Structural Basis for Possible Calcium-Induced Activation Mechanisms of Calpains

Biol Chem. 2001 May;382(5):753-66. doi: 10.1515/BC.2001.091.


The calpains form a growing family of structurally related intracellular multidomainal cysteine proteinases, which exhibit a catalytic domain distantly related to papain. In contrast to papain, however, their activity in most cases depends on calcium. The calpains are believed to play important roles in cytoskeletal remodeling processes, cell differentiation, apoptosis and signal transduction, but have also been implicated in muscular dystrophy, ischemia, traumatic brain injury, neurodegenerative diseases, rheumatoid arthritis and cataract formation. The best characterized calpains are the ubiquitously expressed mu- and m-calpains, consisting of a common 30 kDa small S-subunit (domains V and VI) and slightly differing 80 kDa large L-subunits (domains I to IV). We have recently determined the 2.3 A structure of recombinant full-length human m-calpain in the absence of calcium, which reveals that the catalytic domain and the two calmodulin-like domains, previously believed to represent the unique calcium switch, are not positioned adjacent to each other, but are separated by the beta-sandwich domain III, which distantly resembles C2 domains. Although the catalytic domain of apocalpain is strongly disrupted compared to papain (which explains its inactivity in the absence of calcium), the crystal structure reveals several sites where calcium could bind, thereby causing a subdomain fusion to form a papain-like catalytic center. All current evidence points to the cooperative interaction of several calcium binding sites. Sites identified include the three EF-hand binding sites in each calmodulin-like domain, the negatively charged segments arranged around the active-site cleft (provided by both catalytic subdomains), as well as an exposed acidic loop of domain III, whose charge compensation could allow the adjacent barrel-like subdomain IIb to move toward the helical subdomain IIa. The Gly-rich S-chain N-terminus and the calcium-loaded acidic loop could target the conventional calpains to cellular/nuclear membranes, thereby explaining their strongly reduced calcium requirement in vivo and in vitro in the presence of acidic phospholipids.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Binding Sites
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Calcium / pharmacology*
  • Calcium / physiology
  • Calpain / chemistry*
  • Calpain / metabolism*
  • Calpain / physiology
  • Enzyme Activation / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary / drug effects
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Calpain
  • m-calpain
  • Calcium