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Adv Microb Physiol. 2003;47:255-310.

Microbial globins.

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  • 1Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, The University of Sheffield, Firth Court, Western Bank, Sheffield S10 2TN, England, UK.


Globins are an ancient and diverse superfamily of proteins. The globins of microorganisms were relatively ignored for many decades after their discovery by Warburg in the 1930s and rediscovery by Keilin in the 1950s. The relatively recent focus on them has been fuelled by recognition of their structural diversity and fine-tuning to fulfill (probably) discrete functions but particularly by the finding that a major role of certain globins is in protection from the stresses caused by exposure to nitric oxide (NO)--itself a molecule that has attracted intense curiosity recently. At least three classes of microbial globin are recognised, all having features of the classical globin protein fold. The first class is typified by the myoglobin-like haemprotein Vgb from the bacterium Vitreoscilla, which has attracted considerable attention because of its ability to improve growth and metabolism for biotechnological gain in a variety of host cells, even though its physiological function is not fully understood. The truncated globins are widely distributed in bacteria, microbial eukaryotes as well as plants and are characterised by being 20-40 residues shorter than Vgb. The polypeptide is folded into a two-over-two helical structure while retaining the essential features of the globin superfamily. Roles in oxygen and NO metabolism have been proposed. The third and best understood class comprises the flavohaemoglobins, which were first discovered and partly characterised in yeast. These are distinguished by the presence of an additional domain with binding sites for FAD and NAD(P)H. Widely distributed in bacteria, these proteins undoubtedly confer protection from NO and nitrosative stresses, probably by direct consumption of NO. However, a bewildering array of enzymatic capabilities and the presence of an active site in the haem pocket reminiscent of peroxidases hint at other functions. A full understanding of microbial globins promises advances in controlling the interactions of pathogenic bacteria with their animal and plant hosts, and manipulations of microbial oxygen transfer with biotechnological applications.

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