Granulins: the structure and function of an emerging family of growth factors


    The granulin/epithelin motif defines a family of structurally unique proteins, of great evolutionary antiquity, which have been implicated as regulators of cell growth. Recurrent in granulin research are the surprising parallels between the granulin and EGF systems. Both are cysteinerich peptides of approximately 6 kDa that can modify cell growth. They show similar, but not identical, biological activities, although granulin/epithelin peptides do not bind EGF receptors; the three-dimensional folds of granulin and EGF are partially superimposible; and the precursors for mammalian granulin/epithelins and EGF are both organized as multiple repeats of conserved cysteine modules. Given the dissimilarity between amino acid sequences of members of the granulin/epithelin family and EGF-related peptides, the parallelism between the two systems probably represents convergent evolution towards related solutions to common biological problems. The granulin/epithelin precursor gene is expressed throughout the body, but its expression is predominantly in epithelial and haematopoietic cells. There is a great deal of versatility in the means by which cells process and handle the granulin/epithelin precursor. In some instances, the precursor is secreted intact (Zhou et al. 1993), and in others it is stored in a vesicular organelle, such as the sperm acrosome (Baba et al. 1993a). It may be processed into small 6-kDa peptides, which, in the neutrophil, can also be stored in vesicles (Bateman et al. 1990, Couto et al. 1992). The 6-kDa peptide forms, the intact precursor, and related proteins such as TGFe, regulate the growth of epithelial and mesenchymal cells. Epithelial cells express putative receptors for granulin/epithelin peptides and TGFe (Culouscou et al. 1993, Parnell et al. 1995). Thus, although much remains to be clarified, granulin/epithelin polypeptides and related proteins are emerging as widely distributed potential autocrine and paracrine growth modulating factors for epithelial and mesenchymal cells.

    | Table of Contents