The Nuclear Pore Complex and Nuclear Transport


The nuclear pore complex (NPC) is an essential gateway between the cell nucleus and the cytoplasm. The NPC is formed by multiple copies of ∼30 different proteins called nucleoporins, which can be divided into scaffold, membrane‐anchored and barrier components. Thousands of phenylalanine‐glycine (FG) repeats, found in barrier nucleoporins, interact to form the selective permeability barrier of the NPC channel. Shuttling nuclear transport receptors are able to interact with these FG repeats and mediate the passage of large macromolecular cargoes through the barrier. Combinations of shuttling receptors, their adaptors and localisation signals in cargo molecules define a wide array of nuclear import and export pathways. Recent research has pointed to some dynamic features in NPC components, as well as a number of nucleoporin‐related human diseases which are characterised by highly cell‐type‐specific phenotypes.

Key Concepts

  • The nuclear pore complex (NPC) is a massive and elaborate structure formed by multiple copies of ∼30 different nucleoporins.
  • The selective permeability barrier of the NPC is formed by hydrophobic interactions among FG repeats found in a large group of nucleoporins.
  • Ions and small molecules are able to passively diffuse through the aqueous central channel of the NPC.
  • Macromolecules transported through the NPC must contain specific targeting signals for nuclear import and nuclear export.
  • Targeting signals are recognised by shuttling transport receptors which mediate the passage through the NPC channel by interacting with FG repeats.
  • A small number of inherited diseases have been linked to mutations in human nucleoporins and are characterised by cell‐type‐specific phenotypes.

Keywords: nuclear pore complex; nucleoporins; nuclear envelope; nuclear pore scaffold; nuclear transport; FG repeats; karyopherins

Figure 1. (a, b) Structure and composition of the nuclear pore complex. A schematic cross section of the NPC is shown on the right, emphasising the major structural modules (in different shades of blue) and the rotational symmetry of the structure. Membranes are shown in yellow. The whole structure is tightly embedded within the curved pore‐membrane domain connecting the inner and outer nuclear membranes. On the left: a diagram showing the division of vertebrate nucleoporins into major subcomplexes and their approximate positions within the structure. Note that the exact contact sites among subcomplexes and other features of this supramolecular assembly are still being investigated and debated.
Figure 2. Direct surface imaging of NPCs in a human cell nucleus. Primary fibroblasts were subjected to hypotonic treatment in order to expose their nuclei and obtain high‐resolution images by scanning electron microscopy. See Fichtman et al. () for further details of this procedure. Three successive magnifications are shown; starting with a whole intact nucleus and finally focusing on an area containing three individual NPCs. Smaller particles protruding from the outer nuclear membrane are thought to be ribosomes. The sample was coated with a thin layer of iridium in order to allow direct surface imaging in a scanning electron microscope. Partially collapsed cytoplasmic filaments are observed on the cytoplasmic facade of NPCs and some details of internal structures are seen through open pore channels.
Figure 3. The Y‐complex within the NPC scaffold. A three‐dimensional model showing the position of 16 copies of the human Nup107–160 subcomplex within the cytoplasmic ring of the NPC. The tomographic scaffold structure (top view, from the cytoplasmic side) shows general protein densities in grey, membranes in yellow and pairs of inner and outer copies of the Nup107–160 subcomplex in green and blue, respectively. The elongated Y‐shaped structure of a single subcomplex unit can be identified at the 6 o'clock position. Sixteen additional copies are similarly arranged within the nuclear ring, on the other side of the scaffold. Image was kindly provided by Martin Beck. See (Bui et al., ) for further details.


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Further Reading

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Wente SR and Rout MP (2010) The nuclear pore complex and nuclear transport. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology 2: a000562.

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Zagairy, Fadia, Fichtman, Boris, and Harel, Amnon(Apr 2015) The Nuclear Pore Complex and Nuclear Transport. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0026034]