Interleukin-3 (IL-3) is a cytokine secreted by mast cells and activated T-cells known to be an important regulator of differentiation, survival, proliferation and activation of a range of haemopoietic lineages. The effects of IL-3 on target cells are mediated by a transmembrane receptor system composed of a cytokine-specific α-subunit and a β-subunit, the principal signalling entity. In the mouse, two β-subunits have co-evolved: a common β-subunit (βc) shared between IL-3 and the related cytokines IL-5 and granulocyte/macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF); and an IL-3-specific β-subunit (βIL-3). βIL-3 differs from βc in its specificity for IL-3 and its capacity to bind IL-3 directly in the absence of an α-subunit, and, in the absence of structural information, the basis for these properties has remained enigmatic. In the present study, we have solved the crystal structure of the βIL-3 ectodomain at 3.45 Å (1 Å=0.1 nm) resolution. This structure provides the first evidence that βIL-3 adopts an arch-shaped intertwined homodimer with similar topology to the paralogous βc structure. In contrast with apo-βc, however, the ligand-binding interface of βIL-3 appears to pre-exist in a conformation receptive to IL-3 engagement. Molecular modelling of the IL-3–βIL-3 interface, in conjunction with previous mutational studies, suggests that divergent evolution of both βIL-3 and IL-3 underlies their unique capacity for direct interaction and specificity.

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