The type I interferon (IFN) family includes IFN-alpha, IFN-beta, IFN-pi, and IFN-tau. These molecules are clustered according to sequence homologies, use of the same cell surface receptor, and similar functions. IFN-alpha and IFN-beta have a globular structure composed of five a-helices. Their receptors, IFNAR1 and IFNAR2, belong to the class II cytokine receptor family for a-helical cytokines. Information about structure-function relationships between these and other IFNs is being provided by comparative sequence analysis, reference to a prototypic three-dimensional structure, analysis with monoclonal antibodies, construction of hybrid molecules and site directed mutagenesis. While much remains to be done, it should someday be possible to understand differences among IFNs in terms of how they interact with their corresponding receptors. Our recently identified IFN-like molecule, limitin, has weak sequence homology to IFN-alpha, IFN-beta, and IFN-omega and displays its biological functions through the same IFN-alpha/beta receptors. While limitin has antiproliferative, immunomodulatory, and antiviral effects like IFN-alpha and IFN-beta, it is unique in lacking influence on myeloid and erythroid progenitors. Further analysis of this functionally unique cytokine should be informative about complex IFN-receptor interactions. Furthermore, a human homologue or synthetic variant might be superior for clinical applications as an IFN without myelosuppressive properties.
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