BNIP3 (formerly NIP3) is a pro-apoptotic, mitochondrial protein classified in the Bcl-2 family based on limited sequence homology to the Bcl-2 homology 3 (BH3) domain and COOH-terminal transmembrane (TM) domain. BNIP3 expressed in yeast and mammalian cells interacts with survival promoting proteins Bcl-2, Bcl-X(L), and CED-9. Typically, the BH3 domain of pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 homologues mediates Bcl-2/Bcl-X(L) heterodimerization and confers pro-apoptotic activity. Deletion mapping of BNIP3 excluded its BH3-like domain and identified the NH(2) terminus (residues 1-49) and TM domain as critical for Bcl-2 heterodimerization, and either region was sufficient for Bcl-X(L) interaction. Additionally, the removal of the BH3-like domain in BNIP3 did not diminish its killing activity. The TM domain of BNIP3 is critical for homodimerization, pro-apoptotic function, and mitochondrial targeting. Several TM domain mutants were found to disrupt SDS-resistant BNIP3 homodimerization but did not interfere with its killing activity or mitochondrial localization. Substitution of the BNIP3 TM domain with that of cytochrome b(5) directed protein expression to nonmitochondrial sites and still promoted apoptosis and heterodimerization with Bcl-2 and Bcl-X(L). We propose that BNIP3 represents a subfamily of Bcl-2-related proteins that functions without a typical BH3 domain to regulate apoptosis from both mitochondrial and nonmitochondrial sites by selective Bcl-2/Bcl-X(L) interactions.
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