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Structure of the insulin receptor–insulin complex by single-particle cryo-EM analysis

Nature volume 556, pages 122125 (05 April 2018) | Download Citation


The insulin receptor is a dimeric protein that has a crucial role in controlling glucose homeostasis, regulating lipid, protein and carbohydrate metabolism, and modulating brain neurotransmitter levels1,2. Insulin receptor dysfunction has been associated with many diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease1,3,4. The primary sequence of the receptor has been known since the 1980s5, and is composed of an extracellular portion (the ectodomain, ECD), a single transmembrane helix and an intracellular tyrosine kinase domain. Binding of insulin to the dimeric ECD triggers auto-phosphorylation of the tyrosine kinase domain and subsequent activation of downstream signalling molecules. Biochemical and mutagenesis data have identified two putative insulin-binding sites, S1 and S26. The structures of insulin bound to an ECD fragment containing S1 and of the apo ectodomain have previously been reported7,8, but details of insulin binding to the full receptor and the signal propagation mechanism are still not understood. Here we report single-particle cryo-electron microscopy reconstructions of the 1:2 (4.3 Å) and 1:1 (7.4 Å) complexes of the insulin receptor ECD dimer with insulin. The symmetrical 4.3 Å structure shows two insulin molecules per dimer, each bound between the leucine-rich subdomain L1 of one monomer and the first fibronectin-like domain (FnIII-1) of the other monomer, and making extensive interactions with the α-subunit C-terminal helix (α-CT helix). The 7.4 Å structure has only one similarly bound insulin per receptor dimer. The structures confirm the binding interactions at S1 and define the full S2 binding site. These insulin receptor states suggest that recruitment of the α-CT helix upon binding of the first insulin changes the relative subdomain orientations and triggers downstream signal propagation.

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The work presented here was conducted at the National Resource for Automated Molecular Microscopy located at the New York Structural Biology Center, supported by grants from the NIH (GM103310, OD019994) and the Simons Foundation (349247). The authors would like to acknowledge the entire staff of the Simons Electron Microscopy Center at the New York Structural Biology Center for continuous help and technical support and G. Boykow, A. Ogawa and L. Zhang (In Vitro Pharmacology Group, Merck & Co.) for providing assay support.

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Author notes

    • Giovanna Scapin
    •  & Venkata P. Dandey

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Merck & Co., Department of Biochemical Engineering & Structure, 2000 Galloping Hill Road, Kenilworth, New Jersey 07033, USA

    • Giovanna Scapin
    • , Winifred Prosise
    • , Alan Hruza
    •  & Corey Strickland
  2. Simons Electron Microscopy Center, National Resource for Automated Molecular Microscopy, New York Structural Biology Center, 89 Convent Avenue, New York, New York 10027, USA

    • Venkata P. Dandey
    • , Zhening Zhang
    • , Clinton S. Potter
    •  & Bridget Carragher
  3. Merck & Co., Department of Biophysics, NMR & Protein Products Characterization, 2000 Galloping Hill Road, Kenilworth, New Jersey 07033, USA

    • Theresa Kelly
    •  & Todd Mayhood


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G.S. collected and processed the data, interpreted the results and wrote the manuscript. V.P.D. prepared the grids used in the studies, collected and processed the data and assisted in writing the manuscript. Z.Z. prepared the grids used in the study. W.P. and A.H. obtained and prepared the receptor and insulin samples. T.K. produced the binding data. T.M. characterized the sample. Z.Z., W.P., A.H., T.K. and T.M. helped in writing the manuscript. C.S., C.S.P. and B.C. helped in planning the experiments, analysing the data and writing and editing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Giovanna Scapin.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks J. Rubinstein, G. Skiniotis and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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  1. 1.

    Supplementary Figure 1

    This file contains the uncropped scan of the SDS gel used to characterize the IR sample. Molecular weight markers are reported to the left of the scan. The rectangular box indicates the portion of the scan reported in Extended Data Figure 5.

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    Life Sciences Reporting Summary

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