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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Heterodimerization-independent Functions of Cell Death Regulatory Proteins Bax and Bcl-2 in Yeast and Mammalian Cells*


The pro-apoptotic protein Bax can homodimerize with itself and heterodimerize with the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-2, but the significance of these protein-protein interactions remains unclear. Alanine substitution mutations were created in a well conserved IGDE motif found within the BH3 domain of Bax (residues 66-69) and the resulting mutant Bax proteins were tested for ability to homodimerize with themselves and to heterodimerize with Bcl-2. Correlations were made with cell death induction by these mutants of Bax both in mammalian cells where Bax may function through several mechanisms, and in yeast where Bax may exert its lethal actions through a more limited repertoire of mechanisms perhaps related to its ability to form ion channels in intracellular membranes. Two of the mutants, Bax(D68A) and Bax(E69A), retained the ability to homodimerize but failed to interact with Bcl-2 as determined by yeast two-hybrid assays and co-immunoprecipitation analysis using transfected mammalian cells. The Bax(E69A) protein exhibited a lethal phenotype in yeast, which could be specifically suppressed by co-expression of Bcl-2, despite its failure to dimerize with Bcl-2. Both the Bax(D68A) and Bax(E69A) proteins induced apoptosis when overexpressed in human 293 cells, despite an inability to bind to Bcl-2. Moreover, co-expression of Bcl-2 with Bax(D68A) and Bax(E69A) rescued mammalian cells from apoptosis. In contrast, a mutant of Bax lacking the IGDE motif, Bax(DeltaIGDE), was incapable of either homodimerizing with itself or heterodimerizing with Bcl-2 and was inactive at promoting cell death in either yeast or mammalian cells. Although failing to interact with Bcl-2, the Bax(D68A) and Bax(E69A) mutants retained the ability to bind to Bid, a putative Bax-activating member of the Bcl-2 family, and collaborated with Bid in inducing apoptosis. When taken together with previous observations, these findings indicate that (i) Bax can induce apoptosis in mammalian cells irrespective of heterodimerization with Bcl-2 and (ii) Bcl-2 can rescue both mammalian cells and yeast from the lethal effects of Bax without heterodimerizing with it. However, these results do not exclude the possibility that BH3-dependent homodimerization of Bax or interactions with Bax activators such as Bid may either assist or be required for the cell death-inducing mechanism of this protein.

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