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Late embryogenesis abundant (LEA) proteins are extremely hydrophilic proteins that were first identified in land plants. Intracellular accumulation is tightly correlated with acquisition of desiccation tolerance, and data support their capacity to stabilize other proteins and membranes during drying, especially in the presence of sugars like trehalose. Exciting reports now show that LEA proteins are not restricted to plants; multiple forms are expressed in desiccation-tolerant animals from at least four phyla. We evaluate here the expression, subcellular localization, biochemical properties, and potential functions of LEA proteins in animal species during water stress. LEA proteins are intrinsically unstructured in aqueous solution, but surprisingly, many assume their native conformation during drying. They are targeted to multiple cellular locations, including mitochondria, and evidence supports that LEA proteins stabilize vitrified sugar glasses thought to be important in the dried state. More in vivo experimentation will be necessary to fully unravel the multiple functional properties of these macromolecules during water stress. © 2011 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved.

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Annual Review of Physiology

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