Eukaryotes have a remarkably well-conserved apparatus for the trafficking of proteins between intracellular compartments and delivery to their target organelles. This apparatus comprises the secretory (or 'protein export') pathway, which is responsible for the proper processing and delivery of proteins and lipids, and is essential for the derivation and maintenance of those organelles. Protein transport between intracellular compartments is mediated by carrier vesicles that bud from one organelle and fuse selectively with another. Therefore, organelle-specific trafficking of vesicles requires specialized proteins that regulate vesicle transport, docking and fusion. These proteins are generically termed SNAREs and comprise evolutionarily conserved families of membrane-associated proteins (i.e. the synaptobrevin/VAMP, syntaxin and SNAP-25 families) which mediate membrane fusion. SNAREs act at all levels of the secretory pathway, but individual family members tend to be compartment-specific and, thus, are thought to contribute to the specificity of docking and fusion events. In this review, we describe the different SNARE families which function in exocytosis, as well as discuss the role of possible negative regulators (e.g. 'SNARE-masters') in mediating events leading to membrane fusion. A model to illustrate the dynamic cycling of SNAREs between fusion-incompetent and fusion-competent states, called the SNARE cycle, is presented.
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