Calmodulin (CaM) (an abbreviation for calcium-modulated protein) is a multifunctional intermediate calcium-binding messenger protein expressed in all eukaryotic cells. It is an intracellular target of the secondary messenger Ca2+, and the binding of Ca2+ is required for the activation of Calmodulin. Once bound to Ca2+, Calmodulin acts as part of a calcium signal transduction pathway by modifying its interactions with various target proteins such as kinases or phosphatases.
Calmodulin is a small, highly conserved protein that is 148 amino acids long (16.7 KDa). The protein has two approximately symmetrical globular domains each containing a pair of EF-hand motifs (the N- and C-domain) separated by a flexible linker region for a total of four Ca2+ binding sites. Each EF-hand motif allows calmodulin to sense intracellular calcium levels by binding one Ca2+ ion. Calcium ion binding regions are found in the following positions in the sequence of amino acids: 21-32, 57-68, 94-105 and 130-141; each region that calcium binds to is exactly 12 amino acids long. These regions are located between two alpha helices in the EF-hand motifs, the first two regions (21-32 and 57-68) are on one side of the linker region the other two (94-105 and 130-141) are on the other side.
Calmodulin binds such a wide variety of target proteins, making it especially important for it to have flexibility. Though Calmodulin's flexibility is more evident when it is bound to a target protein, NMR studies have shown that the linker region of Calmodulin is flexible, even when it is not bound to a target protein. Another important characteristic of calmodulin that allows it to bind a large variety of target proteins is the generic shape of the non-polar grooves in the binding sites. Since the non-polar grooves are generic, they don't require the target proteins to have any specific sequence of amino acids allowing a larger variety of target proteins to be bound. Together, these two structural characteristics of calmodulin allow it to flexibly bind target proteins with various shapes and amino acid sequences. For example, calmodulin binds both NMDA receptors and potassium channels which differ in length by about 50 amino acid residues.
Calmodulin's structure is very similar to the structure of troponin C (which is another calcium binding protein). They are both members of the EFh superfamily. Troponin C, like Calmodulin, has two globular domains that are connected by a linker region. However, Troponin C and Calmodulin differ in the length of the linker region; the linker region of Calmodulin is smaller than that of Troponin C. These remarkably similar structures are an example of how the EF hand motif is highly conserved in calcium binding proteins. Though they have similar structures, their functions are very different. Troponin C has a very specific function (to elicit a conformational change in Troponin I) ultimately causing a contraction in skeletal muscles. Calmodulin, evolved to bind a wider variety of target proteins, allowing it to play a role in many physiological events.
Up to four calcium ions are bound by calmodulin via its four EF hand motifs. EF hands supply an electronegative environment for ion coordination. After calcium binding, hydrophobic methyl groups from methionine residues become exposed on the protein via conformational change. Using both X-Ray and NMR studies, scientists were able to determine that the conformational changes occurred in the alpha-helices of the EF motif, which changes the binding affinity for target proteins. When the alpha helices are perpendicular to one another, the Calmodulin is in an open conformation giving it a higher affinity for target proteins. More specifically, this conformational change presents hydrophobic surfaces, which can in turn bind to Basic Amphiphilic Helices (BAA helices) on the target protein. These helices contain complementary hydrophobic regions. The flexibility of calmodulin's hinged region allows the molecule to wrap around its target. This property allows it to tightly bind to a wide range of different target proteins. The C-domain of calmodulin has a higher affinity for calcium than does the N-domain.
The C-terminal domain solution structure is similar to the X-ray crystal structure, while the EF hands of the N-terminal domain are considerably less open to the X-ray crystal structure. This indicates that Ca2+ binding causes a larger conformational change in the N-domain than in the C-domain. The backbone flexibility within calmodulin is key to its ability to bind a wide range of targets. Protein domains, connected by intrinsically disordered flexible linker domains, induce long-range allostery, or the conformational change of a protein by ligand binding to an allosteric site (a site other than the functional site), via protein domain dynamics.
Calmodulin mediates many crucial processes such as inflammation, metabolism, apoptosis, smooth muscle contraction, intracellular movement, short-term and long-term memory, and the immune response. Calcium participates in an intracellular signaling system by acting as a diffusible second messenger to the initial stimuli. It does this by binding various targets in the cell including a large number of enzymes, ion channels, aquaporins and other proteins. Calmodulin is expressed in many cell types and can have different subcellular locations, including the cytoplasm, within organelles, or associated with the plasma or organelle membranes, but it is always found intracellularly. Many of the proteins that Calmodulin binds are unable to bind calcium themselves, and use calmodulin as a calcium sensor and signal transducer. Calmodulin can also make use of the calcium stores in the endoplasmic reticulum, and the sarcoplasmic reticulum. Calmodulin can undergo post-translational modifications, such as phosphorylation, acetylation, methylation and proteolytic cleavage, each of which has potential to modulate its actions.
Calmodulin plays an important role in excitation contraction (EC) coupling and the initiation of the cross-bridge cycling in smooth muscle, ultimately causing smooth muscle contraction. In order to activate contraction of smooth muscle, the head of the myosin light chain must be phosphorylated. This phosphorylation is done by Myosin Light Chain (MLC) Kinase. This MLC Kinase is activated by a calmodulin when it is bound by calcium, thus making smooth muscle contraction dependent on the presence of calcium, through the binding of calmodulin and activation of MLC kinase.
Another way that calmodulin affects muscle contraction is by controlling the movement of Ca2+ across both the cell and sarcoplasmic reticulum membranes. The Ca2+ channels, such as the ryanodine receptor of the sarcoplasmic reticulum, can be inhibited by calmodulin bound to calcium, thus affecting the overall levels of calcium in the cell. Calcium pumps take calcium out of the cytoplasm and/or store it in the endoplasmic reticulum and this control helps regulate many downstream processes.
This is a very important function of calmodulin because it indirectly plays a role in every physiological process that is affected by smooth muscle contraction such as digestion and contraction of arteries (which helps distribute blood and regulate blood pressure).
Calmodulin also plays an important role in lipid metabolism by affecting Calcitonin. Calcitonin is a polypeptide hormone that lowers blood Ca2+ levels and activates G Protein cascades that leads to the generation of cAMP. The actions of calcitonin can be blocked by inhibiting the actions of calmodulin, suggesting that calmodulin plays a crucial role in the activation of calcitonin.
Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII) plays a crucial role in a type of synaptic plasticity called long-term potentiation (LTP) and requires the presence of calcium/calmodulin. CaMKII contributes to the phosphorylation of an AMPA receptor which increases the sensitivity of AMPA receptors. Furthermore, research shows that inhibiting CaMKII interferes with LTP.
Calmodulin belongs to one of the two main groups of calcium-binding proteins, called EF hand proteins. The other group, called annexins, bind calcium and phospholipid (e.g., lipocortin). Many other proteins bind calcium, although binding calcium may not be considered their principal function in the cell.