GPCRs (G-protein-coupled receptors) are a large family of structurally related proteins, which mediate their effects by coupling with G-proteins. Despite responding to a range of very diverse stimuli, these receptors exhibit a conserved tertiary structure comprising a bundle of seven TM (transmembrane) helices linked by alternating ECLs (extracellular loops) and ICLs (intracellular loops). The hydrophobic environment formed by the cluster of TM helices is functionally important. For example, the 11-cis retinal chromophore of rhodopsin forms a protonated Schiff base linkage to a lysine in TM7, deep within the helical bundle, and small ligands, such as amine neurotransmitters and non-peptide analogues of peptide hormones, also bind within the corresponding region of their cognate receptors. In addition, activation of GPCRs involves relative movement of TM helices to present G-protein interaction sites across the intracellular face of the receptor. Consequently, it might be assumed that the ECLs of the GPCR are inert peptide linkers that merely connect important TM helices. Focusing on ECL3 (third ECL), it is becoming increasingly apparent that this extracellular domain can fulfil a range of important roles with respect to GPCR signalling, including agonist binding, ligand selectivity and receptor activation.

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