Dephosphorylation of eukaryotic translation initiation factor 2a (eIF2a) restores protein synthesis at the waning of stress responses and requires a PP1 catalytic subunit and a regulatory subunit, PPP1R15A/GADD34 or PPP1R15B/CReP. Surprisingly, PPP1R15-PP1 binary complexes reconstituted in vitro lacked substrate selectivity. However, selectivity was restored by crude cell lysate or purified G-actin, which joined PPP1R15-PP1 to form a stable ternary complex. In crystal structures of the non-selective PPP1R15B-PP1G complex, the functional core of PPP1R15 made multiple surface contacts with PP1G, but at a distance from the active site, whereas in the substrate-selective ternary complex, actin contributes to one face of a platform encompassing the active site. Computational docking of the N-terminal lobe of eIF2a at this platform placed phosphorylated serine 51 near the active site. Mutagenesis of predicted surface-contacting residues enfeebled dephosphorylation, suggesting that avidity for the substrate plays an important role in imparting specificity on the PPP1R15B-PP1G-actin ternary complex.
For a cell to build a protein, it must first copy the instructions contained within a gene. A complex molecular machine called a ribosome then reads these instructions and translates them into a protein. This translation process involves a number of steps. Proteins called eukaryotic translation initiation factors (or eIFs for short) coordinate the first step in the process, which is known as ‘initiation’.
The eIFs also provide the cell with ways to control how quickly it makes proteins. For example, when a cell is stressed, either by starvation or toxins, it adds a phosphate group onto part of an eIF protein, called eIF2α. This modification makes this eIF protein less able to initiate translation, and so the cell builds fewer proteins and conserves more of its resources during times of stress.
Once the stressful conditions are over, the phosphate group is removed from eIF2α by an enzyme called a phosphatase. This phosphatase contains two subunits: one that recognizes eIF2α and another that removes the phosphate group. However, experiments that attempted to recreate this phosphatase activity using just these two subunits in a test tube failed to generate a working enzyme that specifically targeted the phosphate group of eIF2α. This suggests that in cells this enzyme contains an additional unknown subunit. Now, Chen et al. (and Chambers, Dalton et al.) report the identity of a ‘missing’ third subunit as a protein known as globular-actin or G-actin.
First, Chen et al. looked at the three-dimensional structure of a two-subunit complex formed from the previously known subunits of the phosphatase enzyme, and confirmed that it could remove phosphate groups from a range of proteins and not just eIF2α. However, when a mixture of other proteins taken from mouse cells was added to this two-subunit complex, the complex could specifically remove the phosphate group on the eIF2α protein.
Further experiments revealed that G-actin was the protein in the mixture that, when added to the two-subunit complex, made it specifically target the eIF2α protein. Chen et al. then used a combination of biochemical and structural biology techniques to investigate the phosphatase activity of the three-subunit complex. These findings suggest a plausible molecular mechanism by which the three-subunit complex becomes selective for its target, but further refinements to the structural work will be needed to critically test these suggestions.