradation is known as regulated ubiquitin/proteasome dependent processing (RUP).
The 20S proteasome is both ubiquitous and essential in eukaryotes. Some prokaryotes, including many archaea and the bacterial order Actinomycetales also share homologs of the 20S proteasome, whereas most bacteria possess heat shock genes hslV and hslU, whose gene products are a multimeric protease arranged in a two-layered ring and an ATPase. The hslV protein has been hypothesized to resemble the likely ancestor of the 20S proteasome. In general, HslV is not essential in bacteria, and not all bacteria possess it, whereas some protists possess both the 20S and the hslV systems.
Sequence analysis suggests that the catalytic β subunits diverged earlier in evolution than the predominantly structural α subunits. In bacteria that express a 20S proteasome, the β subunits have high sequence identity to archaeal and eukaryotic β subunits, whereas the α sequence identity is much lower. The presence of 20S proteasomes in bacteria may result from lateral gene transfer, while the diversification of subunits among eukaryotes is ascribed to multiple gene duplication events.
Earlier cell cycle checkpoints such a post-restriction point check between G1 phase and S phase similarly involve proteasomal degradation of cyclin A, whose ubiquitination is promoted by the anaphase promoting complex (APC), an E3 ubiquitin ligase. The APC and the Skp1/Cul1/F-box protein complex (SCF complex) are the two key regulators of cyclin degradation and checkpoint control; the SCF itself is regulated by the APC via ubiquitination of the adaptor protein, Skp2, which prevents SCF activity before the G1-S transition.
Individual components of the 19S particle have their own regulatory roles. Gankyrin, a recently identified oncoprotein, is one of the 19S subcomponents that also tightly binds the cyclin-dependent kinase CDK4 and plays a key role in recognizing ubiquitinated p53, via its affinity for the ubiquitin ligase MDM2. Gankyrin is anti-apoptotic and has been shown to be overexpressed in some tumor cell types such as hepatocellular carcinoma.
Proteasome inhibition has different effects on apoptosis induction in different cell types. In general, the proteasome is not required for apoptosis, although inhibiting it is pro-apoptotic in most cell types that have been studied. However, some cell lines — in particular, primary cultures of quiescent and differentiated cells such as thymocytes and neurons — are prevented from undergoing apoptosis on exposure to proteasome inhibitors. The mechanism for this effect is not clear, but is hypothesized to be specific to cells in quiescent states, or to result from the differential activity of the pro-apoptotic kinase JNK. The ability of proteasome inhibitors to induce apoptosis in rapidly dividing cells has been exploited in several recently developed chemotherapy agents such as bortezomib and salinosporamide A.
Similar mechanisms exist to promote the degradation of oxidatively damaged proteins via the proteasome system. In particular, proteasomes localized to the nucleus are regulated by PARP and actively degrade inappropriately oxidized histones. Oxidized proteins, which often form large amorphous aggregates in the cell, can be degraded directly by the 20S core particle without the 19S regulatory cap and do not require ATP hydrolysis or tagging with ubiquitin. However, high levels of oxidative damage increases the degree of cross-linking between protein fragments, rendering the aggregates resistant to proteolysis. Larger numbers and sizes of such highly oxidized aggregates are associated with aging.
Impaired proteasomal activity has been suggested as an explanation for some of the late-onset neurodegenerative diseases that share aggregation of misfolded proteins as a common feature, such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. In these diseases large insoluble aggregates of misfolded proteins can form and then result in neurotoxicity, through mechanisms that are not yet well understood. Decreased proteasome activity has been suggested as a cause of aggregation and Lewy body formation in Parkinson's. This hypothesis is supported by the observation that yeast models of Parkinson's are more susceptible to toxicity from α-synuclein, the major protein component of Lewy bodies, under conditions of low proteasome activity.
The strength of MHC class I ligand binding is dependent on the composition of the ligand C-terminus, as peptides bind by hydrogen bonding and by close contacts with a region called the "B pocket" on the MHC surface. Many MHC class I alleles prefer hydrophobic C-terminal residues, and the immunoproteasome complex is more likely to generate hydrophobic C-termini.
Due to its role in generating the activated form of NF-κB, an anti-apoptotic and pro-inflammatory regulator of cytokine expression, proteasomal activity has been linked to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Increased levels of proteasome activity correlate with disease activity and have been implicated in autoimmune diseases including systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Proteasome inhibitors have effective anti-tumor activity in cell culture, inducing apoptosis by disrupting the regulated degradation of pro-growth cell cycle proteins. This approach of selectively inducing apoptosis in tumor cells has proven effective in animal models and human trials. Bortezomib, a molecule developed by Millennium Pharmaceuticals and marketed as Velcade, is the first proteasome inhibitor to reach clinical use as a chemotherapy agent. Bortezomib is used in the treatment of multiple myeloma. Notably, multiple myeloma has been observed to result in increased proteasome levels in blood serum that decrease to normal levels in response to successful chemotherapy. Studies in animals have indicated that bortezomib may also have clinically significant effects in pancreatic cancer. Preclinical and early clinical studies have been started to examine bortezomib's effectiveness in treating other B-cell-related cancers, particularly some types of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
The molecule ritonavir, marketed as Norvir, was developed as a protease inhibitor and used to target HIV infection. However, it has been shown to inhibit proteasomes as well as free proteases; to be specific, the chymotrypsin-like activity of the proteasome is inhibited by ritonavir, while the trypsin-like activity is somewhat enhanced. Studies in animal models suggest that ritonavir may have inhibitory effects on the growth of glioma cells.
Proteasome inhibitors have also shown promise in treating autoimmune diseases in animal models. For example, studies in mice bearing human skin grafts found a reduction in the size of lesions from psoriasis after treatment with a proteasome inhibitor. Inhibitors also show positive effects in rodent models of asthma.
Labeling and inhibition of the proteasome is also of interest in laboratory settings for both in vitro and in vivo study of proteasomal activity in cells. The most commonly used laboratory inhibitor is lactacystin, a natural product synthesized by Streptomyces bacteria. Fluorescent inhibitors have also been developed to specifically label the active sites of the assembled proteasome.