The serpins differ from the many other families of serine protease inhibitors in that they undergo a profound change in topology in order to entrap their target protease in an irreversible complex. The solving of the structure of this complex has now provided a video depiction of the changes involved. Cleavage of the exposed reactive centre of the serpin triggers an opening of the five-stranded A-sheet of the molecule, with insertion of the cleaved reactive loop as an additional strand in the centre of the sheet. The drastic displacement of the acyl-linked protease grossly disrupts its active site and gives an overall loss of 40% of ordered structure. This ability to provide effectively irreversible inhibition explains the selection of the serpins to control the proteolytic cascades of higher organisms. The conformational mechanism provides another advantage in its potential to modulate activity. Sequential crystallographic structures now provide clear depictions of the way antithrombin is activated on binding to the heparans of the microcirculation, and how evolution has utilized this mobile mechanism for subtle variations in activity. The complexity of these modulatory mechanisms is exemplified by heparin cofactor II, where the change in fold is seen to trigger multiple allosteric effects. The downside of the mobile mechanism of the serpins is their vulnerability to aberrant intermolecular ϐ-linkages, resulting in various disorders from cirrhosis to thrombosis. These provide a well defined structural prototype for the new entity of the conformational diseases, including the common dementias, as confirmed by the recent identification of the familial neuroserpin dementias.

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