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J Inorg Biochem. 2006 Dec;100(12):2101-7. Epub 2006 Sep 19.

Metal-dependent protein folding: metallation of metallothionein.

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Department of Chemistry, The University of Western Ontario, London, Ont., Canada N6A 5B7.


Metallothionein (MT), a low molecular mass, cysteine-rich protein, is a model system for metal ion-directed folding due to its diverse metal binding properties. In this minireview, the current status of theoretical and experimental studies that have focused primarily on the initial metallation steps involving the metal-free, or apo, MT and divalent metals, Zn(2+) and Cd(2+) is described. Apo-MT has recently been reported to be present in the cell in quantities equal to that of the metallated protein, which might indicate a potential role for the protein in the absence of metals. Molecular mechanics-molecular dynamics (MM3/MD) calculations carried out on the demetallation of cadmium-coordinated MT isoform 1a indicate structural stability of the metal-free protein with significant retention of the backbone conformation imposed by the metal-thiolate clusters present in the metallated holo-protein. Significantly, the cysteinyl sulfurs were found inverted to the outside of a quite compact sphere. In contrast, MM3/MD calculations of apo-MT starting from a linear strand did not possess any structural stability and can be described as a random coil conformation. Evidence for the sequence of metallation is discussed, together with current experimental data to support either a cooperative or sequential binding mechanisms.

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