The conventional view of the structure of the membrane-embedded regions of integral membrane proteins is that they are in contact with lipids that interact with the hydrophobic surfaces of the polypeptide, and therefore have intrinsically rigid α-helical structures. Here, we briefly review the evidence that in the case of integral membrane proteins with many membrane spans (including membrane transporters and channels), some membrane peptide segments are more or less completely shielded from the lipid bilayer by other membrane polypeptide portions. These portions do not need to have α-helical structures and are likely to be much more flexible than typical membrane-spanning helices. The ability of the band 3 anion exchanger to accommodate anionic substrates of different sizes, geometries, and charge distributions suggests the presence of flexible regions in the active center of this protein. These flexible substructures may have important functional roles in membrane proteins, particularly in the mechanisms of membrane transporters and channels.
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