Structure and Function of Pulmonary Surfactant Proteins


Pulmonary surfactant is a lipid/protein complex essential to keep the airspaces of mammalian lungs open. It forms surface‐active films at the respiratory air–liquid interface, reducing surface tension to a minimum and thus minimising the work of breathing. At the same time, surfactant establishes the first barrier against the entry of potential pathogens through the large surface that lungs expose to environment. Both the interfacial and the innate defence activities depend critically on the presence of highly specialised evolutionarily conserved surfactant‐associated proteins. The structure and molecular mechanisms of these proteins have been extensively characterised in the last decades, in studies that constitute the basis for current models on surfactant mechanisms at the alveolar spaces, in health and disease. This article summarises the current knowledge on the structure–function relationships defining the molecular action of pulmonary surfactant proteins and how they are being key actors to maintain operative breathing in the lungs.

Key Concepts

  • The presence of specific proteins is essential for pulmonary surfactant to play its crucial role in stabilising the respiratory air–liquid interface.
  • Collectin proteins SP‐A and SP‐D oligomerise to form trimers and supratrimeric oligomers with multivalent binding capacities to sugars and lipids and participate in innate defence mechanisms, binding to the surface of pathogens and allergens to facilitate their clearance.
  • Surfactant protein SP‐B is essential for life; its absence is associated with an irreversible respiratory failure at birth.
  • SP‐B belongs to the saposin protein family and assembles as ring‐shaped oligomers that enclose hydrophobic channels competent to transfer phospholipids between membranes and between membranes and the interface, avoiding its exposure to aqueous environments.
  • Some synthetic peptides designed to mimic key SP‐B motifs are being used to produce alternative surfactant preparations for therapeutic applications.
  • Protein SP‐C is a very hydrophobic helical protein whose expression is linked to the differentiation of lung tissue. Its oligomerisation is associated with surfactant membrane fragmentation and their interconversions at the alveolar spaces.

Keywords: lung surfactant; surface tension; lipid–protein interactions; membrane proteins, collectin; saposin; air–liquid interface; innate defence

Figure 1. Pulmonary surfactant proteins and their role in formation and stabilisation of interfacial surfactant films. (a) Surfactant multilayered films are stabilised by surfactant proteins SP‐A, SP‐B and SP‐C, while SP‐D is obtained nonassociated with membranes at the bronchoalveolar fluid. (b) Representation of surfactant composition, in which the proportion of the different surfactant‐associated proteins is indicated in detail.
Figure 2. Structure of the proteins from the collectin family. The domain organisation of the collectin proteins is shown in the monomer. The N‐terminal domain containing cysteine residues is followed by the collagenous region and then by the helical coiled–coiled sequence (neck domain) and the C‐terminal carbohydrate recognition domain (CRD). Three monomers oligomerise to form a triple helix over the collagen‐like region and a cluster of three CRDs at the C‐terminal end. Interchain disulfide bonds at the N‐terminal region stabilise the higher oligomeric structure. The collectin CL‐43 is observed as a monomer of the triple helix structure (1 × 3). SP‐A is assembled into octadecamers (8 × 3). MBL is found in a series of oligomers but here is only presented as octadecamer. SP‐D and conglutinin are dodecamers formed by four triple helix subunits (4 × 3). Reproduced with permission from Hansen and Holmskov . © Elsevier.
Figure 3. Lung collectins SP ‐A and SP ‐D. (a) Representation of the primary structure of SP‐A showing its four structural modules: Cysteine‐rich N‐terminal domain, collagenous domain, neck domain and carbohydrate recognition domain (CRD). The crystallography structure represented corresponds to the SP‐A neck domain and the CRD (PDB 1R13). SP‐A assembles progressively from the monomer to the octadecameric structure. (b) Primary structure of SP‐D exhibiting the four structural domains: Cysteine‐rich domain, collagen like domain, neck domain and CRD. The high‐resolution 3D structure represents the SP‐D neck and carbohydrate recognition domains (PDB 1B08). SP‐D assembles from monomer to dodecamer structure.
Figure 4. Structure of surfactant protein SP ‐B. (a) Sequence alignment (Clustal Omega) is shown highlighting different types of residues: aromatic (green), basic (blue), acidic (red), cysteine (yellow) and hydrophobic (grey). The three intramolecular disulfide bonds are also shown. (b) Crystal structure of the saposin NK‐lysin (PDB 1NKL) illustrates the homology with SP‐B monomer. The model for the three‐dimensional structure of SP‐B is based on the structure of Saposin B dimer, assembled in hexameric configuration. Images of SP‐B ring‐shaped oligomers have been taken by EM (c) and AFM (d). (e) Proposed mechanism of action of oligomeric SP‐B complexes. SP‐B rings could interconnect surfactant membranes. Each SP‐B dimer could accommodate a phospholipid molecule into its hydrophobic cavity. The cartoon represents how the whole SP‐B oligomer could promote intermembrane phospholipid flows.
Figure 5. Post‐translational maturation o f proSP ‐B and proSP ‐C in type II pneumocytes. Both SP‐B and SP‐C are synthesised as large precursors, proSP‐B and proSP‐C, which are sequentially cleaved along the exocytosis pathway (ER, endoplasmic reticulum; MVB, multivesicular bodies; CB, composite bodies; LB, lamellar bodies) until they are assembled as lipid/protein complexes into lamellar bodies for their secretion. ?, Cleavage step promoted by a yet unknown protease.
Figure 6. Synthetic SP ‐B analogues used in the development of synthetic surfactants. Mini‐B sequence has been designed to mimic N‐terminal and C‐terminal helical segments of SP‐B (PDB 2DWF). The surfactant peptide KL4 sequence mimics sequence amphipathic patterns of helical segments in SP‐B.
Figure 7. Structure, sequence and oligomerisation‐promoted membrane perturbation of surfactant protein SP ‐C. (a) The helical structure of porcine SP‐C was determined by NMR in organic solvent (PDB 1SPF, without displaying the palmitoyl chains). The SP‐C sequence alignment (Clustal Omega) is shown highlighting the most conserved residues (*), cysteines at the palmitoylation site (pink) and positively charged amino acids (blue) at physiological pH. (b) The model illustrates the potential mechanism of membrane curvature induced by SP‐C in lipid bilayers.
Figure 8. proSP ‐C and the BRICHOS domain. (a) The sequence of proSP‐C is shown with the residues included into the intramolecular chaperone domain BRICHOS highlighted. (b) Crystal structure of the BRICHOS domain.


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Further Reading

Bernhard W (2016) Lung surfactant: Function and composition in the context of development and respiratory physiology. Annals of Anatomy 208: 146–150.

Guagliardo R , Pérez‐Gil J , De Smedt S , et al (2018) Pulmonary surfactant and drug delivery: focusing on the role of surfactant proteins. Journal of Controlled Release 291: 116–126.

Han S and Mallampalli RK (2015) The role of surfactant in lung disease and host defense against pulmonary infections. Annals of the American Thoracic Society 12 (5): 765–774.

Ketko AK and Donn SM (2014) Surfactant‐associated proteins: structure, function and clinical implications. Current Pediatric Reviews 10 (2): 162–167.

Olmeda B , Martínez‐Calle M and Pérez‐Gil J (2017) Pulmonary surfactant metabolism in the alveolar airspace: biogenesis, extracellular conversions, recycling. Annals of Anatomy 209: 78–92.

Orgeig S , Morrison JL and Daniels CB (2015) Evolution, development, and function of the pulmonary surfactant system in normal and perturbed environments. Comprehensive Physiology 6 (1): 363–422.

Parra E and Pérez‐Gil J (2015) Composition, structure and mechanical properties define performance of pulmonary surfactant membranes and films. Chemistry and Physics of Lipids 185: 153–175.

Sunde M , Pham CLL and Kwan AH (2017) Molecular characteristics and biological functions of surface‐active and surfactant proteins. Annual Review of Biochemistry 86: 585–608.

Whitsett JA , Wert SE and Weaver TE (2015) Diseases of pulmonary surfactant homeostasis. Annual Review of Pathology 10: 371–393.

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García‐Álvarez, Begoña, Alonso, Alejandro, and Pérez‐Gil, Jesús(Feb 2019) Structure and Function of Pulmonary Surfactant Proteins. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027639]