The tail domain of vinculin (V(t)) contains a salt-insensitive binding site for acidic phospholipids which is masked by the intramolecular head- tail interaction in native vinculin [Johnson, R. P., and Craig, S. W. (1995) Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 210, 159-164]. To characterize further this phospholipid binding site, we have used hydrophobic photolabeling with a photoactivatable phosphatidylcholine analogue to detect insertion of protein into the lipid bilayer. We show here that, although the properties of binding to acidic phospholipid vesicles and spontaneous insertion into the bilayer are cryptic and inactive in vinculin at physiologic ionic strength, these activities of the purified tail domain can be activated by physical and chemical disruption of the intramolecular interaction between the head and tail domains. By analyzing the lipid binding and insertion activity of a series of GST-V(t) fusion proteins, we defined 55 amino acids, comprising vinculin residues 916-970, that mimic the lipid-binding and insertion activity of V(t). Predictions of secondary structure suggest that these 55 amino acids form a basic, amphipathic helical hairpin. This prediction is supported by circular dichroism analysis, which indicates that at least 80% of the residues in residues 916-970 are in a helical conformation. This predicted helical hairpin motif, which is conserved in all vinculins and is present in an acidic phospholipid-binding region of α-catenin, is distinct from C2 and PH domains, and likely represents a third type of acidic phospholipid-binding structure.
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