Regulated Targeting of BAX to Mitochondria

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The proapoptotic protein BAX contains a single predicted transmembrane domain at its COOH terminus. In unstimulated cells, BAX is located in the cytosol and in peripheral association with intracellular membranes including mitochondria, but inserts into mitochondrial membranes after a death signal. This failure to insert into mitochondrial membrane in the absence of a death signal correlates with repression of the transmembrane signal-anchor function of BAX by the NH2-terminal domain. Targeting can be instated by deleting the domain or by replacing the BAX transmembrane segment with that of BCL-2. In stimulated cells, the contribution of the NH2 terminus of BAX correlates with further exposure of this domain after membrane insertion of the protein. The peptidyl caspase inhibitor zVAD-fmk partly blocks the stimulated mitochondrial membrane insertion of BAX in vivo, which is consistent with the ability of apoptotic cell extracts to support mitochondrial targeting of BAX in vitro, dependent on activation of caspase(s). Taken together, our results suggest that regulated targeting of BAX to mitochondria in response to a death signal is mediated by discrete domains within the BAX polypeptide. The contribution of one or more caspases may reflect an initiation and/or amplification of this regulated targeting.

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