Among adhesion receptor families, integrins are particularly important in biological processes that require rapid modulation of adhesion and de-adhesion. Activation on a timescale of < 1 s of beta2 integrins on leukocytes and beta3 integrins on platelets enables deposition of these cells at sites of inflammation or vessel wall injury. Recent crystal, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), and electron microscope (EM) structures of integrins and their domains lead to a unifying mechanism of activation for both integrins that contain and those that lack an inserted (I) domain. The I domain adopts two alternative conformations, termed open and closed. In striking similarity to signaling G-proteins, rearrangement of a Mg2+-binding site is linked to large conformational movements in distant backbone regions. Mutations that stabilize a particular conformation show that the open conformation has high affinity for ligand, whereas the closed conformation has low affinity. Movement of the C-terminal alpha-helix 10 A down the side of the domain in the open conformation is sufficient to increase affinity at the distal ligand-binding site 9,000-fold. This C-terminal "bell-rope" provides a mechanism for linkage to conformational movements in other domains. Recent structures and functional studies reveal interactions between beta-propeller, I, and I-like domains in the integrin headpiece, and a critical role for integrin epidermal growth factor (EGF) domains in the stalk region. The headpiece of the integrin faces down towards the membrane in the inactive conformation, and extends upward in a "switchblade"-like opening upon activation. These long-range structural rearrangements of the entire integrin molecule involving interdomain contacts appear closely linked to conformational changes within the I and I-like domains, which result in increased affinity and competence for ligand binding.
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