The typical protein fold of most cytokines is a bundle of four antiparallel helices. This ‘four-helical bundle fold’ seems to be unique to cytokines and has not been detected in other proteins. Cytokine receptors, however, can be classified as a subfamily of the immunoglobulin superfamily. Cytokines using the same receptor subunits are grouped into cytokine families. The interleukin-6 (IL-6) type cytokine family comprises six members. IL-6 type cytokines may interact with three receptor subunits instead of the usual two subunits. A tetramer would be the simplest model to describe such a receptor complex, but present orthodoxy describes the active complexes of IL-6 and ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) as hexamers. Here, we summarize the structural and biochemical information on IL-6 type cytokines and discuss interactions between cytokine and individual receptor subunits at alternative positions. Contradictory results regarding the stoichiometry and assembly of signaling receptor complexes are rationalized by a new, unique model. The model stipulates that a ligand-induced transition from an active tetrameric to an inactive hexameric complex serves as a molecular switch that turns off cytokine signals in the presence of supraoptimal cytokine concentrations.
Copyright © 1999 by Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG