BAX, C-terminus, molecular switch, pH, membrane binding, computation


Apoptosis is essential for development and the maintenance of cellular homeostasis and is frequently dysregulated in disease states. Proteins of the BCL-2 family are key modulators of this process and are thus ideal therapeutic targets. In response to diverse apoptotic stimuli, the pro-apoptotic member of BCL-2 family, BAX, redistributes from the cytosol to the mitochondria or endoplasmic reticulum and primes cells for death. The structural changes that enable this lethal protein to transition from a cytosolic form to a membrane-bound form remain poorly understood. Elucidating this process is a necessary step in the development of BAX as a novel therapeutic target for the treatment of cancer, as well as autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders. A three-part study, utilizing computational modeling and biological assays, was used to examine how BAX, and similar proteins, transition to membranes. The first part tested the hypothesis that the C-terminal α9 helix regulates the distribution and activity of BAX by functioning as a "molecular switch" to trigger conformational changes that enable the protein to redistribute from the cytosol to mitochondrial membrane. Computational analysis, tested in biological assays, revealed a new finding: that the α9 helix can dock into a hydrophobic groove of BAX in two opposite directions – in a self-associated, forward orientation and a previously, unknown reverse orientation that enables dimerization and apoptosis. Peptides, made to mimic the α9-helix, were able to induce the mitochondrial translocation of BAX, but not when key residues in the hydrophobic groove were mutated. Such findings indicate that the α9 helix of BAX can function as a "molecular switch" to mediate occupancy of the hydrophobic groove and regulate the membrane-binding activity of BAX. This new discovery contributes to the understanding of how BAX functions during apoptosis and can lead to the design of new therapeutic approaches based on manipulating the occupancy of the hydrophobic groove. The second and third parts of the study used computational modeling to examine how the helical stability of proteins relates to their ability to functionally transition. Analysis of BAX, as a prototypical transitioning protein, revealed that it has a broad variation in the distribution of its helical interaction energy. This observation led to the hypothesis tested, that proteins which undergo 3D structural transitions during execution of their function have broad variations in the distribution of their helical interaction energies. The result of this study, after examination of a large group of all-alpha proteins, was the development of a novel, predictive computational method, based on measuring helical interactions energies, which can be used to identify new proteins that undergo structural transitioning in the execution of their function. When this method was used to examine transitioning in other members the BCL-2 family, a strong agreement with the published experimental findings resulted. Further, it was revealed that the binding of a ligand, such as a small peptide, to a protein can have significant stabilizing or destabilizing influences that impact upon the activation and function of the protein. This computational analysis thus contributes to a better understanding of the function and regulation of the BCL-2 family members and also offers the means by which peptide mimics that modulate protein activity can be designed for testing in therapeutic endeavors.


If this is your thesis or dissertation, and want to learn how to access it or for more information about readership statistics, contact us at

Graduation Date





Khaled, Annette


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Burnett College of Biomedical Sciences


Biomolecular Science

Degree Program

Biomolecular Sciences








Release Date

December 2007

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)