Despite the biological significance of insulin signaling, the molecular mechanisms of activation of the insulin receptor (IR) and other proteins from its family remain elusive. Current hypothesis on signal transduction suggests ligand-triggered structural changes in the extracellular domain followed by transmembrane (TM) domains closure and dimerization leading to trans-autophosphorylation and kinase activity in intracellular segments of the receptor. Using NMR spectroscopy, we detected dimerization of isolated TM segments of IR in DPC micelles and observed multiple signals of NH groups of protein backbone possibly corresponding to several dimer conformations. Taking available experimental data as constraints, several atomistic models of dimeric TM domains of IR and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1R) receptors were elaborated. Molecular dynamics simulations of IR ectodomain revealed noticeable collective movements potentially responsible for closure of the C-termini of FnIII-3 domains and spatial approaching of TM helices upon insulin-induced receptor activation. In addition, we demonstrated that the intracellular part of the receptor does not impose restrictions on the positioning of TM helices in the membrane. Finally, we used two independent structure prediction methods to generate a series of dimer conformations followed by their cluster analysis and dimerization free energy estimation to select the best dimer models. Biological relevance of the later was further tested via comparison of the hydrophobic organization of TM helices for both wild-type receptors and their mutants. Based on these data, the ability of several segments from other proteins to functionally replace IR and/or IGF-1R TM domains was explained.
Interaction between transmembrane helices often determines biological activity of membrane proteins. Bitopic proteins, a broad subclass of membrane proteins, form dimers containing two membrane-spanning helices. Some aspects of their structure-function relationship cannot be fully understood without considering the protein-lipid interaction, which can determine the protein conformational ensemble. Experimental and computer modeling data concerning transmembrane parts of bitopic proteins are reviewed in the present paper. They highlight the importance of lipid-protein interactions and resolve certain paradoxes in the behavior of such proteins. Besides, some properties of membrane organization provided a clue to understanding of allosteric interactions between distant parts of proteins. Interactions of these kinds appear to underlie a signaling mechanism, which could be widely employed in the functioning of many membrane proteins. Treatment of membrane proteins as parts of integrated fine-tuned proteolipid system promises new insights into biological function mechanisms and approaches to drug design. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Lipid order/lipid defects and lipid-control of protein activity edited by Dirk Schneider.