Clathrin is a protein that plays a major role in the formation of coated vesicles. Clathrin was first isolated and named by Barbara Pearse in 1975. It forms a triskelion shape composed of three clathrin heavy chains and three light chains. When the triskelia interact they form a polyhedral lattice that surrounds the vesicle. Coat-proteins, like clathrin, are used to build small vesicles in order to safely transport molecules within and between cells. The endocytosis and exocytosis of vesicles allows cells to transfer nutrients, to import signaling receptors, to mediate an immune response after sampling the extracellular world, and to clean up the cell debris left by tissue inflammation. On occasion, this mechanism also provides a pathway for raiding pathogens or toxins.
The clathrin triskelion is composed of three clathrin heavy chains and three light chains interacting at their C-termini. The three heavy chains provide the structural backbone of the clathrin lattice, and the three light chains are thought to regulate the formation and disassembly of a clathrin lattice.
Clathrin heavy chain is, in concept, broken down into multiple subdomains, starting with the N-terminal domain, followed by the ankle, distal leg, knee, proximal leg, and trimerization domains. The N-terminal domain consists of a seven-bladed β-propeller structure. The other domains form a super-helix of short alpha helices. This was originally determined from the structure of the proximal leg domain that identified and is composed of a smaller structural module referred to as clathrin heavy chain repeat motifs. The light chains bind primarily to the proximal leg portion of the heavy chain with some interaction near the trimerization domain.
When triskelia assemble together in solution, they can interact with enough flexibility to form 6-sided rings that yield a flatter lattice, or 5-sided rings that are necessary for curved lattice formation. When many triskelions connect, they can form a basket-like structure. The structure shown above, is built of 36 triskelia, one of which is highlighted in green.
In a cell, a triskelion floating in the cytoplasm binds to an adaptor protein, linking one of its three feet to the membrane at a time. This triskelion will bind to other membrane-attached triskelia to form a rounded lattice of hexagons and pentagons, reminiscent of the panels on a soccer ball, that pulls the membrane into a bud. By constructing different combinations of 5-sided and 6-sided rings, vesicles of different sizes may assemble. The smallest clathrin cage commonly imaged, called a mini-coat, has 12 pentagons and only two hexagons. Even smaller cages with zero hexagons probably do not form from the native protein, because the feet of the triskelia are too bulky.
Like many proteins, clathrin represents a perfect case of form following function; it performs critical roles in shaping rounded vesicles in the cytoplasm for intracellular trafficking. Clathrin-coated vesicles (CCV) selectively sort cargo at the cell membrane, trans-Golgi network, and endosomal compartments for multiple membrane traffic pathways. After a vesicle buds into the cytoplasm, the coat rapidly disassembles, allowing the clathrin to recycle while the vesicle gets transported to a variety of locations.
Adaptor molecules are responsible for self-assembly and recruitment. Two examples of adaptor proteins are AP180 and epsin. AP180 is used in synaptic vesicle formation. It recruits clathrin to membranes and also promotes its polymerization. Epsin also recruits clathrin to membranes and promotes its polymerization, and can help deform the membrane, and thus clathrin-coated vesicles can bud. In a cell, a triskelion floating in the cytoplasm binds to an adaptor protein, linking one of its feet to the membrane at a time. The skelion will bind to other ones attached to the membrane to form a polyhedral lattice, skelion, which pulls the membrane into a bud. The skelion does not bind directly to the membrane, but binds to the adaptor proteins that recognize the molecules on the membrane surface.
Clathrin has another function aside from the coating of organelles. In non-dividing cells, the formation of clathrin-coated vesicles occurs continuously. Formation of clathrin-coated vesicles is shut down in cells undergoing mitosis. During mitosis, clathrin binds to the spindle apparatus, in complex with two other proteins: TACC3 and ch-TOG/CKAP5. Clathrin aids in the congression of chromosomes by stabilizing kinetochore fibers of the mitotic spindle. The amino-terminal domain of the clathrin heavy chain and the TACC domain of TACC3 make the microtubule binding surface for TACC3/ch-TOG/clathrin to bind to the mitotic spindle. The stabilization of kinetochore fibers requires the trimeric structure of clathrin in order to crosslink microtubules.
Clathrin-mediated endocytosis (CME) regulates many cellular physiological processes such as the internalization of growth factors and receptors, entry of pathogens, and synaptic transmission. It is believed that cellular invaders use the nutrient pathway to gain access to a cell's replicating mechanisms. Certain signalling molecules open the nutrients pathway. Two chemical compounds called Pitstop 1 and Pitstop 2, selective clathrin inhibitors, can interfere with the pathogenic activity, and thus protect the cells against invasion. These two compounds selectively block the endocytic ligand association with the clathrin terminal domain in vitro. Although the specificity of these compounds to block clathrin-mediated endocytosis has been questioned.
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