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J Struct Biol. 2008 Apr;162(1):1-13. doi: 10.1016/j.jsb.2008.01.011. Epub 2008 Feb 2.

Molecular packing in the feather keratin filament.

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  • 1Institute of Fundamental Sciences, Massey University, Private Bag 11-222, Palmerston North, New Zealand.


Avian feathers have a filament-matrix texture and X-ray diffraction studies show that the filament has a helical structure with four repeating units per turn. Each repeating unit consists of a pair of twisted beta-sheets related by a perpendicular diad, and the twist in the sheets is of opposite hand to that of the helix. Each sheet is believed to comprise a 32-residue segment of the feather keratin molecule, which contains around 100 residues, the remainder constituting the matrix. In the present contribution, the sequence of emu feather is mapped to the low-resolution model derived earlier from X-ray studies. This shows that the inner surface of the "beta-sandwich" is densely populated by hydrophobic residues and that the charged residues and cysteine residues lie on the outer surface. In addition, the inner residues in the repeating unit mesh neatly together in layers oriented perpendicular to the filament axis. Amino acid sequences from a range of avian and reptilian keratins were collected and a 32-residue segment corresponding to the filament framework could be identified in every case, supporting the notion that there is a common plan for the filament framework in all of these materials. The hairpin turns in the beta-sheet were also identified and shown to be unusually rich in proline residues and also of variable composition. Two variants of the mapping were found which have complimentary conformations of the hairpin turns and these are illustrated and discussed. Since feather keratin yields a fiber rather than a crystalline X-ray pattern refinement of the model is restricted to trial-and-error methods and the assumptions made in its derivation are critically examined and some possible modifications discussed.

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