The insulin-like growth factor-binding protein (IGFBP) superfamily

V. Hwa, Y. Oh, R. G. Rosenfeld

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

927 Scopus citations


Over the last decade, the concept of an IGFBP family has been well accepted, based on structural similiraties and on functional abilities to bind IGFs with high affinities. The existence of other potential IGFBPs was left open. The discovery of proteins with N-terminal domains bearing striking structural similarities to the N terminus of the IGFBPs, and with reduced, but demonstrable, affinity for IGFs, raised the question of whether these proteins were 'new' IGFBPs (22, 23, 217). The N-terminal domain had been uniquely associated with the IGFBPs and has long been considered to be critical for IGF binding. No other function has been confirmed for his domain to date. Thus, the presence of this important IGFBP domain in the N terminus of other proteins must be cosidered significant. Although these other proteins appear capable of binding IGF, their relatively low affinity and the fact that their major biological actions are likely to not directly involve the IGF peptides suggest that they probably should not be classified within the IGFBP family as provisionally proposed (22, 23). The conservation of this single domain, so critical to high-affinity binding of IGF by the six IGFBPs, in all of the IGFBP-rPs, as well, speaks to its biological importance. Historically, and perhaps, functionally, this has led to the designation of an 'IGFBP superfamily'. The classification and nomenclature for the IGFBP superfamily, are, of course, arbitrary; what is ultimately relevant is the underlying biology, much of which still remains to be deciphered. The nomenclature for the IGFBP related proteins was derived from a consensus of researchers working in the IGFBP field (52). Obviously, a more general consensus on nomenclature, involving all groups working on each IGFBP-rP, has yet to be reached. Further understanding of the biological functions of each protein should help resolve the nomenclature dilemma. For the present, redesignating these proteins IGFBP-rPs simplifies the multiple names already associated with each IGFBP related protein, and reinforces the concept of a relationship with the IGFBPs. Beyond the N-terminal domain, there is a lack of structural similarity between the IGFBP-rPs and IGFBPs. The C-terminal domains do share similarities to other internal domains found in numerous other proteins. For example, the similarity of the IGFBP C terminus to the thyroglobulin type-I domain shows that the IGFBPs are also structurally related to numerous other proteins carrying the same domain (87). Interestingly, the functions of the different C-terminal domains in members of the IGFBP superfamily include interactions with the cell surface or ECM, suggesting that, even if they share little sequence similarities, the C-terminal domains may be functionally related. The evolutionary conservation of the N-terminal domain and functional studies support the notion that IGFBPs and IGFBP-rPs together form an IGFBP superfamily. A superfamily delineates between closely related (classified as a family) and distantly related proteins. The IGFBP superfamily is therefore composed of distantly related families. The modular nature of the constituents of the IGFBP superfamily, particularly their preservation of an highly conserved N-terminal domain, seems best explained by the process of exon shuffling of an ancestral gene encoding this domain. Over the course of evolution, some members evolved into high-affinity IGF binders and others into low-affinity IGF binders, thereby conferring on the IGFBP superfamily the ability to influence cell growth by both IGF-dependent and IGF-independent means (Fig. 10). A final word, from Stephen Jay Gould (218): 'But classifications are not passive ordering devices in a world objectively divided into obvious categories. Taxonomies are human decisions imposed upon naturetheories about the causes of nature's order. The chronicle of historical changes in classification provides our finest insight into conceptual revolutions in human thought. Objective nature does exist, but we can converse with her only through the structure of our taxonomic systems. 'We may grant this general point, but still hold that certain fundamental categories present so little ambiguity that basic divisions must be invariant across time and culture. Not sonot for these, or for any subjects. Categories are human impositions upon nature (though nature's factuality offers hints and suggestions in return)'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)761-787
Number of pages27
JournalEndocrine reviews
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1999
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology


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