Cellular membranes display a diversity of functions that are conferred by the unique composition and organization of their proteins and lipids. One important aspect of lipid organization is the asymmetric distribution of phospholipids (PLs) across the plasma membrane. The unequal distribution of key PLs between the cytofacial and exofacial leaflets of the bilayer creates physical surface tension that can be used to bend the membrane; and like Ca2+, a chemical gradient that can be used to transduce biochemical signals. PL flippases in the type IV P-type ATPase (P4-ATPase) family are the principle transporters used to set and repair this PL gradient and the asymmetric organization of these membranes are encoded by the substrate specificity of these enzymes. Thus, understanding the mechanisms of P4-ATPase substrate specificity will help reveal their role in membrane organization and cell biology. Further, decoding the structural determinants of substrate specificity provides investigators the opportunity to mutationally tune this specificity to explore the role of particular PL substrates in P4-ATPase cellular functions. This work reviews the role of P4-ATPases in membrane biology, presents our current understanding of P4-ATPase substrate specificity, and discusses how these fundamental aspects of P4-ATPase enzymology may be used to enhance our knowledge of cellular membrane biology.
Keywords: P4-ATPase; membrane asymmetry; membrane biology; phospholipid flippase; phospholipid transport; protein engineering.