The attachment of the small protein, ubiquitin, to lysine residues serves a remarkable variety of signaling functions. In addition to its best-known role in targeting proteins for proteasomal degradation, ubiquitination also plays a non-degradative role in transcriptional regulation, DNA damage repair, and the inflammatory response. Ubiquitin is attached to substrates in a cascade of enzymatic reactions involving three separate enzymes, E1, E2 and E3. The resulting ubiquitin modification can consist of a single ubiquitin or a polyubiquitin chain in which the C-terminus of one ubiquitin is covalently linked to one of seven lysine residues on the next. The particular linkage type determines biological function: K48-linked polyubiquitin chains target proteins for destruction by the proteasome, whereas K63-linked chains play a non-degradative role in DNA damage tolerance and NF-kB activation. Monoubiquitination, in turn, places a key role in transcription activation and elongation, as well as intracellular trafficking. We study the structural basis for both the assembly and disassembly of linkage-specific polyubiquitin chains, as well the removal of monoubiquitin from histone substrates. A current focus is on ubiquitination events centered on chromatin, which regulate transcription and the response to DNA damage.
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