Class B G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) are receptors for peptide hormones that include glucagon, parathyroid hormone, and calcitonin. These receptors are involved in a wide spectrum of physiological activities, from metabolic regulation and stress control to development and maintenance of the skeletal system. As such, they are important drug targets for the treatment of diabetes, osteoporosis, and stress related disorders. Class B GPCRs are organized into two modular domains: an extracellular domain (ECD) and a helical bundle that contains seven transmembrane helices (TM domain). The ECD is responsible for the high affinity and specificity of hormone binding, and the TM domain is required for receptor activation and signal coupling to downstream G-proteins. Although the structure of the full-length receptor remains unknown, the ECD structures have been well characterized for a number of Class B GPCRs, revealing a common fold for ligand recognition. This review summarizes the general structural principles that guide hormone binding by Class B ECDs and their implications in the design of peptide hormone analogs for therapeutic purposes.
G-protein-coupled receptor (GPCR); parathyroid hormone; glucagon; calcitonin; crystal structure
Photoreceptor-specific nuclear receptor (PNR, NR2E3) is a key transcriptional regulator of human photoreceptor differentiation and maintenance. Mutations in the NR2E3-encoding gene cause various retinal degenerations, including Enhanced S-cone syndrome, retinitis pigmentosa, and Goldman-Favre disease. Although physiological ligands have not been identified, it is believed that binding of small molecule agonists, receptor desumoylation, and receptor heterodimerization may switch NR2E3 from a transcriptional repressor to an activator. While these features make NR2E3 a potential therapeutic target for the treatment of retinal diseases, there has been a clear lack of structural information for the receptor. Here, we report the crystal structure of the apo NR2E3 ligand binding domain (LBD) at 2.8 Å resolution. Apo NR2E3 functions as transcriptional repressor in cells and the structure of its LBD is in a dimeric auto-repressed conformation. In this conformation, the putative ligand binding pocket is filled with bulky hydrophobic residues and the activation-function-2 (AF2) helix occupies the canonical cofactor binding site. Mutations designed to disrupt either the AF2/cofactor-binding site interface or the dimer interface compromised the transcriptional repressor activity of this receptor. Together, these results reveal several conserved structural features shared by related orphan nuclear receptors, suggest that most disease-causing mutations affect the receptor’s structural integrity, and allowed us to model a putative active conformation that can accommodate small ligands in its pocket.
Ligand-regulated transcriptional activity is the most important property of nuclear receptors, including PPARγ. In this issue of Structure, Hughes et al. determined how the dynamic conformations of ligands and the receptor contribute to the degree of ligand-dependent activation of PPARγ, which provide further insights into design of PPARγ-based anti-diabetic drugs.
Abscisic acid (ABA) is the most important hormone for plants to resist drought and other abiotic stresses. ABA binds directly to the PYR/PYL family of ABA receptors, resulting in inhibition of type 2C phosphatases (PP2C) and activation of downstream ABA signaling. It is envisioned that intervention of ABA signaling by small molecules could help plants to overcome abiotic stresses such as drought, cold and soil salinity. However, chemical instability and rapid catabolism by plant enzymes limit the practical application of ABA itself. Here we report the identification of a small molecule ABA mimic (AM1) that acts as a potent activator of multiple members of the family of ABA receptors. In Arabidopsis, AM1 activates a gene network that is highly similar to that induced by ABA. Treatments with AM1 inhibit seed germination, prevent leaf water loss, and promote drought resistance. We solved the crystal structure of AM1 in complex with the PYL2 ABA receptor and the HAB1 PP2C, which revealed that AM1 mediates a gate-latch-lock interacting network, a structural feature that is conserved in the ABA-bound receptor/PP2C complex. Together, these results demonstrate that a single small molecule ABA mimic can activate multiple ABA receptors and protect plants from water loss and drought stress. Moreover, the AM1 complex crystal structure provides a structural basis for designing the next generation of ABA-mimicking small molecules.
abscisic acid; plant hormone; drought resistance; crystal structure; ABA-mimicking ligand
The antimalaria drug chloroquine has been used as an anti-inflammatory agent for treating systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis. We report that chloroquine promoted the transrepression of proinflammatory cytokines by the glucocorticoid receptor (GR). In a mouse collagen-induced arthritis model, chloroquine enhanced the therapeutic effects of glucocorticoid treatment. By inhibiting lysosome function, chloroquine synergistically activated glucocorticoid signaling. Lysosomal inhibition by either bafilomycin A1 (an inhibitor of the vacuolar adenosine triphosphatase) or knockdown of transcription factor EB (TFEB, a master activator of lysosomal biogenesis) mimicked the effects of chloroquine. The abundance of the GR, as well as that of the androgen receptor and estrogen receptor, correlated with changes in lysosomal biogenesis. Thus, we showed that glucocorticoid signaling is regulated by lysosomes, which provides a mechanistic basis for treating inflammation and autoimmune diseases with a combination of glucocorticoids and lysosomal inhibitors.
Rhodopsin is the first G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) to have its three-dimensional structure solved by X-ray crystallography. The crystal structure of rhodopsin has revealed the molecular mechanism of photoreception and signal transduction in the visual system. Although several other GPCR crystal structures have been reported over the past few years, the rhodopsin structure remains an important model for understanding the structural and functional characteristics of other GPCRs. This review summarizes the structural features, the photoactivation, and the G protein signal transduction of rhodopsin.
G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR); rhodopsin; crystal structure; photoactivation; transducin
Abscisic acid is a plant hormone with important functions in stress protection and physiology. Recently, the PYR/PYL/RCAR family of intracellular ABA receptors was identified. These receptors directly link ABA perception to a canonical ABA signaling pathway, in which ABA-bound receptors bind and inhibit type 2C phosphatases. High resolution crystal structures of members of this family have been solved in all relevant states: as apo receptors, bound to ABA, and as receptor-ABA-phosphatase complexes. Together, these structures provide a detailed gate-latch-lock mechanism of ABA recognition, receptor-PP2C interaction, and inhibition of the PP2C phosphatase activity and provide a basis for the design of synthetic ABA agonists for stress protection of crop plants.
There is concern that ingestion of dietary phytoestrogens may increase risk of estrogen receptor alpha (ERα)-positive breast cancer. The prenylflavone icaritin, a phytoestrogen consumed in East Asian societies for its perceived beneficial effects on bone health, stimulated the growth of breast cancer (MCF-7) cells at low concentrations. Although acting like an estrogenic ligand, icaritin exerted an unexpected suppressive effect on estrogen-stimulated breast cancer cell proliferation and gene expression at higher concentrations. Like estradiol, icaritin could dose-dependently destabilize ERα protein. However, destabilization of ERα by the estradiol/icaritin combination was profound and greater than that observed for either compound alone. Microarray gene expression analyses implicated aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) signaling for this suppressive effect of icaritin. Indeed, icaritin was an AhR agonist that competitively reduced specific binding of a potent AhR agonist and increased expression of the AhR-regulated gene CYP1A1. When AhR was knocked down by small interfering RNA, the suppressive effect of icaritin on estradiol-stimulated breast cancer cell growth and gene expression was abolished, and ERα protein stability was partially restored. Similarly in an athymic nude mouse model, icaritin restricted estradiol-stimulated breast cancer xenograft growth and strongly reduced ERα protein levels. Overall, our data support the feasibility for the development of dual agonists like icaritin, which are estrogenic but yet, through activating AhR-signaling, can destabilize ERα protein to restrict ERα-positive breast cancer cell growth.
Glucocorticoid (GC) induction of the tyrosine aminotransferase (TAT) gene by the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) is a classic model used to investigate steroid-regulated gene expression. Classic studies analyzing GC-induction of the TAT gene demonstrated that despite having very high affinity for GR, some steroids cannot induce maximal TAT enzyme activity, but the molecular basis for this phenomenon is unknown. Here, we used RT-PCR and chromatin immunoprecipitation to determine TAT mRNA accumulation and GR recruitment to the TAT promoter (TAT-GRE) in rat hepatoma cells induced by seven GR ligands: dexamethasone (DEX), cortisol (CRT), corticosterone (CCS), 11-deoxycorticosterone (DOC), aldosterone (ALD), progesterone (PRG) and 17-hydroxyprogesterone (17P). As expected, DEX, CRT, CCS and ALD all induced both TAT mRNA and GR recruitment to the TAT-GRE, while PRG and 17P did not. However, while DOC could not induce significant TAT mRNA, it did induce robust GR-occupancy of the TAT-GRE. DOC also induced recruitment of the histone acetyltransferase p300 to the TAT-GRE as efficiently as DEX. These DOC-induced effects recapitulated at another GR target gene (sulfonyltransferase 1A1), and DOC also failed to promote the multiple changes in gene expression required for glucocorticoid-dependent 3T3-L1 adipocyte differentiation. Structural simulations and protease sensitivity assays suggest that DOC and DEX induce different conformations in GR. Thus, although steroids that bind GR with high affinity can induce GR and p300 occupancy of target promoters, they may not induce a conformation of GR capable of activating transcription.
glucocorticoid receptor; anti-inflammatory; steroids; chromatin immunoprecipitation; gene expression
PTPσ is a dual-domain receptor type protein tyrosine phosphatase (PTP) with physiologically important functions which render this enzyme an attractive biological target. Specifically, loss of PTPσ has been shown to elicit a number of cellular phenotypes including enhanced nerve regeneration following spinal cord injury (SCI), chemoresistance in cultured cancer cells, and hyperactive autophagy, a process critical to cell survival and the clearance of pathological aggregates in neurodegenerative diseases. Owing to these functions, modulation of PTPσ may provide therapeutic value in a variety of contexts. Furthermore, a small molecule inhibitor would provide utility in discerning the cellular functions and substrates of PTPσ. To develop such molecules, we combined in silico modeling with in vitro phosphatase assays to identify compounds which effectively inhibit the enzymatic activity of PTPσ. Importantly, we observed that PTPσ inhibition was frequently mediated by oxidative species generated by compounds in solution, and we further optimized screening conditions to eliminate this effect. We identified a compound that inhibits PTPσ with an IC50 of 10 µM in a manner that is primarily oxidation-independent. This compound favorably binds the D1 active site of PTPσ in silico, suggesting it functions as a competitive inhibitor. This compound will serve as a scaffold structure for future studies designed to build selectivity for PTPσ over related PTPs.
Abscisic acid (ABA) is an essential hormone that controls plant growth, development and responses to abiotic stresses. ABA signaling is mediated by type 2C protein phosphatases (PP2Cs), including HAB1 and ABI2, which inhibit stress-activated SnRK2 kinases and whose activity is regulated by ABA and ABA receptors. Based on biochemical data and our previously determined crystal structures of ABI2 and the SnRK2.6–HAB1 complex, we present the catalytic mechanism of PP2C and provide new insight into PP2C–SnRK2 interactions and possible roles of other SnRK2 kinases in ABA signaling.
PP2C; SnRK; PYR/PYL/RCAR; abscisic acid; X-ray crystal structure
The glucagon receptor (GCGR) is a member of the class B G protein–coupled receptor family. Activation of GCGR by glucagon leads to increased glucose production by the liver. Thus, glucagon is a key component of glucose homeostasis by counteracting the effect of insulin. In this report, we found that in addition to activation of the classic cAMP/protein kinase A (PKA) pathway, activation of GCGR also induced β-catenin stabilization and activated β-catenin–mediated transcription. Activation of β-catenin signaling was PKA-dependent, consistent with previous reports on the parathyroid hormone receptor type 1 (PTH1R) and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1R) receptors. Since low-density-lipoprotein receptor–related protein 5 (Lrp5) is an essential co-receptor required for Wnt protein mediated β-catenin signaling, we examined the role of Lrp5 in glucagon-induced β-catenin signaling. Cotransfection with Lrp5 enhanced the glucagon-induced β-catenin stabilization and TCF promoter–mediated transcription. Inhibiting Lrp5/6 function using Dickkopf-1(DKK1) or by expression of the Lrp5 extracellular domain blocked glucagon-induced β-catenin signaling. Furthermore, we showed that Lrp5 physically interacted with GCGR by immunoprecipitation and bioluminescence resonance energy transfer assays. Together, these results reveal an unexpected crosstalk between glucagon and β-catenin signaling, and may help to explain the metabolic phenotypes of Lrp5/6 mutations.
Regulation of hepatic carbohydrate homeostasis is crucial for maintaining energy balance in the face of fluctuating nutrient availability. Here, we show that the hormone fibroblast growth factor 15/19 (FGF15/19), which is released postprandially from the small intestine, inhibits hepatic gluconeogenesis, like insulin. However, unlike insulin, which peaks in serum 15 minutes after feeding, FGF15/19 expression peaks approximately 45 min later, when bile acid concentrations increase in the small intestine. FGF15/19 blocks the expression of genes involved in gluconeogenesis through a mechanism involving the dephosphorylation and inactivation of the transcription factor cAMP regulatory element binding protein (CREB). This in turn blunts expression of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor γ coactivator-1α (PGC-1α) and other genes involved in hepatic metabolism. Overexpression of PGC-1α blocks the inhibitory effect of FGF15/19 on gluconeogenic gene expression. These results demonstrate that FGF15/19 works subsequent to insulin as a postprandial regulator of hepatic carbohydrate homeostasis.
Expression of the polymeric immunoglobulin receptor (pIgR), a transporter of polymeric IgA and IgM, is commonly increased in response to viral or bacterial infections, linking innate and adaptive immunity. Abnormal expression of pIgR in cancer was also observed, but its clinical relevance remains uncertain.
A human hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) tissue microarray (n = 254) was used to investigate the association between pIgR expression and early recurrence. An experimental lung metastasis model using severe combined immune-deficient mice was applied to determine the metastatic potential of Madin–Darby canine kidney (n = 5 mice per group) and SMMC-7721 (n = 12 mice per group) cells overexpressing pIgR vs control cells. RNA interference, immunoprecipitation, and immunoblotting were performed to investigate the potential role for pIgR in the induction of epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT). In vitro studies (co-immunoprecipitation, immunoblotting, and migration, invasion, and adhesion assays) were used to determine the mechanisms behind pIgR-mediated metastasis. All statistical tests were two-sided.
High expression of pIgR was statistically significantly associated with early recurrence in early-stage HCC and in hepatitis B surface antigen–positive HCC patients (log-rank P = .02). Mice injected with pIgR-overexpressing cells had a statistically significantly higher number of lung metastases compared with respective control cells (Madin–Darby canine kidney cells: pIgR mean = 29.4 metastatic nodules per lung vs control mean = 0.0 metastatic nodules per lung, difference = 29.4 metastatic nodules per lung, 95% confidence interval = 13.0 to 45.8, P = .001; SMMC-7721 cells: pIgR mean = 10.4 metastatic nodules per lung vs control mean = 2.2 metastatic nodules per lung, difference = 8.2 metastatic nodules per lung, 95% confidence interval = 1.0 to 15.5, P = .03). Furthermore, high expression of pIgR was sufficient to induce EMT through activation of Smad signaling.
pIgR plays a role in the induction of EMT. Our results identify pIgR as a potential link between hepatitis B virus–derived hepatitis and HCC metastasis and provide evidence in support of pIgR as a prognostic biomarker for HCC and a potential therapeutic target.
Xenoestrogenic compounds are abundant in the modern environment including phytoestrogens from plants, chemical by-products from industry, and secondary metabolites from microbes; all can profoundly affect human health. Consequently mechanism-based screens are urgently needed to improve the rate at which the xenoestrogens are discovered. Estrogen Receptor (ER) dimerization is required for target gene transcription. The three ER dimer pairs (ERα/α homodimers, ERβ/β homodimers, and ERα/β heterodimers) exhibit diverse physiological responses in response to ligand-dependent activation with ERα/α homodimers being pro-proliferative and ERβ/β homodimers being anti-proliferative. The biological role of the ERα/β heterodimer remains unclear. We previously developed a cell-based, bioluminescence resonance energy transfer (BRET) assay that can distinguish natural estrogenic compounds based on their abilities to activate the three diverse ER dimer pairs. Using BRET assays, we sought to identify novel xenoestrogens from soil bacteria that preferentially activate ERα/β heterodimer with hopes of shedding light on the biological function of this elusive dimer pair. Here we describe the application of BRET assays in high throughput screens of crude bacterial extracts not previously screened for ER modulatory function and originating from unique ecological niches. Here we report the discovery and biological evaluation of a new natural product, actinopolymorphol A (1), that preferentially induces ERα/β dimerization. Actinopolymorphol A represents the first representative of a new ER modulatory scaffold.
Estrogen receptor α; estrogen receptor β; BRET; xenoestrogens; soil bacteria
Evasion of apoptosis is a significant problem affecting an array of cancers. In order to identify novel regulators of apoptosis, we performed an RNA interference (RNAi) screen against all kinases and phosphatases in the human genome. We identified MK-STYX (STYXL1), a catalytically inactive phosphatase with homology to the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) phosphatases. Despite this homology, MK-STYX knockdown does not significantly regulate MAPK signaling in response to growth factors or apoptotic stimuli. Rather, RNAi-mediated knockdown of MK-STYX inhibits cells from undergoing apoptosis induced by cellular stressors activating mitochondrion-dependent apoptosis. This MK-STYX phenotype mimics the loss of Bax and Bak, two potent guardians of mitochondrial apoptotic potential. Similar to loss of both Bax and Bak, cells without MK-STYX expression are unable to release cytochrome c. Proapoptotic members of the BCL-2 family (Bax, Bid, and Bim) are unable to trigger cytochrome c release in MK-STYX-depleted cells, placing the apoptotic deficiency at the level of mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization (MOMP). MK-STYX was found to localize to the mitochondria but is neither released from the mitochondria upon apoptotic stress nor proximal to the machinery currently known to control MOMP, indicating that MK-STYX regulates MOMP using a distinct mechanism.
Fibroblast growth factor (FGF) 19 is an enterokine synthesized and released when bile acids are taken up into the ileum. We show that FGF19 stimulates hepatic protein and glycogen synthesis but does not induce lipogenesis. The effects of FGF19 are independent of the activity of either insulin or the protein kinase Akt and, instead, are mediated through a mitogen-activated protein kinase signaling pathway that activates components of the protein translation machinery and stimulates glycogen synthase activity. Mice lacking FGF15 (the mouse FGF19 ortholog) fail to properly maintain blood concentrations of glucose and normal postprandial amounts of liver glycogen. FGF19 treatment restored the loss of glycogen in diabetic animals lacking insulin. Thus, FGF19 activates a physiologically important, insulin-independent endocrine pathway that regulates hepatic protein and glycogen metabolism.
Pituitary adenylate cyclase activating polypeptide (PACAP) is a member of the PACAP/glucagon family of peptide hormones, which controls many physiological functions in the immune, nervous, endocrine, and muscular systems. It activates adenylate cyclase by binding to its receptor, PAC1R, a member of class B G-protein coupled receptors (GPCR). Crystal structures of a number of Class B GPCR extracellular domains (ECD) bound to their respective peptide hormones have revealed a consensus mechanism of hormone binding. However, the mechanism of how PACAP binds to its receptor remains controversial as an NMR structure of the PAC1R ECD/PACAP complex reveals a different topology of the ECD and a distinct mode of ligand recognition. Here we report a 1.9 Å crystal structure of the PAC1R ECD, which adopts the same fold as commonly observed for other members of Class B GPCR. Binding studies and cell-based assays with alanine-scanned peptides and mutated receptor support a model that PAC1R uses the same conserved fold of Class B GPCR ECD for PACAP binding, thus unifying the consensus mechanism of hormone binding for this family of receptors.
The androgen receptor (AR) is a DNA-binding and hormone-activated transcription factor that plays critical roles in the development and progression of prostate cancer. The transcriptional function of AR is modulated by intermolecular interactions with DNA elements and coactivator proteins, as well as intramolecular interactions between AR domains; thus, the structural information from the full-length AR or a multi-domain fragment is essential for understanding the molecular basis of AR functions. Here we report the expression and purification of full-length AR protein and of a fragment containing its DNA-binding and ligand-binding domains connected by the hinge region in the presence of its natural ligand, dihydrotestosterone. Crystals of ligand-bound full-length AR and of the AR fragment in complex with DNA elements and coactivator motifs have been obtained and diffracted to low resolutions. These results help establish a foundation for pursuing further crystallographic studies of an AR/DNA complex.
Androgen receptor; crystallization; ligand binding domain; DNA binding domain; androgen response elements
The phytohormone abscisic acid (ABA) functions through a family of fourteen PYR/PYL receptors, which were identified by resistance to pyrabactin, a synthetic inhibitor of seed germination. ABA activates these receptors to inhibit type 2C protein phosphatases, such as ABI1, yet it remains unclear whether these receptors can be antagonized. Here we demonstrate that pyrabactin is an agonist of PYR1 and PYL1, but unexpectedly an antagonist of PYL2. Crystal structures of the PYL2–pyrabactin and PYL1–pyrabactin–ABI1 complexes reveal the mechanism responsible for receptor-selective activation and inhibition, which enables us to design mutations that convert PYL1 to a pyrabactin-inhibited receptor and PYL2 to a pyrabactin-activated receptor, and to identify new pyrabactin-based ABA receptor agonists. Together, our results establish a new concept of ABA receptor antagonism, illustrate its underlying mechanisms, and provide a rational framework for discovering novel ABA receptor ligands.
PPARα is activated by drugs to treat human disorders of lipid metabolism. Its endogenous ligand is unknown. PPARα-dependent gene expression is impaired with inactivation of fatty acid synthase (FAS), suggesting that FAS is involved in generation of a PPARα ligand. Here we demonstrate the FAS-dependent presence of a phospholipid bound to PPARα isolated from mouse liver. Binding was increased under conditions that induce FAS activity and displaced by systemic injection of a PPARα agonist. Mass spectrometry identified the species as 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoyl-sn-glycerol-3-phosphocholine (16:0/18:1-GPC). Knockdown of CEPT1, required for phosphatidylcholine synthesis, suppressed PPARα-dependent gene expression. Interaction of 16:0/18:1-GPC with the PPARα ligand binding domain and co-activator peptide motifs was comparable to PPARα agonists, but interactions with PPARδ were weak and none were detected with PPARγ. Portal vein infusion of 16:0/18:1-GPC induced PPARα-dependent gene expression and decreased hepatic steatosis. These data suggest that 16:0/18:1-GPC is a physiologically relevant endogenous PPARα ligand.
The transcriptional activity of steroid hormones is intimately associated with their structure. Deacylcortivazol (DAC) contains several features that were predicted to make it an inactive glucocorticoid. Nevertheless, gene induction and repression by complexes of glucocorticoid receptor (GR) with DAC occurs with greater potency (lower EC50) than, and equal efficacy (maximal activity, or Amax) to, the very active and smaller synthetic glucocorticoid dexamethasone (Dex). Guided by a recent x-ray structure of DAC bound to the GR ligand binding domain (LBD), we now report that several point mutants in the LBD have little effect on the binding of either agonist steroid. However, these same mutations dramatically alter the Amax and/or EC50 of exogenous and endogenous genes in a manner that depends on steroid structure. In some cases, Dex is no longer a full agonist. These properties appear to result from a preferential inactivation of the AF2 activation domain in the GR LBD of Dex-, but not DAC-, bound receptors. The Dex-bound receptors display normal binding to, but greatly reduced response to, the coactivator TIF2, thus indicating a defect in the transmission efficiency of GR-steroid complex information to the coactivator TIF2. In addition, all GR mutants that are active in gene induction with either Dex or DAC have greatly reduced activity in gene repression. This contrasts with the reports of GR mutations preferentially suppressing GR-mediated induction. The properties of these GR mutants in gene induction support the hypothesis that the Amax and EC50 of GR-controlled gene expression can be independently modified, indicate that the receptor can be modified to favor activity with a specific agonist steroid, and suggest that new ligands with suitable substituents may be able to affect the same LBD conformational changes and thereby broaden the therapeutic applications of glucocorticoid steroids
mutant glucocorticoid receptors; potency; efficacy; partial agonist activity; transactivation; transrepression
Peroxisome proliferator activated receptor-γ (PPARγ) regulates metabolic homeostasis and adipocyte differentiation, and it is activated by oxidized and nitrated fatty acids. Here we report the crystal structure of the PPARγ ligand binding domain bound to nitrated linoleic acid, a potent endogenous ligand of PPARγ. Structural and functional studies of receptor-ligand interactions reveal the molecular basis of PPARγ discrimination of various naturally occurring fatty acid derivatives.
A common feature of nuclear receptor ligand binding domains (LBD) is a helical sandwich fold that nests a ligand binding pocket within the bottom half of the domain. Here we report that the ligand pocket of glucocorticoid receptor (GR) can be continuously extended into the top half of the LBD by binding to deacylcortivazol (DAC), an extremely potent glucocorticoid. It has been puzzling for decades why DAC, which contains a phenylpyrazole replacement at the conserved 3-ketone of steroid hormones that are normally required for activation of their cognate receptors, is a potent GR activator. The crystal structure of the GR LBD bound to DAC and the fourth LXXLL motif of steroid receptor coactivator 1 reveals that the GR ligand binding pocket is expanded to a size of 1,070 Å3, effectively doubling the size of the GR dexamethasone-binding pocket of 540 Å3 and yet leaving the structure of the coactivator binding site intact. DAC occupies only ∼50% of the space of the pocket but makes intricate interactions with the receptor around the phenylpyrazole group that accounts for the high-affinity binding of DAC. The dramatic expansion of the DAC-binding pocket thus highlights the conformational adaptability of GR to ligand binding. The new structure also allows docking of various nonsteroidal ligands that cannot be fitted into the previous structures, thus providing a new rational template for drug discovery of steroidal and nonsteroidal glucocorticoids that can be specifically designed to reach the unoccupied space of the expanded pocket.