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GFAP is closely related to the other three non-epithelial type III IF family members, vimentin, desmin and peripherin, which are all involved in the structure and function of the cell's cytoskeleton. GFAP is thought to help to maintain astrocytemechanical strength as well as the shape of cells, but its exact function remains poorly understood, despite the number of studies using it as a cell marker. The protein was named and first isolated and characterized by Lawrence F. Eng in 1969. In humans, it is located on the long arm of chromosome 17.
Type III intermediate filaments contain three domains, named the head, rod and tail domains. The specific DNA sequence for the rod domain may differ between different type III intermediate filaments, but the structure of the protein is highly conserved. This rod domain coils around that of another filament to form a dimer, with the N-terminal and C-terminal of each filament aligned. Type III filaments such as GFAP are capable of forming both homodimers and heterodimers; GFAP can polymerize with other type III proteins. GFAP and other type III IF proteins cannot assemble with keratins, the type I and II intermediate filaments: in cells that express both proteins, two separate intermediate filament networks form, which can allow for specialization and increased variability.
To form networks, the initial GFAP dimers combine to make staggered tetramers, which are the basic subunits of an intermediate filament. Since rod domains alone in vitro do not form filaments, the non-helical head and tail domains are necessary for filament formation. The head and tail regions have greater variability of sequence and structure. In spite of this increased variability, the head of GFAP contains two conserved arginines and an aromatic residue that have been shown to be required for proper assembly.
GFAP has been shown to play a role in mitosis by adjusting the filament network present in the cell. During mitosis, there is an increase in the amount of phosphorylated GFAP, and a movement of this modified protein to the cleavage furrow. There are different sets of kinases at work; cdc2kinase acts only at the G2 phase transition, while other GFAP kinases are active at the cleavage furrow alone. This specificity of location allows for precise regulation of GFAP distribution to the daughter cells. Studies have also shown that GFAP knockout mice undergo multiple degenerative processes including abnormal myelination, white matter structure deterioration, and functional/structural impairment of the blood-brain barrier. These data suggest that GFAP is necessary for many critical roles in the CNS.
GFAP has also been shown to be important in repair after CNS injury. More specifically for its role in the formation of glial scars in a multitude of locations throughout the CNS including the eye and brain.
There are multiple disorders associated with improper GFAP regulation, and injury can cause glial cells to react in detrimental ways. Glial scarring is a consequence of several neurodegenerative conditions, as well as injury that severs neural material. The scar is formed by astrocytes interacting with fibrous tissue to re-establish the glial margins around the central injury core and is partially caused by up-regulation of GFAP.
Another condition directly related to GFAP is Alexander disease, a rare genetic disorder. Its symptoms include mental and physical retardation, dementia, enlargement of the brain and head, spasticity (stiffness of arms and/or legs), and seizures. The cellular mechanism of the disease is the presence of cytoplasmic accumulations containing GFAP and heat shock proteins, known as Rosenthal fibers. Mutations in the coding region of GFAP have been shown to contribute to the accumulation of Rosenthal fibers. Some of these mutations have been proposed to be detrimental to cytoskeleton formation as well as an increase in caspase 3 activity, which would lead to increased apoptosis of cells with these mutations. GFAP therefore plays an important role in the pathogenesis of Alexander disease.
In a study of 22 child patients undergoing extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), children with abnormally high levels of GFAP were 13 times more likely to die and 11 times more likely to suffer brain injury than children with normal GFAP levels. GFAP levels are already used as a marker of neurologic damage in adults who suffer strokes and traumatic brain injuries.
Although GFAP alpha is the only isoform which is able to assemble homomerically, GFAP has 8 different isoforms which label distinct subpopulations of astrocytes in the human and rodent brain. These isoforms include GFAP kappa, GFAP +1 and the currently best researched GFAP delta. GFAP delta appears to be linked with neural stem cells (NSCs) and may be involved in migration. GFAP+1 is an antibody which labels two isoforms. Although GFAP+1 positive astrocytes are supposedly not reactive astrocytes, they have a wide variety of morphologies including processes of up to 0.95mm (seen in the human brain). The expression of GFAP+1 positive astrocytes is linked with old age and the onset of ADpathology.
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