Bax plays a central role in the mitochondrial pathway of apoptosis. Upon activation, cytosolic Bax monomers oligomerize on the surface of mitochondria and change conformation concertedly to punch holes into the outer membrane. The subsequent release of cytochrome c initiates cell death. However, the structure of membrane-inserted Bax and its mechanism of action remain largely unknown. Here, we propose a 3D model of active Bax at the membrane based on double electron-electron resonance (DEER) spectroscopy in liposomes and isolated mitochondria. We show that active Bax is organized at the membrane as assemblies of dimers. In addition to a stable dimerization domain, each monomer contains a more flexible piercing domain involved in interdimer interactions and pore formation. The most important structural change during Bax activation is the opening of the hairpin formed by helices 5 and 6, which adopts a clamp-like conformation central to the mechanism of mitochondrial permeabilization.
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