Protein folding is the process by which a protein structure assumes its functional shape or conformation. All protein molecules are heterogeneous unbranched chains of amino acids. By coiling and folding into a specific three-dimensional shape they are able to perform their biological function.
In all eukaryotic cells, the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is an intracellular organelle where folding and assembly occurs for proteins destined to the extracellular space, plasma membrane, and the exo/endocytic compartments. As a protein-folding compartment, the ER is exquisitely sensitive to alterations in homeostasis and provides stringent quality control systems to ensure that only correctly folded proteins transit to the Golgi and unfolded or misfolded proteins are retained and ultimately degraded. A number of biochemical and physiological stimuli, such as perturbation in calcium homeostasis or redox status, elevated secretory protein synthesis, expression of misfolded proteins, sugar/glucose deprivation, altered glycosylation, and overloading of cholesterol can disrupt ER homeostasis, impose stress to the ER, and subsequently lead to accumulation of unfolded or misfolded proteins in the ER lumen. The ER has evolved highly specific signalling pathways called the unfolded protein response (UPR) to cope with the accumulation of unfolded or misfolded proteins. Elucidation of the molecular mechanisms by which accumulation of unfolded proteins in the ER transmits a signal to the cytoplasm and nucleus has led to major new insights into the diverse cellular and physiological processes that are regulated by the UPR.