Conspectus: Molecular chaperone proteins perform a diversity of roles inside and outside the cell. One of the most important is the stabilization of misfolding proteins to prevent their aggregation, a process that is potentially detrimental to cell viability. Diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and cataract are characterized by the accumulation of protein aggregates. In vivo, many proteins are metastable and therefore under mild destabilizing conditions have an inherent tendency to misfold, aggregate, and hence lose functionality. As a result, protein levels are tightly regulated inside and outside the cell. Protein homeostasis, or proteostasis, describes the network of biological pathways that ensures the proteome remains folded and functional. Proteostasis is a major factor in maintaining cell, tissue, and organismal viability.
We have extensively investigated the structure and function of intra- and extracellular molecular chaperones that operate in an ATP-independent manner to stabilize proteins and prevent their misfolding and subsequent aggregation into amorphous particles or highly ordered amyloid fibrils. These types of chaperones are therefore crucial in maintaining proteostasis under normal and stress (e.g., elevated temperature) conditions. Despite their lack of sequence similarity, they exhibit many common features, i.e., extensive structural disorder, dynamism, malleability, heterogeneity, oligomerization, and similar mechanisms of chaperone action. In this Account, we concentrate on the chaperone roles of α-crystallins and caseins, the predominant proteins in the eye lens and milk, respectively. Intracellularly, the principal ATP-independent chaperones are the small heat-shock proteins (sHsps). In vivo, sHsps are the first line of defense in preventing intracellular protein aggregation. The lens proteins αA- and αB-crystallin are sHsps. They play a crucial role in maintaining solubility of the crystallins (including themselves) with age and hence in lens proteostasis and, ultimately, lens transparency. As there is little metabolic activity and no protein turnover in the lens, crystallins are very long lived proteins. Lens proteostasis is therefore very different to that in normal, metabolically active cells. Crystallins undergo extensive post-translational modification (PTM), including deamidation, racemization, phosphorylation, and truncation, which can alter their stability. Despite this, the lens remains transparent for tens of years, implying that lens proteostasis is intimately integrated with crystallin PTMs. Many PTMs do not significantly alter crystallin stability, solubility, and functionality, which thereby facilitates lens transparency. In the long term, however, extensive accumulation of crystallin PTMs leads to large-scale crystallin aggregation, lens opacification, and cataract formation. Extracellularly, various ATP-independent molecular chaperones exist that exhibit sHsp-like structural and functional features. For example, caseins, the major milk proteins, exhibit chaperone ability by inhibiting the amorphous and amyloid fibrillar aggregation of a diversity of destabilized proteins. Caseins maintain proteostasis within milk by preventing deleterious casein amyloid fibril formation via incorporation of thousands of individual caseins into an amorphous structure known as the casein micelle. Hundreds of nanoclusters of calcium phosphate are sequestered within each casein micelle through interactions with short, highly phosphorylated casein sequences. This results in a stable biofluid that contains a high concentration of potentially amyloidogenic caseins and concentrations of calcium and phosphate that can be far in excess of the solubility of calcium phosphate. Casein micelle formation therefore performs vital roles in neonatal nutrition and calcium homeostasis in the mammary gland.