Membrane fusion involves the merger of two phospholipid bilayers in an aqueous environment. In artificial lipid bilayers, fusion proceeds by means of defined transition states, including hourglass-shaped intermediates in which the proximal leaflets of the fusing membranes are merged whereas the distal leaflets are separate (fusion stalk), followed by the reversible opening of small aqueous fusion pores. Fusion of biological membranes requires the action of specific fusion proteins. Best understood are the viral fusion proteins that are responsible for merging the viral with the host cell membrane during infection. These proteins undergo spontaneous and dramatic conformational changes upon activation. In the case of the paradigmatic fusion proteins of the influenza virus and of the human immunodeficiency virus, an amphiphilic fusion peptide is inserted into the target membrane. The protein then reorients itself, thus forcing the fusing membranes together and inducing lipid mixing. Fusion of intracellular membranes in eukaryotic cells involves several protein families including SNAREs, Rab proteins, and Sec1/Munc-18 related proteins (SM-proteins). SNAREs form a novel superfamily of small and mostly membrane-anchored proteins that share a common motif of about 60 amino acids (SNARE motif). SNAREs reversibly assemble into tightly packed helical bundles, the core complexes. Assembly is thought to pull the fusing membranes closely together, thus inducing fusion. SM-proteins comprise a family of soluble proteins that bind to certain types of SNAREs and prevent the formation of core complexes. Rab proteins are GTPases that undergo highly regulated GTP-GDP cycles. In their GTP form, they interact with specific proteins, the effector proteins. Recent evidence suggests that Rab proteins function in the initial membrane contact connecting the fusing membranes but are not involved in the fusion reaction itself.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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