Biochemical Journal

Research article

The lipocalin protein family: structure and function

Darren R. FLOWER


The lipocalin protein family is a large group of small extracellular proteins. The family demonstrates great diversity at the sequence level; however, most lipocalins share three characteristic conserved sequence motifs, the kernel lipocalins, while a group of more divergent family members, the outlier lipocalins, share only one. Belying this sequence dissimilarity, lipocalin crystal structures are highly conserved and comprise a single eight-stranded continuously hydrogen-bonded antiparallel β-barrel, which encloses an internal ligand-binding site. Together with two other families of ligand-binding proteins, the fatty-acid-binding proteins (FABPs) and the avidins, the lipocalins form part of an overall structural superfamily: the calycins. Members of the lipocalin family are characterized by several common molecular-recognition properties: the ability to bind a range of small hydrophobic molecules, binding to specific cell-surface receptors and the formation of complexes with soluble macromolecules. The varied biological functions of the lipocalins are mediated by one or more of these properties. In the past, the lipocalins have been classified as transport proteins; however, it is now clear that the lipocalins exhibit great functional diversity, with roles in retinol transport, invertebrate cryptic coloration, olfaction and pheromone transport, and prostaglandin synthesis. The lipocalins have also been implicated in the regulation of cell homoeostasis and the modulation of the immune response, and, as carrier proteins, to act in the general clearance of endogenous and exogenous compounds.