RAF (rapidly accelerated fibrosarcoma) Ser/Thr kinases (ARAF, BRAF, and CRAF) link the RAS (rat sarcoma) protein family with the MAPK (mitogen-activated protein kinase) pathway and control cell growth, differentiation, development, aging, and tumorigenesis. Their activity is specifically modulated by protein–protein interactions, post-translational modifications, and conformational changes in specific spatiotemporal patterns via various upstream regulators, including the kinases, phosphatase, GTPases, and scaffold and modulator proteins. Dephosphorylation of Ser-259 (CRAF numbering) and dissociation of 14-3-3 release the RAF regulatory domains RAS-binding domain and cysteine-rich domain for interaction with RAS-GTP and membrane lipids. This, in turn, results in RAF phosphorylation at Ser-621 and 14-3-3 reassociation, followed by its dimerization and ultimately substrate binding and phosphorylation. This review focuses on structural understanding of how distinct binding partners trigger a cascade of molecular events that induces RAF kinase activation.
The discovery of the viral oncogene v-raf from the transforming murine retrovirus 3611-MSV in 1983  paved the way for the discovery of a cellular homolog CRAF in 1985  and soon after its paralogs ARAF  and BRAF . Evolutionary conservation across different species, including worms (Lin-45)  and flies (Draf) , unequivocally indicates the biological importance of RAF (rapidly accelerated fibrosarcoma) kinases (Figure 1). Lin-45 encodes a BRAF ortholog that is necessary for larval viability, fertility, and induction of vulval cell fates . Draf plays an important role in early embryogenesis . The three human RAF paralogs regulate a large number of biochemical processes, including survival, proliferation, differentiation, stress responses, and apoptosis [8–13]. RAF kinases constitute a small family of serine/threonine kinases, which control evolutionarily conserved pathways and have essential roles during development [14–16]. Thus, it is not surprising that their dysregulation is associated with progression of a variety of human cancers [16–19], pathogenesis of developmental disorders including Noonan, LEOPARD, and cardiofaciocutaneous syndromes [20,21], and cardiovascular diseases, such as pulmonary arterial hypertension and heart failure .
Evolutionary conservation of RAF family members.
Works from many laboratories have shown that RAF kinases are integral elements of the RAS–MAPK pathway, which is involved in different signaling pathways [22–27]. Activation of RAF kinases at the plasma membrane by RAS [1,28–32], together with the identification of their substrates MEK1/2 (MAPK/ERK kinase 1/2)  has provided the missing link between growth factor signals and MAPK cascade activation . The activities of RAF kinases toward MEK differ widely, with BRAF being the strongest MEK activator, followed by CRAF and ARAF [35–37]. These proteins obviously underlay different regulatory mechanisms, including binding to membrane-associated RAS proteins, phosphorylation, and dephosphorylation along with homodimerization and heterodimerization [34,35,38–41]. These and other events collectively result in RAF kinase activation .
Despite the long history, investigations of the fundamental mechanisms of RAF kinase activation have substantially lagged far behind the development of kinase inhibitors and inhibitor technologies. In this review, we summarize emerging mechanistic insights gained from structural, biochemical, and computational studies on functional interaction networks. Human RAF paralogs share evolutionarily conserved regions (Figure 1), which are functionally split into a regulatory N-terminal half, comprising a RAS-binding domain, a cysteine-rich domain, and a serine/threonine-rich region and a catalytic C-terminal half representing the kinase domain (Figure 2A). In the following, we will discuss the structure–function relationships of individual domains and motifs and their interactions with membrane lipids, RAS, 14-3-3, MEK1/2, and KSR1/2 (kinase suppressor of RAS 1/2).
Structural fingerprints for RAF kinase interactions with RAS and the membrane lipids.
Signal transduction implies physical association of RAS proteins with their effectors and activation of individual signaling pathways. Effectors specifically interact with the active, GTP-bound form of RAS proteins. These interactions occur usually in response to extracellular signals and link them to downstream signaling pathways in all eukaryotes [26,43]. Effectors act as protein or lipid kinases, phospholipase, GEFs (guanine nucleotide exchange), GAPs (GTPase-activating proteins), and scaffold proteins [44–47]. There are two major groups of effectors: one contains RAS-binding domains (RBDs) and the other RAS association (RA) domains [48,49]. Mining in the UniProt database led us to the identification of 118 distinct human proteins containing RBDs and RA domains (Rezaei Adariani, Dvorsky, et al. unpublished data). Notably, both types of domains utilize critical determinants for the interaction with different RAS proteins, particularly the intermolecular β-sheets (see next section) . Structural studies have provided deep insights into the binding modes and interaction specificities [51–53]. Detailed analysis of 16 RAS structures in complex with different RBD and RA-domain effectors has revealed that, in spite of low sequence similarity, their mode of interaction is well conserved . Yet, the precise mechanism through which effector association with RAS proteins results in their activation is still unclear. It is, however, generally accepted that RAS proteins participate directly in the activation of their downstream effectors and do not simply mediate their recruitment to specific sites at the membrane .
A striking feature of RAS proteins is the plethora of possible interactions with a large number of effectors. Notably, RAS proteins change their conformation mainly at two highly mobile regions, designated as switch I (aa 30–40) and switch II (aa 60–68) [53,55]. Mainly in the GTP-bound form, the switch regions of the RAS proteins provide a platform for the association with effector proteins, especially through their RBDs or RA domains. This interaction appears to be a prerequisite for effector activation [49,50,56–58]. However, CRAF RBD and RALGDS (Ral guanine nucleotide dissociation stimulator)-RA domains share a similar ubiquitin-like fold and contact the switch I region via a similar binding mode. In contrast, PI3Kα (phosphoinositide 3-kinase α)-RBD, RASSF5 (RAS association domain-containing protein 5)-RA, and PLCε (phosphatidylinositol 4,5-bisphosphate phosphodiesterase epsilon)-RA domains do not share sequence and structural similarity, but commonly associate with the switch regions, especially switch I [59–63].
RAF–RBD interactions with RAS proteins
Major studies were carried out in the late 1980s and 1990s with regard to RAS interaction with its effectors (reviewed in refs [52,64–69]). An interaction study of CRAF association with RRAS1 led to the identification of the first RBD (aa 51–131) . Soon after CRAF binding to HRAS was reported to be GTP-dependent [28–31,71]. Within a year, the sites of interaction between HRAS and CRAF were determined  along with quantitative analysis of the binding affinity between them . All of this occurred before the first structure revealed the CRAF RBD structure and its mode of binding to a RAS family member, RAP1A (RAS-related protein 1A) . CRAF RBD consists of a five-strand mixed β-sheet (β1– β5) with an interrupted α-helix (α1) and two additional 310-helices (α2 and α3) (Figure 2B). Consistent with an earlier NMR determination , the RBD of CRAF has an ubiquitin fold (β1, β2, α1, β3, β4, α2, and β5). The β-strands are nearly identical with ubiquitin-like protein and α-helices are packed diagonally against a part of the β-sheet. To date, several RBD structures of all three human RAF paralogs have been determined (Table 1). Superposition of all three RBD structures revealed a high structural identity (Figure 2B).
|Proteins and their complexes||PBD ID||Resolution (Å)||References|
|BRAF RBD||3NY5||1.99||Unpublished data|
|ARAF RBD||1WXM||NMR||Unpublished data|
|CRAF CRD||1FAQ, 1FAR||NMR|||
|14-3-3-CRAF CR2||3CU8, 3NKX||2.4|||
|Proteins and their complexes||PBD ID||Resolution (Å)||References|
|BRAF RBD||3NY5||1.99||Unpublished data|
|ARAF RBD||1WXM||NMR||Unpublished data|
|CRAF CRD||1FAQ, 1FAR||NMR|||
|14-3-3-CRAF CR2||3CU8, 3NKX||2.4|||
GppNHp is a non-hydrolyzable GTP analog.
A large number of kinase structures in complex with small molecules are not included.
RAF RBDs bind to the switch I region (also known as the effector loop) of the RAS proteins by forming an intermolecular, antiparallel β-sheet (β1 and β2 of the RBD and β2 and β3 of RAS), which establishes a high degree of electrostatic complementarity across the binding interface [53,77,84,85]. RAF RBDs are mainly positively charged, whereas switch I regions of RAS proteins bear mainly negative charges. Among the 10 RAS-binding residues of RAF RBD (Figure 2B, red residues), Arg-59, Gln-66, Lys-84, and Arg-89 (CRAF numbering) contribute to the high binding affinity between RAS and RAF . Genetic studies on Drosophila melanogaster have shown that Arg-89 is strongly involved in the RAS–RAF interaction both in vivo and in vitro. Its substitution for leucine (R89L) abolishes RAS association and consequently activation of CRAF . The R89T mutation has been reported in breast cancer . This mutation may impair RAS–CRAF interaction, since a conservative substitution of Arg-89 for lysine (R89K) disabled CRAF RBD binding to HRAS . Collectively, a search in cancer databases showed that among the 10 RAS-binding in RAF paralogs, seven residues are mutated in human cancer (Supplementary Table S1).
Arg-59 represents a point of RAF paralog discrimination as ARAF, in contrast with BRAF and CRAF, contains a lysine (Lys-22) instead of arginine (Figure 1). CRAF(R59K) loses its proper binding to HRAS, whereas ARAF(K22R) gains a higher affinity for HRAS . The substitution of the conserved Gln-66 among three RAF paralogs for histidine in CRAF and for proline in ARAF (aa 29) has been reported in breast and colorectal carcinoma [91,92]. Lys-84, which is conserved in all species (Figure 1), is responsible for effector specificity and favors the complex formation of CRAF with HRAS in preference to RAP1A. Its substitution for alanine strongly reduces its binding affinity to RAS proteins [86,93]. An interesting observation is that A85K mutation tremendously increases CRAF binding not only to GTP-bound HRAS  but also to GDP-bound HRAS .
Membrane association of RAF RBDs
Cellular membranes play a critical role in the localization and orientation of protein complexes and in fine-tuning of protein functions . As outlined above, the activity of RAS and RAF paralogs is regulated through different parameters, including membrane association. Analysis of dynamic interactions between KRAS4B and lipid bilayer membrane has revealed that association of ARAF RBD with active KRAS4B not only reorients KRAS4B at the membrane surface but also facilitates membrane binding of ARAF RBD itself . This is in agreement with previous observation that disrupted RAS-association of ARAF full-length disturbs its membrane localization when substituting Arg-52 for leucine (as well as R89L in CRAF) [96,97]. Four basic residues, Lys-28, Lys-66, Arg-68, and Lys-69 (ARAF numbering), are engaged in lipid binding, two of which are identical in RAF kinases, while the other two are variable (Figure 2B). Notably, mutations of Lys-28, Arg-52, Lys-66, Arg-68, and Lys-69 in ARAF have been reported in human cancer [88,98–100]. BRAF strikingly contains acidic residues at positions equivalent to Lys-66 and Arg-68 (not only in human but also in other species; Figure 1), which most probably repel membrane lipids. BRAF and CRAF studies have shown that they significantly differ regarding their interactions with HRAS . BRAF binds RAS with higher affinities and does not discriminate between farnesylated and nonfarnesylated HRAS when compared with CRAF. The farnesyl moiety of HRAS has been reported to promote CRAF CRD (cysteine-rich domain) association with HRAS (see the next section).
The second domain following RBD in the conserved region 1 (CR1) is a CRD (also called cysteine-rich region or C-kinase homologous domain 1), which is connected through a short flexible linker [102,103]. CRD shows high conservation among different species (Figure 1) and appears to bind membrane lipids via residues 143–160 (Figure 2C), which are conserved among different species (Figure 1). Point mutations of Arg-143 to tryptophan, glutamine, or leucine in CRAF and the equivalent Arg-239 in BRAF to glutamine have been identified in breast and lung carcinoma as well as in melanoma [88,104]. Substitution of Arg-103 and Lys-104 in ARAF CRD (Arg-143 and Lys-144 in CRAF, respectively) for alanine has been shown to disrupt ARAF membrane binding and results in its localization in the cytosol . Two very recent computational studies have analyzed dynamic interaction of KRAS4B with the CRAF RBD–CRD tandem at anionic membranes and proposed how the RAF–RAS complex is regulated at the membrane interface [103,105]. Accordingly, RAF association with the membrane starts with direct binding of RBD to GTP-bound RAS followed by CRD association to the phosphatidylserine-containing liposomes. CRD–membrane interaction is stabilized, in addition to basic residues, by four highly conserved hydrophobic amino acids, Thr-145, Leu-147, Leu-149, Phe-158 Leu-159, Leu160, and Asp-161 (Figure 1). Numerous studies have reported that CRD also binds RAS with low affinity [56,101,105–116]. This may lead to a competitive mechanism between membrane binding of CRAF CRD and its association with KRAS4B . Unlike others reports, these two studies have shown that CRD is in the vicinity, but does contact RAS and/or its farnesyl moiety [103,105]. Membrane binding of CRD stabilizes RAS–RAF interaction and, thus, facilitates RAF activation. Farnesylation and carboxymethylation of Cys-186 of HRAS together with hydrophobic amino acids of CRAF CRD have been suggested to strengthen HRAS–CRAF interaction . CRDs contain two functional zinc-binding motifs and bind membrane lipids such as phosphatidic acid and phosphatidylserine [58,117–119]. Substitution of two invariant zinc-binding cysteines for serines (C165S/C168S) [96,120] and three basic residues for alanine (Agr-143, Lys-144, and Lys-148) (Figure 2C) diminishes HRAS-dependent activation of CRAF and CRD association with phosphatidylserine-containing liposomes .
Several studies have previously shown that CRAF CRD undergoes direct interaction with HRAS, which appears to be enhanced by the farnesyl moiety if using farnesylated RAS [57,101,103,105,107,113,116]. In contrast with RAF RBD, which binds to GTP-bound RAS, HRAS–CRAF CRD interaction is outside the switch regions of HRAS and thus independent of its nucleotide-bound state. This interaction is compromised if Leu-149 and Phe-151 in CRAF CRD were substituted for threonine and glutamine (L149T/F151Q), respectively . L149F substitution in BRAF (L245F) has been detected in melanoma and cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (NSEuroNet database) (COSMIC database) , which may potentiate BRAF CRD interaction with RAS and/or membrane.
RAS–RAF interactions at the membrane interface
Cellular membranes play a critical role in the localization and orientation of protein complexes and in fine-tuning of protein functions . As outlined above, the diversity of RAS and RAF paralogs is regulated through different parameters, including membrane association. For example, orientation of the RAS G domain on the membrane (for more details, see refs [54,123–130]) and intrinsic membrane-binding site of RAF, such as CRD of RAF (see above). In addition, NMR measurements of nanodisc-tethered complexes of isotopically labeled KRAS4B-GTP with ARAF RBD have recently shown that ARAF RBD directly contacts the anionic membrane surface, while KRAS4B-GTP adopts a new semi-exposed orientation intermediate between the exposed and occluded orientations . The only residue of the KRAS4B G domain contacting the membrane is R41, which is conserved in numerous RAS proteins. ARAF residues engaged in membrane binding (Lys-66, Arg-68, and Lys-69; Figure 1B) are highly conserved in ARAF and CRAF proteins from different organisms except Xenopous laevis and Caenorhabditis elegans (Figure 1). These basic residues remarkably are acidic in BRAF proteins, suggesting distinct mechanistic differences between the RAF paralogs. In contrast, membrane-binding residues of RAF CRD are conserved within various species, which may stabilize RAS–RAF interaction and thus facilitates RAF activation.
This very short region, also called conserved region 2 (CR2; Figure 2A), is a central module in negative regulation of RAF function. Its phosphorylation at Ser-259 (CRAF numbering) followed by 14-3-3 binding locks RAF kinases in a so-called autoinhibited state  that blocks both RAS binding and RAF kinase activity [132,133]. CR2 is the substrate of PKA (protein kinase A) and PKB (protein kinase B)/AKTs [134–136]. Gain-of-function mutations in this region are associated with the development of tumors and RASopathies [137,138]. Point mutations in CR2, including R256S, S257L, S259F, and T260R, cause cancer or are associated with developmental disorders (Supplementary Table S2), e.g. hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in Noonan syndrome [79,137–139].
Phosphorylation of RAF paralogs at Ser-259 (CRAF numbering) leads to the association of 14-3-3 proteins and the stabilization of RAF paralogs in their inactive state [79,88,137–143]. 14-3-3 proteins are ubiquitous adaptor proteins, which serve as scaffold proteins in many cellular functions [79,144]. In humans, seven distinct genes encode for nine paralogs (α, β, γ, δ, ε, η, σ, τ, and ζ), which adopt a homo-/heterodimeric [145,146], W-like structure with the two concave surfaces facing the same side of the molecule, whereby the dimer forms a binding groove . They selectively bind peptide motifs, such as RSXpSXP (single amino acids code; pS, phosphor-serine; X, any amino acid); arginine, serine, and proline residues, which are important for high-affinity interactions . This motif is identical in RAF kinases (Figures 1 and 2D) regardless of the binding sites. Phosphorylated serines in CRAF, including Ser-259 and Ser-621, already identified in 1993  are key phosphorylation sites in two distinct motifs in the RAF kinases (Figure 2D) . In contrast to pSer-259, an inhibitory 14-3-3-binding site [79,131,133], 14-3-3 association with pSer-621 in a conserved region (CR3) stabilizes the active state of the RAF kinases . All 14-3-3 paralogs are able to modulate RAF kinase function due to invariant RAF-binding residues and similar tertiary structure of all 14-3-3 proteins (Figure 2D).
Catalytic kinase domain
The molecular mechanism for the RAF activation in the cell involves a series of complex processes that lead to conformational changes, dimerization, and ultimately activation of the kinase domain . The latter constitutes a major part of CR3, which has all known signatures of protein kinases , including the two lobes moving relative to each other and consequently opening or closing the catalytic cleft. In an open form, the small lobe with an antiparallel β-sheet structure binds and orients ATP. In the closed form, the α-helical large lobe binds the protein substrates, such as ubiquitously expressed MEK1/2 (Figure 2E). As RAF dimerization is a key step in pathway activation, the RAF kinases activate MEK1/2 by phosphorylating them at two serines (Ser-218/Ser-222 in MEK1) in the catalytic domain [151,152]. An inspection of amino acid sequences of RAF kinases from different organisms showed identical MEK-binding residues (Figure 1) . However, it is known that RAF kinases differ in their kinase activities. BRAF followed by CRAF and ARAF exhibits the highest MEK activation [35,36]. This can be attributed to dimerization-induced allosteric regulation of protein kinases . RAF kinases form both homodimers and heterodimers, which is crucial for substrate recognition, catalytic efficiency, and substrate specificity . The CRAF/BRAF heterodimers represent the most effective form for MEK phosphorylation when compared with any form of monomers or homodimers . The structure of BRAF kinase domain and MEK1 is insensitive to BRAF dimerization but sensitive to the active conformation of the BRAF kinase and MEK1 phosphorylation, which in turn leads to destabilization of the RAF–MEK1 heterotetrameric complex .
Approximately 200 BRAF mutations have been identified in human tumors (see Supplementary Table S1). Based on their mechanism of activation, they can be categorized into three groups corresponding to their sensitivity to inhibitors. Group one mutations (e.g. V600E/K/D/R) signal as monomers and have been suggested to act in a RAS-independent manner [154,155]. Therefore, they are sensitive to BRAF monomer inhibitors. Group 2 mutations (e.g. K601E or G469A, R509H) signal as constitutive dimers and are RAS-independent; hence, they are resistant to RAF inhibitor vemurafenib and may be sensitive to novel MEK inhibitors or RAF dimer inhibitors [154,156]. However, group three mutations have impaired kinase activity (D594G/N) or have low kinase activity (G466V/E). This group is RAS-dependent, and by increasing their binding to RAS or activation of receptors activate ERK (extracellular signal-regulated kinase) signaling .
Scaffolding RAF kinases by KSR1/2
Scaffolding proteins play an essential role in regulating the MAPK pathway activity [157–159]. MAPK scaffold proteins especially are dynamic entities that (i) directly interact with multiple components of the MAPK signaling complex, (ii) consolidate or sequester protein interactions to physically insulate the MAPK pathway to specific cellular locations, and (iii) regulate signal strength and stimulus-specific responses to efficiently transmit MAPK signals in a spatiotemporal manner and narrow its actions [157,160,161]. Scaffold proteins regulating MAPK signaling include KSR1/2 [162–164], MORG1 , MP1 , paxillin , β-arrestin , MEKK1 , and FHL1 . KSR1/2, which belongs to the best characterized MAPK scaffold proteins, controls the signaling strength and duration of the RAF/MEK/ERK complex at the plasma membrane [157,159].
KSR1/2 are pseudokinases homologous to RAF kinases but lack the ability to interact with RAS proteins [83,171]. KSR co-ordinates the assembly of a multiprotein complex containing RAF, MEK, and ERK and facilitates signal transduction from RAS to ERK . Nguyen et al.  did not observe that KSR binds to CRAF or BRAF in vivo. However, Lavoie et al. have shown that the selective heterodimerization of BRAF with KSR1 directly binds to a BRAF-specific region (BRS) at the N-terminus of BRAF through the coiled-coil/sterile α-motif (CC-SAM). BRS (∼60 aa) forms an α-hairpin which consists of two antiparallel α-helices connected by a short turn (Figure 2F) .
In BRAF, I666R mutation disabled binding to MEK1 as well as prevented MEK1 phosphorylation, and in KSR1, W831R mutation abolished MEK1 binding . The crystal structure of the KSR2 kinase domain bound to MEK1 through activation segments and C-lope αG helix reveals that residues Ser-218 and Ser-222 are located at the heterodimer interface and are masked by KSR2, making them unaccessible for RAF phosphorylation . Isolated MEK1–BRAF–14-3-3 complexes proved the stable BRAF–MEK1 interaction in the presence of 14-3-3 . Interestingly, MEK promotes, independently of its catalytic function, BRAF-KSR1/2 heterodimerization and allosterically activates BRAF . A recent study has shown that a direct binding of tumor suppressor DIRAS3 with KSR1 interferes with RAS-induced cell transformation. DIRAS3 either enhances homodimerization of KSR1 or recruits KSR1 to the RAS–CRAF complex and thereby sequesters CRAF from binding to BRAF .
Emerging evidence indicates that sequential RAS binding of the two N-terminal RAF domains, first by RBD and then followed by CRD at the membrane, induces a conformational change in RAF and results in the release of the C-terminal kinase domain. This mechanism requires additional functions, including dimerization [35,95,160,161,176–180]. Lipid membranes act not only as a platform for the assembly of protein complexes but also as a scaffold to stabilize protein–protein interactions and potentiate the signal transduction [35,36,54]. Future analysis of protein interaction networks along with the network reconstitution at liposomes using purified proteins will provide further mechanistic insights into RAS-mediated RAF activation.
RAF kinases are known to regulate, in addition to MEK1/2, also adenylyl cyclase, ASK1, calcineurin, CDC25, DMPK, MST2, MYPT, Rb, ROCK, troponin T, and vimentin, thereby controlling different processes, such as proliferation, differentiation, apoptosis, and contraction and motility, respectively [13,14,181–183]. However, the mechanisms how RAF kinases regulate these proteins still need to be addressed in greater detail in a cell-type-specific manner.
conserved region 2
extracellular signal-regulated kinase
mitogen-activated protein kinase
- RA domain
RAS association domain
rapidly accelerated fibrosarcoma
RAS association domain family proteins
RAS homolog enriched in brain
kinase suppressor of RAS
The present study was supported by the Research Committee of the Medical Faculty of the Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf [FoKo; grant number 9772690]; the European Network on Noonan Syndrome and Related Disorders (NSEuroNet); the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) — German Network of RASopathy Research (GeNeRARe; projects P4 and P5); the German Research Foundation [Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft or DFG; AH 92/8-1]; and the International Research Training Group 1902 Intra- and Interorgan Communication of the Cardiovascular System [IRTG 1902-P6].
We are grateful to our colleagues from the Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology II of Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf for their support. We apologize to the many scientists and colleagues whose original studies were not included in this Review.
The Authors declare that there are no competing interests associated with the manuscript.