Human LC3 and GABARAP subfamily members achieve functional specificity via specific structural modulations

Autophagy. 2020 Feb;16(2):239-255. doi: 10.1080/15548627.2019.1606636. Epub 2019 Apr 28.


Autophagy is a conserved adaptive cellular pathway essential to maintain a variety of physiological functions. Core components of this machinery are the six human Atg8 orthologs that initiate formation of appropriate protein complexes. While these proteins are routinely used as indicators of autophagic flux, it is presently not possible to discern their individual biological functions due to our inability to predict specific binding partners. In our attempts towards determining downstream effector functions, we developed a computational pipeline to define structural determinants of human Atg8 family members that dictate functional diversity. We found a clear evolutionary separation between human LC3 and GABARAP subfamilies and also defined a novel sequence motif responsible for their specificity. By analyzing known protein structures, we observed that functional modules or microclusters reveal a pattern of intramolecular network, including distinct hydrogen bonding of key residues (F52/Y49; a subset of HP2) that may directly modulate their interaction preferences. Multiple molecular dynamics simulations were performed to characterize how these proteins interact with a common protein binding partner, PLEKHM1. Our analysis showed remarkable differences in binding modes via intrinsic protein dynamics, with PLEKHM1-bound GABARAP complexes showing less fluctuations and higher number of contacts. We further mapped 373 genomic variations and demonstrated that distinct cancer-related mutations are likely to lead to significant structural changes. Our findings present a quantitative framework to establish factors underlying exquisite specificity of human Atg8 proteins, and thus facilitate the design of precise modulators.Abbreviations: Atg: autophagy-related; ECs: evolutionary constraints; GABARAP: GABA type A receptor-associated protein; HsAtg8: human Atg8; HP: hydrophobic pocket; KBTBD6: kelch repeat and BTB domain containing 6; LIR: LC3-interacting region; MAP1LC3/LC3: microtubule associated protein 1 light chain 3; MD: molecular dynamics; HIV-1 Nef: human immunodeficiency virus type 1 negative regulatory factor; PLEKHM1: pleckstrin homology and RUN domain containing M1; RMSD: root mean square deviation; SQSTM1/p62: sequestosome 1; WDFY3/ALFY: WD repeat and FYVE domain containing 3.

Keywords: Autophagy; GABARAP; LC3; evolution; functional diversity; molecular dynamics; non-covalent interactions; orthologs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing / metabolism
  • Amino Acid Motifs
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Apoptosis Regulatory Proteins / chemistry*
  • Apoptosis Regulatory Proteins / metabolism*
  • Autophagy-Related Protein 8 Family / chemistry
  • Autophagy-Related Protein 8 Family / genetics
  • Autophagy-Related Protein 8 Family / metabolism
  • Autophagy-Related Proteins / metabolism
  • Binding Sites
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen Bonding
  • Microtubule-Associated Proteins / chemistry*
  • Microtubule-Associated Proteins / metabolism*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Protein Binding
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing
  • Apoptosis Regulatory Proteins
  • Autophagy-Related Protein 8 Family
  • Autophagy-Related Proteins
  • GABARAP protein, human
  • GABARAPL2 protein, human
  • Microtubule-Associated Proteins
  • PLEKHM1 protein, human
  • light chain 3, human