The neutral sphingomyelinases (N-SMases) are considered major candidates for mediating the stress-induced production of ceramide, and N-SMase activity has been identified, characterized, and cloned from bacteria, yeast, and mammalian cells. Although the level of identity between these enzymes is low, a number of key residues thought to be involved in metal binding and catalysis are conserved. This has led to the suggestion of a common catalytic mechanism, and thus, these enzymes are considered to form an extended family of N-SMases. Despite considerable research into N-SMase activity in cell culture and various tissues, the lack, until recently, of molecular identification of specific N-SMase enzymes had precluded specific insights into the regulation, physiological, and pathological roles of these proteins. In this review, we summarize, for the first time, current knowledge of the N-SMase family, focusing on cloned members from bacteria, yeast, and mammalian cells. We also briefly consider the major future directions for N-SMase research which promises highly significant and specific insight into sphingolipid-mediated functions.
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