Mammals have three RAF isoforms, A, B and C, that are activated downstream of RAS and stimulate the MAPK pathway. Although CRAF (also known as RAF-1) was the first identified and remains perhaps the best studied, BRAF is most similar to the RAF expressed in other organisms. Notably, MAPK (ERK) activation is more compromised in BRAF-deficient cells than in CRAF or ARAF deficient cells (Bonner et al, 1985; Mikula et al, 2001, Huser et al, 2001, Mercer et al, 2002; reviewed in Leicht et al, 2007; Matallanas et al, 2011; Cseh et al, 2014). Consistent with its important role in MAPK pathway activation, mutations in the BRAF gene, but not in those for A- or CRAF, are associated with cancer development (Davies et al, 2002; reviewed in Leicht et al, 2007). ARAF and CRAF may have arisen through gene duplication events, and may play additional roles in MAPK-independent signaling (Hindley and Kolch, 2002; Murakami and Morrison, 2001).
Despite divergences in function, all mammalian RAF proteins share three conserved regions (CRs) and each interacts with RAS and MEK proteins, although with different affinities. The N-terminal CR1 contains a RAS-binding domain (RBD) and a cysteine-rich domain (CRD) that mediate interactions with RAS and the phospholipid membrane. CR2 contains inhibitory phosphorylation sites that impact RAS binding and RAF activation, while the C-terminal CR3 contains the bi-lobed kinase domain with its activation loop, and an adjacent upstream "N-terminal acidic motif" -S(S/G)YY in C- and A-RAF,respectively, and SSDD in B-RAF - that is required for RAF activation (Tran et al, 2005; Dhillon et al, 2002; Chong et al, 2001; Cutler et al, 1998; Chong et al, 2003; reviewed in Matallanas et al, 2011).
Regulation of RAF activity involves multiple phosphorylation and dephosphorylation events, intramolecular conformational changes, homo- and heterodimerization between RAF monomers and changes to protein binding partners, including scaffolding proteins which bring pathway members together (reviewed in Matallanas et al, 2011; Cseh et al, 2014). The details of this regulation are not completely known and differ slightly from one RAF isoform to another. Briefly, in the inactive state, RAF phosphorylation on conserved serine residues in CR2 promote an interaction with 14-3-3 dimers, maintaining the kinase in a closed conformation. Upon RAS activation, these sites are dephosphorylated, allowing the RAF CRD and RBD to bind RAS and phospholipids, facilitating membrane recruitment. RAF activation requires homo- or heterodimerization, which promotes autophosphorylation in the activation loop of the receiving monomer. Of the three isoforms, only BRAF is able to initiate this allosteric activation of other RAF monomers (Hu et al, 2013; Heidorn et al, 2010; Garnett et al, 2005). This activity depends on negative charge in the N-terminal acidic region (NtA; S(S/G)YY or SSDD) adjacent to the kinase domain. In BRAF, this region carries permanent negative charge due to the presence of the two aspartate residues in place of the tyrosine residues of A- and CRAF. In addition, unique to BRAF, one of the serine residues of the NtA is constitutively phosphorylated. In A- and CRAF, residues in this region are subject to phosphorylation by activated MEK downstream of RAF activation, establishing a positive feedback loop and allowing activated A- and CRAF monomers to act as transactivators in turn (Hu et al, 2013; reviewed in Cseh et al, 2014). RAF signaling is terminated through dephosphorylation of the NtA region and phosphorylation of the residues that mediate the inhibitory interaction with 14-3-3, promoting a return to the inactive state (reviewed in Matallanas et al, 2011; Cseh et al, 2014).