Structural insights into agonist-binding and activation of the human complement C3a receptor

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The complement cascade is an integral part of innate immunity, and it plays a crucial role in our body’s innate immune response including combating microbial infections. Activation of the complement cascade results in the generation of multiple peptide fragments, of which complement C3a and C5a are potent anaphylatoxins. The complement C3a binds and activates a G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) known as C3aR while C5a activates two distinct receptors namely C5aR1 and C5aR2. Our current understanding of complement peptide recognition by their corresponding receptors is limited primarily to biochemical studies, and direct structural visualization of ligand-receptor complexes is still elusive. Here, we present structural snapshots of C3aR in complex with heterotrimeric G-proteins, with the receptor in ligand-free state, activated by full-length complement C3a, and a peptide agonist EP54, derived based on the carboxyl-terminal sequence of C5a. A comprehensive analysis of these structures uncovers the critical residues involved in C3a-C3aR interaction, and also provides molecular insights to rationally design carboxyl-terminal fragments of C3a and C5a to act as potent agonists of the receptor. Surprisingly, a comparison of C3a-C3aR structure with C5a-C5aR1 structure reveals diagonally opposite placement of these two complement peptides on their respective receptors, which helps explain the subtype selectivity of these complement peptides. Finally, taking lead from the structural insights, we also identify EP141, a peptide derived from the carboxyl-terminus of C3a, as a G-protein-biased agonist at C3aR. Taken together, our study illuminates the structural mechanism of complement C3a recognition by C3aR, and it also offers the first structural template for designing novel C3aR ligands with therapeutic potential for inflammatory disorders.

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