Ubiquitin conjugation and deconjugation provides a powerful signalling system to change the fate of its target enzymes. Ubiquitination levels are organized through a balance between ubiquitinating E1, E2 and E3 enzymes and deubiquitination by DUBs (deubiquitinating enzymes). These enzymes are tightly regulated to control their activity. In the present article, we discuss the different ways in which DUBs of the USP (ubiquitin-specific protease) family are regulated by internal domains with a UBL (ubiquitin-like) fold. The UBL domain in USP14 is important for its localization at the proteasome, which enhances catalysis. In contrast, a UBL domain in USP4 binds to the catalytic domain and competes with ubiquitin binding. In this process, the UBL domain mimics ubiquitin and partially inhibits catalysis. In USP7, there are five consecutive UBL domains, of which the last two affect catalytic activity. Surprisingly, they do not act like ubiquitin and activate catalysis rather than inhibiting it. These C-terminal UBL domains promote a conformational change that allows ubiquitin binding and organizes the catalytic centre. Thus it seems that UBL domains have different functions in different USPs. Other proteins can modulate the roles of UBL domains in USP4 and USP7. On one hand, the inhibition of USP4 can be relieved when the UBL is sequestered by another USP. On the other, the activation of USP7 is increased, when the UBL-activated state is stabilized by allosteric binding of GMP synthetase. Altogether, UBL domains appear to be able to regulate catalytic activity in USPs, but they can use widely different mechanisms of action, in which they may, as in USP4, or may not, as in USP7, use the direct resemblance to ubiquitin.

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