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A multiprotein complex (or protein complex) is a group of two or more associated polypeptide chains. If the different polypeptide chains contain different protein domain, the resulting multiprotein complex can have multiple catalytic functions. This is distinct from a multienzyme polypeptide, in which multiple catalytic domains are found in a single polypeptide chain.
Protein complexes are a form of quaternary structure. Proteins in a protein complex are linked by non-covalent protein–protein interactions, and different protein complexes have different degrees of stability over time. These complexes are a cornerstone of many (if not most) biological processes and together they form various types of molecular machinery that perform a vast array of biological functions. Increasingly, scientists view the cell as composed of modular supramolecular complexes, each of which performs an independent, discrete biological function.
Through proximity, the speed and selectivity of binding interactions between enzymatic complex and substrates can be vastly improved, leading to higher cellular efficiency. Unfortunately, many of the techniques used to break open cells and isolate proteins are inherently disruptive to such large complexes, so their protein complexes within the cell may be even more widespread than can be detected. Examples include the proteasome for molecular degradation, the metabolon for oxidative energy generation, and the ribosome for protein synthesis. In stable complexes, large hydrophobic interfaces between proteins typically bury surface areas larger than 2500 square angstroms.
Protein complex formation sometimes serves to activate or inhibit one or more of the complex members and in this way, protein complex formation can be similar to phosphorylation. Individual proteins can participate in the formation of a variety of different protein complexes. Different complexes perform different functions, and the same complex can perform very different functions that depend on a variety of factors. Some of these factors are:
- Which cellular compartment the complex exists in when it is contained
- Which stage in the cell cycle the complexes are present
- The nutritional status of the cell
Many protein complexes are well understood, particularly in the model organism Saccharomyces cerevisiae (a strain of yeast). For this relatively simple organism, the study of protein complexes is now being performed genome wide and the elucidation of most protein complexes of the yeast is undergoing.
Types of protein complexes
Obligate vs non-obligate protein complex
If a protein can form stable crystal structure of its own (without any other associated protein) in vivo, then the complexes formed by such proteins are called "non-obligate protein complex". On the other hand, some proteins can't be found to create a crystal structure alone, but can be found as a part of a protein complex which creates a stable crystal structure. Such protein complexes are called "obligate protein complex".
Transient vs permanent/stable protein complex
Transient protein complexes form and break down transiently in vivo, whereas permanent complexes have a relatively long half-life. Typically, the obligate interactions (protein-protein interactions in an obligate complex) are permanent, whereas non-obligate interactions have been found to be either permanent or transient. Note that there is no clear distinction between obligate and non-obligate interaction, rather there exist a continuum between them which depends on various conditions e.g. pH, protein concentration etc. However, there are important distinctions between the properties of transient and permanent/stable interactions: stable interactions are highly conserved but transient interactions are far less conserved, interacting proteins on the two sides of a stable interaction have more tendency of being co-expressed than those of a transient interaction (in fact, co-expression probability between two transiently interacting proteins is not higher than two random proteins), and transient interactions are much less co-localized than stable interactions. Though, transient by nature, transient interactions are very important for cell biology: human interactome is enriched in such interactions, these interactions are the dominating players of gene regulation and signal transduction, and proteins with intrinsically disordered regions (IDR: regions in protein that show dynamic inter-converting structures in the native state) are found to be enriched in transient regulatory and signaling interactions.
Fuzzy protein complexes have more than one structural forms or dynamic structural disorder in the bound state. This means that proteins may not fold completely in either transient or permanent complexes. Consequently, specific complexes can have ambiguous interactions, which vary according to the environmental signals. Hence different ensemble of structures result in different (even opposite) biological functions. Post-translational modifications, protein interactions or alternative splicing modulate the conformational ensembles of fuzzy complexes, to fine-tune affinity or specificity of interactions. These mechanisms are often used for regulation within the eukaryotic transcription machinery.
Homomultimeric and heteromultimeric proteins
The subunits of a multimeric protein may be identical as in a homomultimeric (homooligomeric) protein or different as in a heteromultimeric protein. Many soluble and membrane proteins form homomultimeric complexes in a cell, majority of proteins in the Protein Data Bank are homomultimeric. Homooligomers are responsible for the diversity and specificity of many pathways, may mediate and regulate gene expression, activity of enzymes, ion channels, receptors, and cell adhesion processes.
The voltage-gated potassium channels in the plasma membrane of a neuron are heteromultimeric proteins composed of four of forty known alpha subunits. Subunits must be of the same subfamily to form the multimeric protein channel. The tertiary structure of the channel allows ions to flow through the hydrophobic plasma membrane. Connexons are an example of a homomultimeric protein composed of six identical connexins. A cluster of connexons forms the gap-junction in two neurons that transmit signals through an electrical synapse.
The molecular structure of protein complexes can be determined by experimental techniques such as X-ray crystallography or nuclear magnetic resonance. Increasingly the theoretical option of protein–protein docking is also becoming available. One method that is commonly used for identifying the meomplexes is immunoprecipitation. Recently, Raicu and coworkers developed a method to determine the quaternary structure of protein complexes in living cells. This method is based on the determination of pixel-level Forster resonance energy transfer (FRET) efficiency in conjunction with spectrally resolved two-photon microscope. The distribution of FRET efficiencies are simulated against different models to get the geometry and stoichiometry of the complexes.
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