1. Thyroid hormone receptors (TR) are expressed from two separate genes (α and β) and belong to the nuclear receptor superfamily, which also contains receptors for steroids, vitamins and prostaglandins.
2. Unliganded TR are bound to DNA thyroid hormone response elements (TRE) predominantly as homodimers, or as heterodimers with retinoid X-receptors (RXR), and are associated with a complex of proteins containing corepressor proteins. Ligand binding promotes corepressor dissociation and binding of a coactivator.
3. Recent studies from our group have focused on the acquisition and use of X-ray crystallographic structures of ligand-binding domains (LBD) of both the rat (r) TRα and the human (h) TRβ bound to several different ligands. We have also developed ligands that bind selectively to the TRβ, which may provide ways to explore the differential functions of TRα compared with TRβ isoforms.
4. The LBD is comprised mostly of α-helices. The ligand is completely buried in the receptor and forms part of its hydrophobic core. Kinetic studies suggest that the limiting step in formation of high-affinity ligand-receptor complexes is the rate of folding of the receptor around the ligand. Ligands can be fitted tightly in the ligand-binding pocket and small differences in this fitting may explain many structure-activity relationships. Interestingly, analysis of the structures of antagonist suggests that they have chemical groups, 'extensions', that could impair receptor folding around them and, thus, prevent the agonist-induced conformation changes in the receptor.
5. The TR structures allowed us to see that the mutations that occur in the syndrome of generalized resistance to thyroid hormone are located in the vicinity of the ligand-binding pocket.
6. X-ray structure of the TR has also been used to guide construction of mutations in the TR surface that block binding of various proteins important for receptor function. Studies with these TR mutants reveal that the interfaces for homo- and heterodimerization map to similar residues in helix 10 and 11 and also allow the definition of the surface for binding of coactivators, which appears to be general for nuclear receptors. Formation of this surface, which involves packing of helix 12 of the TR into a scaffold formed by helices 3 and 5, appears to be the major change in the receptor structure induced by hormone occupancy.