The neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2) tumor suppressor protein, known as schwannomin or merlin, is involved in linking membrane proteins to the cytoskeleton. Like the related ERM proteins, schwannomin has long been suspected of exhibiting a complex 3D organization caused by the association of different regions within the protein. Intramolecular interactions characterized to date are linking N-terminal sequences of the protein to C-terminal sequences. Here, we demonstrate, by a biochemical approach, the existence of a structured domain entirely contained within the N-terminal half of schwannomin. This structure, which is resistant to chymotryptic digestion, encompasses the FERM domain (residues 19–314), but excludes the 18 extreme N-terminal residues specific to schwannomin. The structure is disrupted by some, but not all, naturally occurring NF2 mutations. We investigated the significance of this structured domain in schwannomin cellular functions and found that normal schwannomin localization beneath the plasma membrane is directly dependent on proper folding of the N-terminal domain. In addition, folding of the N-terminal domain influences schwannomin interaction with actin through two novel actin-binding sites located in this region. These results suggest that loss of activity of several naturally occurring schwannomin mutants is due to disruption of the fold of the N-terminal domain, leading to loss of both membrane localization and actin association.

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