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Cyclin-dependent kinase 8 (CDK8) and its regulatory partner Cyclin C (CycC) play conserved roles in modulating RNA polymerase II (Pol II)-dependent gene expression. To understand the structure and function relations of CDK8, we analyzed the structures of human and Drosophila CDK8 proteins using molecular dynamics simulations, combined with functional analyses in Drosophila. Specifically, we evaluated the structural differences between hCDK8 and dCDK8 to predict the effects of the LXXLL motif mutation (AQKAA), the P154L mutations, and drug binding on local structures of the CDK8 proteins. First, we have observed that both the LXXLL motif and the kinase activity of CDK8 are required for the normal larval-to-pupal transition in Drosophila. Second, our molecular dynamic analyses have revealed that hCDK8 has higher hydrogen bond occupation of His149-Asp151 and Asp151-Asn156 than dCDK8. Third, the substructure of Asp282, Phe283, Arg285, Thr287 and Cys291 can distinguish human and Drosophila CDK8 structures. In addition, there are two hydrogen bonds in the LXXLL motif: a lower occupation between L312 and L315, and a relatively higher occupation between L312 and L316. Human CDK8 has higher hydrogen bond occupation between L312 and L316 than dCDK8. Moreover, L312, L315 and L316 in the LXXLL motif of CDK8 have the specific pattern of hydrogen bonds and geometries, which could be crucial for the binding to nuclear receptors. Furthermore, the P154L mutation dramatically decreases the hydrogen bond between L312 and L315 in hCDK8, but not in dCDK8. The mutations of P154L and AQKAA modestly alter the local structures around residues 154. Finally, we identified the inhibitor-induced conformational changes of hCDK8, and our results suggest a structural difference in the drug-binding site between hCDK8 and dCDK8. Taken together, these results provide the structural insights into the roles of the LXXLL motif and the kinase activity of CDK8 in vivo.

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