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Chinese Scientists Lead a Major Breakthrough in the Structural and Functional Studies of the Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Receptors
Update time: 2020-03-04
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Scientists at the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Sciences led by Xu Huaqiang (H. Eric Xu) in collaboration with their counterparts at School of Basic Medical Sciences, Zhejiang University led by Zhang Yan, revealed two cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) structures of corticotropin-releasing factor receptors CRF1R and CRF2R bound to urocotin 1 (UCN1) and the stimulatory G protein (Gs), with resolution reaching 3.0 A and 2.8 A respectively. The finding was published online in Molecular Cell on January 30, 2020 titled “Molecular Basis for Hormone Recognition and Activation of Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Receptors”. It provides a template for rational design of novel therapeutics against anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and cardiovascular diseases.

CRF1R and CRF2R, two members of class B G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), are widely expressed in the central and peripheral nervous systems and activated by the corticoliberin family of peptide hormones that include CRF and urocortins 1-3 (UCN1-UCN3). The active receptors function as a key mediator of endocrine, autonomic, behavioral, and immune responses to stress by coupling to Gs. CRF was first discovered in ovine hypothalamus and plays an indispensable role in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis by promoting the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) to regulate homeostasis and stress responses. CRF has a higher affinity for CRF1R than CRF2R, while UCN1 has strong and comparable affinities for both receptors and UCN2 and UCN3 are selective for CRF2R.

The three-dimensional structures reveal the mechanism of the peptide-binding specificity and provide the structural basis for recruiting the downstream Gs protein. UCN1 has a unique structural feature compared to other class B GPCRs peptide ligands; the first 7 residues of UCN1 adopt an extended loop conformation, and its C-terminal residues (8-40) adopt a single extended helix. In the same issue of Molecular Cell, H. Eric Xu and Zhang Yan in collaboration with Patrick M. Sexton and Denise Wootten from Monash University reported the cryo-EM structure of the CRF-CRF1R-Gs complex ( Analyzing the electrostatic properties of the three structures indicates that the CRF surface is more negatively charged, which fits the CRF1R pocket better, consistent with the fact that CRF has a higher potency to CRF1R than to CRF2R.

Class B GPCRs are involved in a very distinct set of physiological activities that require exquisite specificity of ligand binding and receptor activation. This work, combined with the previously reported active class B GPCR structures including the glucagon-like peptide 1 receptor (GLP-1 R), the calcitonin receptor (CTR) and the human parathyroid hormone receptor type 1 receptor (PTH1R), provides systematic analysis of the precise peptide-binding mechanism in class B GPCRs. In particular, the cryo-EM structure of PTH1R in complex with Gs was also conducted by H. Eric Xu and Zhang Yan in collaboration with other laboratories. Structural comparison among the structures reveals that the ECDs bound to the C-terminal portions of the peptide ligands display the most pronounced conformational differences. Although the secondary structures and scaffold of the TMDs bound to the N-terminal portions of the peptide ligands are quite similar, the sizes and shapes of the peptide-binding pockets are divergent for each receptor. In addition, according to structure-based sequence alignment, the peptide ligands of class B GPCR family can be divided into three subgroups: the CRF-like peptide hormones, the calcitonin-like peptide hormones and the glucagon-like peptide hormones. Therefore, the exquisite specificity of peptide hormone recognition by class B GPCRs is controlled at two levels, as proposed originally for the two-domain model. The first step is the fast recognition by the receptor ECD and then the N-terminal portions of the peptide ligands penetrate into the receptor TMD which is a key step to determine the specificity of the peptide ligands. The two-step recognition pattern prevents the misfiring of the receptor by accidental interactions with unrelated peptides or proteins.

Compared with the antagonist-bound CRF1R TMD structure, the remarkable conformational changes focus on TM5, TM6 and TM7, especially the “NPGQ” motif. The Gαs α5 helix is the primary structural element to interact with the receptor TM helices and the Gβ subunit mainly interacts with the receptor helix 8. The highly conserved “NPGQ” motif and the interaction surface between class B GPCRs and Gs protein suggest a common mechanism of class B GPCR activation.

Similar with the PTH1R-Gs complex reported before, both CRF1R and CRF2R complexes unveiled annular detergent micelle surrounding the transmembrane helices of the receptors. Within the micelle, several bound cholesterol molecules are clearly visible in the cryo-EM maps and these cholesterol-binding sites overlap with each other across all three structures. Two cholesterols fitting well in the EM density map were chosen to study the membrane protein-lipid interaction. The residues interacting with the two cholesterols are highly conserved in class B GPCRs and alanine mutations in these residues reduced the activation potency of UCN1 and CRF to CRF1R and CRF2R. Besides, the lipid-modified moieties of Gαs and Gβγ were observed. Together, the results suggest that the cholesterols play an important role in stabilizing peptide binding and GPCR signaling.

The active UCN1-CRF1R-Gs and UCN1-CRF2R-Gs complexes reveal the basis for peptide binding specificity, support a universal mechanism of class B GPCR activation, and provide detailed structural information for studying membrane protein-lipid interactions. Finally, the structures provide a rational template to understand the structure-activity relationship of drug-discovery ligands targeting CRF1R and CRF2R-related diseases.

The teams of H. Eric Xu and Zhang Yan work closely together to study the structure and function of class B GPCRs. This work was funded by Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Shanghai Municipal Science and Technology Major Project, the Shanghai Science and Technology Development Fund, the Young Innovator Association of CAS, the Fudan-SIMM Joint Research Fund, the SA-SIBS Scholarship Program.

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Figure1:Binding specificity of CRF receptors to the related peptide hormones and the illustrated representation of the UCN1-CRF1R-Gs and UCN1-CRF2R-Gs complex. (Image courtesy of the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Figure 2: Cholesterol binding in the structures of CRF1R and CRF2R complexes. (Image courtesy of the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

H. Eric Xu
Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Sciences

(Credit: Ma Shanshan)



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