βA3/A1-crystallin: More than a lens protein

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Abstract

Crystallins, the highly abundant proteins of the ocular lens, are essential determinants of the transparency and refractivity required for lens function. Initially thought to be lens-specific and to have evolved as lens proteins, it is now clear that crystallins were recruited to the lens from proteins that existed before lenses evolved. Crystallins are expressed outside of the lens and most have been shown to have cellular functions distinct from their roles as structural elements in the lens. For one major crystallin group, the β/γ-crystallin superfamily, no such functions have yet been established. We have explored possible functions for the polypeptides (βA3-and βA1-crystallins) encoded by Cryba1, one of the 6 β-crystallin genes, using a spontaneous rat mutant and genetically engineered mouse models. βA3-and βA1-crystallins are expressed in retinal astrocytes and retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells. In both cell types, these proteins appear to be required for the proper acidification of the lysosomes. In RPE cells, elevated pH in the lysosomes is shown to impair the critical processes of phagocytosis and autophagy, leading to accumulation of undigested cargo in (auto) phagolysosomes. We postulate that this accumulation may cause pathological changes in the cells resembling some of those characteristic of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Our studies suggest an important regulatory function of βA3/A1-crystallin in astrocytes. We provide evidence that the cellular function of βA3/A1-crystallin involves its interaction with V-ATPase, the proton pump responsible for acidification of the endolysosomal system.

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