Neuropathy target esterase (NTE) is an integral membrane protein present in all neurons and in some non-neural-cell types of vertebrates. Recent data indicate that NTE is involved in a cell-signalling pathway controlling interactions between neurons and accessory glial cells in the developing nervous system. NTE has serine esterase activity and efficiently catalyses the hydrolysis of phenyl valerate (PV) in vitro, but its physiological substrate is unknown. By sequence analysis NTE has been found to be related neither to the major serine esterase family, which includes acetylcholinesterase, nor to any other known serine hydrolases. NTE comprises at least two functional domains: an N-terminal putative regulatory domain and a C-terminal effector domain which contains the esterase activity and is, in part, conserved in proteins found in bacteria, yeast, nematodes and insects. NTE's effector domain contains three predicted transmembrane segments, and the active-site serine residue lies at the centre of one of these segments. The isolated recombinant domain shows PV hydrolase activity only when incorporated into phospholipid liposomes. NTE's esterase activity appears to be largely redundant in adult vertebrates, but organophosphates which react with NTE in vivo initiate unknown events which lead, after a delay of 1-3 weeks, to a neuropathy with degeneration of long axons. These neuropathic organophosphates leave a negatively charged group covalently attached to the active-site serine residue, and it is suggested that this may cause a toxic gain of function in NTE.

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