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A Timely Structure
The physiology and behavior of most organisms are inextricably aligned with the day/night cycle. In mammals, these daily rhythms are generated by a circadian clock encoded by transcriptional activators and repressors operating in a feedback loop that takes about 24 hours to complete. A key participant in this loop is a heterodimeric transcriptional activator consisting of the CLOCK and BMAL1 proteins. Huang et al. (p. 189, published online 31 May; see Perspective by Crane) determined the crystal structure of a complex containing the PAS domains (implicated in protein-protein interactions) and the basic helix-loop-helix domains (implicated in DNA binding) from each protein. CLOCK and BMAL1 were observed to be tightly intertwined in an unusual asymmetric conformation, which may contribute to the stability and activity of the complex.
The circadian clock in mammals is driven by an autoregulatory transcriptional feedback mechanism that takes approximately 24 hours to complete. A key component of this mechanism is a heterodimeric transcriptional activator consisting of two basic helix-loop-helix PER-ARNT-SIM (bHLH-PAS) domain protein subunits, CLOCK and BMAL1. Here, we report the crystal structure of a complex containing the mouse CLOCK:BMAL1 bHLH-PAS domains at 2.3 Å resolution. The structure reveals an unusual asymmetric heterodimer with the three domains in each of the two subunits—bHLH, PAS-A, and PAS-B—tightly intertwined and involved in dimerization interactions, resulting in three distinct protein interfaces. Mutations that perturb the observed heterodimer interfaces affect the stability and activity of the CLOCK:BMAL1 complex as well as the periodicity of the circadian oscillator. The structure of the CLOCK:BMAL1 complex is a starting point for understanding at an atomic level the mechanism driving the mammalian circadian clock.