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Keywords:

  • constitutive activity;
  • ligand binding;
  • nuclear receptor;
  • retinoid X receptor;
  • ultraspiracle

Retinoid X receptor (RXR) and Ultraspiracle (USP) play a central role as ubiquitous heterodimerization partners of many nuclear receptors. While it has long been accepted that a wide range of ligands can activate vertebrate/mollusc RXRs, the existence and necessity of specific endogenous ligands activating RXR-USP in vivo is still matter of intense debate. Here we report the existence of a novel type of RXR-USP with a ligand-independent functional conformation. Our studies involved Tribolium USP (TcUSP) as representative of most arthropod RXR-USPs, with high sequence homology to vertebrate/mollusc RXRs. The crystal structure of the ligand-binding domain of TcUSP was solved in the context of the functional heterodimer with the ecdysone receptor (EcR). While EcR exhibits a canonical ligand-bound conformation, USP adopts an original apo structure. Our functional data demonstrate that TcUSP is a constitutively silent partner of EcR, and that none of the RXR ligands can bind and activate TcUSP. These findings together with a phylogenetic analysis suggest that RXR-USPs have undergone remarkable functional shifts during evolution and give insight into receptor–ligand binding evolution and dynamics.