Transport of macromolecules between the nuclear and cytoplasmic compartments through NPCs (nuclear pore complexes) is mediated by soluble transport factors that are commonly members of the importin-β superfamily. In the nuclear protein import cycle, importin-β binds cargo in the cytoplasm (usually via the importin-α adaptor) and transports it through NPCs with which it interacts transiently by way of NPC proteins (‘nucleoporins’) that contain distinctive FG (Phe-Gly) sequence repeats. In the nucleus, Ran-GTP binds to importin-β, dissociating the import complex. The importin-β–Ran-GTP complex recycles to the cytoplasm, whereas importin-α is recycled by the importin-β family member CAS (cellular apoptosis susceptibility protein) complexed with Ran-GTP. Cytoplasmic RanGAP (Ran GTPase-activating protein) dissociates these complexes, freeing the importins for another import cycle. Crystallography and biochemical and cellular studies have enabled a molecular description of the transport cycle to be developed and tested using protein engineering and computer modelling. Importin-β family members are elongated flexible molecules that adapt their shape to encircle their cargoes. Ran-GTP binds at three sites along importin-β and CAS, locking the molecules into a rigid conformation that is unable to bind cargoes effectively. Interactions between transport factors and key nucleoporins (such as Nup1p, Nup2p and Nup50) accelerate the formation and dissolution of many of these complexes.

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