Small molecules such as retinoids, steroid hormones, fatty acids, cholesterol metabolites, or xenobiotics are involved in the regulation of numerous physiological and patho-physiological processes by binding to and controlling the activity of members of the nuclear receptor (NR) superfamily of transcription factors. In addition to natural ligands, synthetic agonists or antagonists have been identified that in some cases specifically target NR isotypes, or elicit tissue- , signaling pathway-, or promoter-selective transcriptional responses. For these ligands the term ‘selective NR modulators’ (SNRMs) has been introduced. Structure determination of apo- and holo-NR ligand-binding domains (LBDs) - some of them complexed to small coactivator or corepressor fragments - revealed the major principles of ligand-dependent NR action and determinants of (isotype-) selective ligand binding. These studies also stimulated the interpretation of tissuespecific effects of SNRMs on wild-type or mutant receptors. In contrast to the increasing knowledge on the structureactivity relationship of NRs with known SNRMs, rather basic questions remain about the regulation of orphan NRs (for which no ligands are known) or ‘adopted’ orphan NRs (for which only recently ligands were identified). Several crystal structures of orphan NR LBDs uncovered unexpected properties, contributed to the understanding of orphan NR function, and may in the future permit the identification or design of ligands. This review will (i) focus on the current understanding of the structure-activity relationship of NR-ligand interactions, (ii) discuss recent advances in the field of ‘orphan’ NR crystallography, and (iii) outline future challenges in NR structural biology.
Keywords: structure-activity relationship, snrms, holo-NR ligand-binding domains, selective nr modulators, promoter-selective transcriptional responses, transcription factors, nuclear receptor (nr) superfamily, nuclear receptor-ligand interactions