The eukaryotic copper,zinc superoxide dismutases are remarkably stable dimeric proteins that maintain an intrasubunit disulfide bond in the reducing environment of the cytosol and are active under a variety of stringent denaturing conditions. The structural interplay of conserved disulfide bond and metal-site occupancy in human copper,zinc superoxide dismutase (hSOD1) is of increasing interest as these post-translational modifications are known to dramatically alter the catalytic chemistry, the subcellular localization, and the susceptibility of the protein to aggregation. Using biophysical methods, we find no significant change in the gross secondary or tertiary structure of the demetallated form upon reduction of the disulfide. Interestingly, reduction does lead to a dramatic change in the quaternary structure, decreasing the monomer-to-dimer equilibrium constant by at least four orders of magnitude. This reduced form of hSOD1 is monomeric, even at concentrations well above the physiological range. Either the addition of Zn(II) or the formation of the disulfide leads to a shift in equilibrium that favors the dimeric species, even at low protein concentrations (i.e. micromolar range). We conclude that only the most immature form of hSOD1, i.e. one without any post-translational modifications, favors the monomeric state under physiological conditions. This finding provides a basis for understanding the selectivity of mitochondrial SOD1 import and may be relevant to the toxic properties of mutant forms of hSOD1 that can cause the familial form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
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