A ubiquitin ligase (also called an E3 ubiquitin ligase) is a protein that recruits an E2 ubiquitin-conjugating enzyme that has been loaded with ubiquitin, recognizes a protein substrate, and assists or directly catalyzes the transfer of ubiquitin from the E2 to the the protein substrate. The ubiquitin is attached to a lysine on the target protein by an isopeptide bond. E3 ligases interact with both the target protein and the E2 enzyme, and so impart substrate specificity to the E2. Commonly, E3s polyubiquitinate their substrate with Lys48-linked chains of ubiquitin, targeting the substrate for destruction by the proteasome. However, many other types of linkages are possible and alter a protein's activity, interactions, or localization. Ubiquitination by E3 ligases regulates diverse areas such as cell trafficking, DNA repair, and signaling and is of profound importance in cell biology.
The ubiquitin ligase is referred to as an E3, and operates in conjunction with an E1 ubiquitin-activating enzyme and an E2 ubiquitin-conjugating enzyme. There is one major E1 enzyme, shared by all ubiquitin ligases, that uses ATP to activate ubiquitin for conjugation and transfers it to an E2 enzyme. The E2 enzyme interacts with a specific E3 partner and transfers the ubiquitin to the target protein. The E3, which may be a multi-protein complex, is, in general, responsible for targeting ubiquitination to specific substrate proteins. In some cases, it receives the ubiquitin from the E2 enzyme and transfers it to the target protein; in other cases, it acts by interacting with both the E2 enzyme and the substrate, but never itself receives the ubiquitin.
Humans have an estimated 500-1000 E3 ligases, which impart substrate specificity onto the E1 and E2. The E3 ligases are classified into four families: HECT, RING-finger, U-box, and PHD-finger. The RING-finger E3 ligases are the largest family and contain ligases such as the anaphase-promoting complex (APC) and the SCF complex (Skp1-Cullin-F-box protein complex). SCF complexes consist of four proteins: Rbx1, Cul1, Skp1, which are invariant among SCF complexes, and an F-box protein, which varies. Around 70 human F-box proteins have been identified. F-box proteins contain an F-box, which binds the rest of the SCF complex, and a substrate binding domain, which gives the E3 its substrate specificity.