The selectivity of the ubiquitin–26 S proteasome system (UPS) for a particular substrate protein relies on the interaction between a ubiquitin-conjugating enzyme (E2, of which a cell contains relatively few) and a ubiquitin–protein ligase (E3, of which there are possibly hundreds). Post-translational modifications of the protein substrate, such as phosphorylation or hydroxylation, are often required prior to its selection. In this way, the precise spatio-temporal targeting and degradation of a given substrate can be achieved. The E3s are a large, diverse group of proteins, characterized by one of several defining motifs. These include a HECT (homologous to E6-associated protein C-terminus), RING (really interesting new gene) or U-box (a modified RING motif without the full complement of Zn2+-binding ligands) domain. Whereas HECT E3s have a direct role in catalysis during ubiquitination, RING and U-box E3s facilitate protein ubiquitination. These latter two E3 types act as adaptor-like molecules. They bring an E2 and a substrate into sufficiently close proximity to promote the substrate's ubiquitination. Although many RING-type E3s, such as MDM2 (murine double minute clone 2 oncoprotein) and c-Cbl, can apparently act alone, others are found as components of much larger multi-protein complexes, such as the anaphase-promoting complex. Taken together, these multifaceted properties and interactions enable E3s to provide a powerful, and specific, mechanism for protein clearance within all cells of eukaryotic organisms. The importance of E3s is highlighted by the number of normal cellular processes they regulate, and the number of diseases associated with their loss of function or inappropriate targeting.

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