Native human C9 is a naturally glycosylated (7.8%) protein composed of a single polypeptide chain. The molecular weight is 71,000 Da. C9 binds to the C5b-8 complex and forms the mature membrane attack complex (MAC) on cell membranes. Each pathway of complement activation generates proteolytic enzyme complexes (C3/C5 convertases) which are bound to the target surface (Ross, G.D. (1986)). These enzymes cleave a peptide bond in the larger alpha chain of C5 releasing the anaphylatoxin C5a and activating C5b. This is the only proteolytic step in the assembly of the C5b-9 complex. C5b is unstable, but it remains bound to the activating complex for a brief time (~2 min) during which it either binds a single C6 from the surrounding fluid or decays and is no longer capable of forming MAC. The C5b,6 complex may also remain bound to the C3/C5 convertase where the binding of a single C7 exposes a membrane-binding region and C5b,6,7 can partially insert into the bilipid layer of the target cell. Up to this point the complex may diffuse away from the target cell and enter the membrane of a nearby cell. This is called bystander lysis or “reactive lysis” and can be a significant source of pathology. Each C5b-7 complex can bind one C8 protein molecule which results in the complex inserting more firmly into the membrane. The C5b-8 complex is capable of causing lysis without C9 although this is slow and requires many more complexes per cell than with C9. This property complicates C9 titrations since the precursor (C5b-8) can also cause lysis. The primary role of C8 is to catalyze the binding of C9 and each bound C9 can bind another C9 initiating formation of a ring structure containing up to 18 molecules of C9 (Podack, E.R. (1984)). C5b-9 complexes with one or more C9 are referred to as the Membrane Attack Complex (MAC) of complement. Not all C5b-8 complexes have complete rings of C9 with the average being only three C9 per C5b-8 complex. Nevertheless, these structures are capable of causing lysis if enough are formed in a given cell. Completed protein rings of C9 form the pores seen on electron micrographs and they result in leakage of metabolites and small proteins out of the cell as well as movement of water into the cell. If sufficient numbers are inserted into a cell membrane then water flowing into the cell, due to osmotic pressure, will rupture the cell membrane allowing the entire contents of the target cell (or a bystander cell) to be released. Either process may result in cell death. Originally it was thought that this required only one C5b-9 complex per cell (referred to as the “one hit theory” of lysis (Rommel F.A. and Mayer, M.M. (1973)), but this is probably not correct. For example, an erythrocyte without CD59 requires ~850 C5b-9 complexes, as measured by the number of C7 molecules, for lysis to occur (Bauer, J. et al. (1979)). Host cells protected from MAC by CD59 require sufficient numbers of C5b-9 to tie up all the CD59 and then ~850 C5b-9 in addition. Lysis of nucleated cells requires many more C5b-9 complexes due to their size and due to the presence of multiple defense mechanisms in such cells.
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