Clathrin (Molecular Biology)

Clathrin is the major component of purified coated vesicles (1), intracellular structures that derive from coated membrane involved in endocytosis and receptor recycling.

Clathrin-mediated endocytosis (2, 3) is the major route for the uptake of specific macromolecules into cells for example, low density lipoprotein carrying cholesterol and transferrin bearing iron. Such macromolecules are concentrated from the surrounding cellular fluid by binding to the receptors exposed on the surface of cells. The receptors, in turn, have features in their cytoplasmic tails that enable them to cluster into clathrin-coated pits and thus be endocytosed efficiently in small vesicles. (Fig. 1). The vesicles, in addition, carry other molecules that target them to an internal compartment, the endosome, and allow them to fuse with the endosomal membrane, thus delivering the cargo of nutrients into the lumen for use by the cell. Meanwhile, the coat proteins and receptors are recycled through the endosomal compartment and back to the plasma membrane. The coat proteins diffuse through the cytoplasm to reform coated pits there for a further round of endocytosis.

Figure 1. Endocytosis promoted by a round of clathrin assembly and recycling. [Taken from B.M.F. Pearse and R.A. Crowther (1987) Ann. Rev. Biophys. Biophys. Chem. 16, 49-68.] (1) Cytoplasmic clathrin triskelions and adaptors (containing specific 100 kDa adaptins and associated subunits) are triggered to assemble on the membrane in a reaction involving GTP-binding proteins with a selection of receptors to form a coated pit(2). The coated pit invaginates as further receptors and coat proteins assemble(3). Pinching-off the completed coated vesicle(4) requires dynamin to promote fusion in the neck region. Uncoating follows, releasing the vesicle (5), which carries molecules primed for fusion with the endosome(6), and the soluble coat components, which recycled). A similar coated vesicle cycle takes place in many nerve terminals. In this case, the cycle replenishes the synaptic vesicle population, whose efficient fusion with the presynaptic membrane, on stimulation, depends on, among other molecules, synaptobrevin, syntaxin, and munc18 (29-32).


Endocytosis promoted by a round of clathrin assembly and recycling. [Taken from B.M.F. Pearse and R.A. Crowther (1987) Ann. Rev. Biophys. Biophys. Chem. 16, 49-68.] (1) Cytoplasmic clathrin triskelions and adaptors (containing specific 100 kDa adaptins and associated subunits) are triggered to assemble on the membrane in a reaction involving GTP-binding proteins with a selection of receptors to form a coated pit(2). The coated pit invaginates as further receptors and coat proteins assemble(3). Pinching-off the completed coated vesicle(4) requires dynamin to promote fusion in the neck region. Uncoating follows, releasing the vesicle (5), which carries molecules primed for fusion with the endosome(6), and the soluble coat components, which recycled). A similar coated vesicle cycle takes place in many nerve terminals. In this case, the cycle replenishes the synaptic vesicle population, whose efficient fusion with the presynaptic membrane, on stimulation, depends on, among other molecules, synaptobrevin, syntaxin, and munc18 (29-32).

This system of budding coated vesicles is used again and again throughout cellular biology. Thus clathrin-coated vesicles are involved in antigen presentation in immunology (4) in delivering receptors and signaling molecules at the right place and time during development (5) and in recycling synaptic vesicle components in nerve synapses (6). In essence, clathrin and its associated proteins provide a mechanism for efficient recycling of specific receptors that are controlled in various ways. Other non-clathrin coated vesicle systems that contain a spectrum of related molecules and certain quite distinct coat components mediate sorting and recycling steps throughout the secretory pathway (7, 8). Clathrin-coated vesicles are more particularly associated with sorting specific molecules from the trans Golgi network into the pre-lysosomal/endosome network in addition to their endocytic function.

Unfortunately, viruses [eg, influenza virus (9)] exploit the endocytic system to infect cells, and various other pathogens and foreign substances do damage to cells by this route. Defects in the system are also the root cause of certain medical conditions, for example, familial hypercholesterolaemia (2), and I-cell disease (10).

1. Clathrin

The function of clathrin is to form the strong outer, or cytoplasmic, surface of the coat, a remarkable honeycomb of hexagons and pentagons (Fig. 2). This flexible, structural network accommodates extensive areas of flattish membrane or encloses a range of vesicles, the smallest of which (250 A diameter) is contained within a truncated icosahedron composed of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons (for review, see Ref. 11).

Figure 2. Field of unstained placental coated vesicles in ice. Hexagonal barrels (H), tennis ball structures (T), larger coats containing vesicle (V), and ferritin (F) are indicated. Scale bar 200 nm.

Field of unstained placental coated vesicles in ice. Hexagonal barrels (H), tennis ball structures (T), larger coats containing vesicle (V), and ferritin (F) are indicated. Scale bar 200 nm.

The modular design of the clathrin molecule is extraordinary and unexpected [Fig. 3(a)]. The overall shape is that of a triskelion (12, 13). Three heavy chains (180 kDa) and three light chains (one LCa and 2 LCb) form the three-legged structure. The C-termini of the heavy chains come together to form the hub of the structure, and the N-termini are in the terminal domains of the extended legs. The light chains are located along the proximal leg regions, possibly contributing in some way to the geometry at the vertex. Beyond the light chains, the heavy chains exhibit a kink, and the distal ends bend yet again to form a more globular terminal domain.

Figure 3. (a) Schematic drawing showing the modular structure of the triskelion. (b) Packing diagram showing how triskelions (lacking terminal domains for simplicity) form a hexagonal lattice. (c) Three-dimensional map of a clathrin cage containing 12 pentagons and 8 hexagons, computed from electron micrographs of unstained specimens embedded in vitreous ice. Each triskelion leg runs from one vertex along two neighboring polygonal edges and then turns inward. Its terminal domain forms the inner shell of density.

(a) Schematic drawing showing the modular structure of the triskelion. (b) Packing diagram showing how triskelions (lacking terminal domains for simplicity) form a hexagonal lattice. (c) Three-dimensional map of a clathrin cage containing 12 pentagons and 8 hexagons, computed from electron micrographs of unstained specimens embedded in vitreous ice. Each triskelion leg runs from one vertex along two neighboring polygonal edges and then turns inward. Its terminal domain forms the inner shell of density.

The packing arrangement of the triskelions (lacking terminal domains for simplicity) to form a hexagonal lattice is shown in Fig. 3(b). The profiles of two complete triskelions are shown at adjacent vertices of a clathrin cage in the form of a hexagonal barrel in Fig. 3(c).

In vitro in artificial conditions, clathrin exhibits its versatility as a construction molecule (Fig. 4). Among other small particles, clathrin makes cubes [Fig. 4(c)] a variant of the normal cage (14). In turn the cubes pack together to form remarkable arrays that resemble the foundations of buildings [Fig. 4(a) and (b)].

Figure 4. The most astonishing type of clathrin aggregate produced in vitro is an open square packing of cubes in a pattern reminiscent of the foundations of an ancient building visualized by (a) unidirectional shadowing; (b) negative staining in uranyl acetate (bar 0.2 ^m); (c) comparison of cubes with cages, showing from left to right, two-fold, threefold, and two four-fold views of the cube plus cages of the hexagonal barrel and truncated icosahedron type (football). The edge of the cube is more than twice as long as the vertex to vertex distance in the cages. Bar, 0.1 m.

The most astonishing type of clathrin aggregate produced in vitro is an open square packing of cubes in a pattern reminiscent of the foundations of an ancient building visualized by (a) unidirectional shadowing; (b) negative staining in uranyl acetate (bar 0.2 ^m); (c) comparison of cubes with cages, showing from left to right, two-fold, threefold, and two four-fold views of the cube plus cages of the hexagonal barrel and truncated icosahedron type (football). The edge of the cube is more than twice as long as the vertex to vertex distance in the cages. Bar, 0.1 m.

cDNAs coding for clathrin heavy chains and light chains have been cloned and sequenced (15, 16). The sequences suggest that part of the light chains form a coiled-coil structure with a corresponding part of the heavy chain to form the proximal legs. Extensive studies of the interaction between light chains and heavy chains, using antibodies and mutational analysis, have provided further evidence for the positioning of the light chains along the proximal leg, studies also indicate that the C-termini of the light chains occur at the vertex, where they might influence the structural angles involved in cage assembly (see, eg, Ref. 17). Now the prospects are good for obtaining crystals suitable for determining the high-resolution structure by X-ray crystallography from material produced by expressing parts of the triskelion (e.g., the hub region) in E. coli (17).

An interesting problem is how spurious clathrin cage formation is prevented in the cytoplasm or indeed how clathrin triskelions are disassembled from the coat structure after vesicle budding but are not prevented from forming coated pits. Recently, other attendant "chaperone" proteins, hsp70c and cofactor auxilin, have been found, which modulate cage assembly in the cytoplasm (18).

Cloning of clathrin genes has also led to further exploration of the role of clathrin by gene knockout and mutation. Deletion of the clathrin gene in yeast makes various strains very sick, slow growing, or dead. In those that survive, membrane organization is affected. In particular, the processing of pre-pro-a-factor by the kex2 endoproteinase is disrupted, leading to secretion of the immature a-factor and failure in sexual reproduction, and endocytosis of specific molecules, for example, kex2, is reduced, and the cells fill with abnormal vacuoles (19). In a temperature-sensitive mutant of clathrin, transient defects have been observed in sorting to the vacuole. The picture emerging (20) is not dissimilar to that observed in mammalian cells, that is, clathrin is involved in specific sorting steps both in the trans Golgi region and during endocytosis at the plasma membrane. These are the sites where the characteristic coated structures, now confirmed as clathrin-coated pits, were seen in abundance in early electron microscope pictures of fixed cell sections (21, 22). In a more complex creature, the slime mold, Dictyostelium discoideum (23), failure of clathrin heavy chain expression in cells impairs endocytosis and causes a lack of endosomes and contractile vacuoles, leading to defects in osmoregulation. Such cells also cannot follow the developmental program.

In Drosophila melanogaster, the clathrin heavy chain gene is essential (24). However, in flies, a dramatic effect is caused by the shibire mutation. This is a temperature-sensitive mutation in the molecule, now known to be dynamin, that is required for budding off a clathrin-coated vesicle (25, 26). At the nonpermissive temperature, the flies drop down as if dead. They cannot recycle their synaptic vesicle components in synapses and therefore cease to fly. However, when cooled down again, they start to fly as usual. These results confirm and extend the original electron microscope observations of abundant clathrin-coated vesicles in nerve synapses (27) and particularly the neuromuscular junction (28). Recent studies have identified many more components in the synaptic vesicle cycle (6) and explored their role by genetic manipulation in Drosophila and Caenorhabditis elegans [see Fig. 1; (29-32)].

In the worm, C. elegans, clathrin-mediated sorting has been implicated in the development of the vulval region (5). This study suggests that even apparently quite subtle perturbations in sorting by the coated vesicle system have profound effects in the development of a complex organism.


Recently, a second clathrin heavy-chain gene (CLTD) has been identified in humans, which has its maximal level of expression in skeletal muscle (33). This gene was found in the region commonly deleted in velo-cardio-facial syndrome (VCFS). Based on the location and expression pattern of CLTD, the suggestion is that hemizygosity at this locus plays a role in the etiology of one of the VCFS-associated phenotypes.

In summary, the clathrin molecule is an extraordinary building unit that has an intricate packing arrangement and forms coated structures of striking beauty. It carries out an important function.

The assembly properties of clathrin with the coated structures and vesicles it encloses have allowed purifying and identifying many of the other functional components involved. Chief among these are the clathrin adaptors, heterotetrameric complexes that coassemble with clathrin to form the vesicle coat.

1.1. Clathrin Adaptors

Two distinct types of clathrin adaptor complexes have been identified (3, 34). One of these (the PM-adaptor) consists of an a-adaptin (~100 kDa) combined with b-adaptin (~100 kDa) and two smaller subunits, AP50 and AP17. This adaptor is found by immunofluorescence with a monoclonal antibody against a-adaptin mainly in plasma-membrane-coated pits. In contrast, the second, the Golgi adaptor, consists of g-adaptin (~95 kDa) combined with b’-adaptin and two other subunits, AP47 and AP20, and is found by immunofluorescence using a monoclonal antibody against g-adaptin in coated pits in the trans Golgi network (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. Immunofluorescence localization of clathrin in fibroblasts showing coated pits on the plasma membrane and ii Robinson and B.M.F. Pearse (1986) J. Cell Biol. 102, 48-54.]

 Immunofluorescence localization of clathrin in fibroblasts showing coated pits on the plasma membrane and ii Robinson and B.M.F. Pearse (1986) J. Cell Biol. 102, 48-54.]

Then the problem immediately arises of how these different adaptor coat complexes assemble on the others. In fact, the problem increases as new related adaptors (35), coats and coatomer complexes (7, the intracellular membrane system. The problem is still incompletely understood, although numeroui identified in the cytoplasm and on membranes by a combination of yeast genetics and biochemistry. ways in the assembly of particular coated vesicles, their budding, and the control of membrane traffic earlier control proteins identified in post-Golgi membrane transport is Sec4, a small GTP-binding p range of GTP-binding proteins have been implicated throughout the recycling system, including Rab sense, Rho (38) and heterotrimeric G-proteins (39). For instance, distinct Rab proteins take up a chai particular membrane compartments in the cell and are found in coated pits on those membranes (40) the kinetics of fusion of vesicles from one compartment with another (41), although precisely how th is unclear. ARF, on the other hand, has been implicated in coat binding to membranes notably in the dynamins are concerned with actual budding of coated vesicles, as previously mentioned (see Fig. 1)

When clathrin-coated vesicles assemble on a membrane, they concentrate certain specific receptors i other membrane proteins behind. These specific receptors are recognized by features in their cytopla find its own characteristic steady-state distribution throughout the sorting system because each recep sequence. There is no single, defined, clear-cut sequence indicating that a receptor will assemble effi Nevertheless, at least in endocytosis, mutational analysis has pinpointed certain small groups of resic receptors that constitute primary sequence ‘features’ which allow the normal accumulation of their re Typically, such a ‘feature’ contains four residues, the first and probably most important of which is t residues (one or both of which is often charged) followed by a bulky aliphatic residue. Such tetrapep with the AP50 subunit of the plasma membrane adaptor (44). However, as more examples are studie possible signals exist and that other factors, such as phosphorylation of receptor tails, play a role in p

One of the most investigated examples of a receptor that is routed via clathrin-coated vesicles contain network (TGN) is the cation- independent mannose 6-phosphate/IGF-II receptor (MPR). The MPR r lumenal sorting signals, mannose 6-phosphate-containing sugar chains on lysosomal enzymes, and as cargo inside coated vesicles on their way to lysosomes (47, 48). The MPR has a 163-residue cytop features involved in directing the receptor along its complex, intracellular, recycling pathway, includ

tmp21-34_thumbThe tail region containing these residues, apparently, also acts as lysosomal enzymes, separately or in combination with the C-terminal region (51).

Both types of coated vesicle adaptors bind to the MPR tail. Recognition by the plasma membrane ad the tyrosine residues important for the endocytosis signal, but these same mutations do not abolish so adaptor (52). There is also evidence that the Golgi adaptor preferentially binds to the MPR tail when addition to these cytoplasmic features that determine the routing of the MPR, the extracellular domai play some role in the precise steady-state distribution of the receptor, at least in CV1 and COS cells (

1.2. Clathrin Coats

A low (~50 A) resolution three-dimensional map of a clathrin coat has been generated from electron in vitreous ice (Fig. 6) (see Electron Imaging). The major components of the coat, clathrin, and adap from purified coated vesicles and separated. Three types of particles were reassembled from these pr clathrin cage itself. The second was derived from the first by partial trypsin digestion to remove the 1 triskelions, and the third was the complete coat containing both clathrin and adaptors. Maps of each : computer imaging tilted specimens of several examples of individual particles of the three different t the incomplete structures from those of the complete coat, three different layers of the overall coat w coded in the image presented (Fig. 6). Thus the outer polyhedral clathrin lattice is highlighted in red, domains extends into the structure (green), and the adaptors form an inner shell (blue). These particl the absence of a vesicle, and in fact are actually too small to accommodate a vesicle. Probably the sn contain a vesicle is a truncated icosahedron, which can also be reconstituted as a coat. If purified coa projection they exhibit the same coat thickness composed of three shells of density, whereas the vesi of high density contained within the coat. Now a higher (~20 A) resolution version of the coat struct types of hexagonal barrel preparations and the equivalent icosahedral specimens by using improved ‘ highly developed imaging techniques currently available. This will allow further identification of sm especially if combined with specific antibodies to decorate those domains. It is also possible to genei vesicles from their cytoplasmic constituents and membranes enriched in relevant proteins in physiolo exciting prospect as it may lead to a greater understanding of the specificity underlying the assembly locate some of the controlling elements in the structure.

Figure 6. See color insert section. Clathrin encapsulates coated vesicles, the organelles responsible for uptake of essent especially across the placenta in mammals and into oocytes in chickens). (a) A three-dimensional map of a clathrin coat specimens reassembled from their constituent protein complexes. Colors highlight the outer polyhedral clathrin lattice ( domains (green) revealed in (b) and an inner shell of adaptors (blue) exposed in (c). These three maps led to the descrip LEGO model.

See color insert section. Clathrin encapsulates coated vesicles, the organelles responsible for uptake of essent especially across the placenta in mammals and into oocytes in chickens). (a) A three-dimensional map of a clathrin coat specimens reassembled from their constituent protein complexes. Colors highlight the outer polyhedral clathrin lattice ( domains (green) revealed in (b) and an inner shell of adaptors (blue) exposed in (c). These three maps led to the descrip LEGO model.

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