Evidence that α-crystallin prevents non-specific protein aggregation in the intact eye lens

P. Vasantha Rao, Qing ling Huang, Joseph Horwitz, J. Samuel Zigler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

114 Scopus citations


The ocular lens is a transparent organ comprised of a highly concentrated and highly ordered matrix of structural proteins, called crystallins, which are probably the longest lived proteins of the body. Lens transparency is dependent upon maintenance of the short range order of the crystallin matrix. This transparency must be maintained for decades in the absence of normal protein synthesis or repair capacity. We present evidence here that α-crystallin, one of the major lens proteins, plays a central role in vivo in stabilizing the other crystallins and preventing uncontrolled aggregation of these progressively modified and aging molecules. α-Crystallin has previously been shown to suppress non-specific aggregation of denaturing proteins in simple binary systems through a chaperone-like activity. Our studies using soluble homogenates of monkey lenses demonstrate a strong resistance to heat induced non-specific aggregation when the complete complement of crystallins is present; in contrast, if α-crystallin is selectively removed prior to heating, the remaining crystallins undergo extensive non-specific aggregation as indicated by light scattering. When α-crystallin is present it complexes with denaturing proteins forming a soluble heavy molecular weight (HMW) fraction but no insolubilization is observed, while when α-crystallin is absent there is heavy insolubilization and no HMW formed. When intact monkey lenses were heated it could be demonstrated that soluble HMW was generated. Similar HMW protein appears in vivo in the human lens as a function of age. These findings suggest that the soluble HMW protein present in the human lens is the product of the chaperone-like function of α-crystallin and that under physiological conditions α-crystallin inhibits the uncontrolled aggregation of damaged proteins, thereby preventing the formation of light scattering centers and opacification of the lens.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)439-447
Number of pages9
JournalBBA - General Subjects
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 14 1995


  • Cataract
  • Chaperone
  • Lens
  • Protein aggregation
  • Thermal denaturation
  • α-Crystallin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology


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