Amino acids are necessary for all living cells and organisms. Specialized transporters mediate the transfer of amino acids across plasma membranes. Malfunction of these proteins can affect whole-body homoeostasis giving raise to diverse human diseases. Here, we review the main features of the SLC3 and SLC7 families of amino acid transporters. The SLC7 family is divided into two subfamilies, the cationic amino acid transporters (CATs), and the L-type amino acid transporters (LATs). The latter are the light or catalytic subunits of the heteromeric amino acid transporters (HATs), which are associated by a disulfide bridge with the heavy subunits 4F2hc or rBAT. These two subunits are glycoproteins and form the SLC3 family. Most CAT subfamily members were functionally characterized and shown to function as facilitated diffusers mediating the entry and efflux of cationic amino acids. In certain cells, CATs play an important role in the delivery of L-arginine for the synthesis of nitric oxide. HATs are mostly exchangers with a broad spectrum of substrates and are crucial in renal and intestinal re-absorption and cell redox balance. Furthermore, the role of the HAT 4F2hc/LAT1 in tumor growth and the application of LAT1 inhibitors and PET tracers for reduction of tumor progression and imaging of tumors are discussed. Finally, we describe the link between specific mutations in HATs and the primary inherited aminoacidurias, cystinuria and lysinuric protein intolerance.
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