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Exp Cell Res. 2010 May 1;316(8):1296-303. doi: 10.1016/j.yexcr.2010.02.032. Epub 2010 Mar 3.

Selenoproteins-What unique properties can arise with selenocysteine in place of cysteine?

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Division of Biochemistry, Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics, Karolinska Institutet, SE-171 77 Stockholm, Sweden.


The defining entity of a selenoprotein is the inclusion of at least one selenocysteine (Sec) residue in its sequence. Sec, the 21st naturally occurring genetically encoded amino acid, differs from its significantly more common structural analog cysteine (Cys) by the identity of a single atom: Sec contains selenium instead of the sulfur found in Cys. Selenium clearly has unique chemical properties that differ from sulfur, but more striking are perhaps the similarities between the two elements. Selenium was discovered by Jöns Jacob Berzelius, a renowned Swedish scientist instrumental in establishing the institution that would become Karolinska Institutet. Written at the occasion of the bicentennial anniversary of Karolinska Institutet, this mini review focuses on the unique selenium-derived properties that may potentially arise in a protein upon the inclusion of Sec in place of Cys. With 25 human genes encoding selenoproteins and in total several thousand selenoproteins yet described in nature, it seems likely that the presence of that single selenium atom of Sec should convey some specific feature, thereby explaining the existence of selenoproteins in spite of demanding and energetically costly Sec-specific synthesis machineries. Nonetheless, most, if not all, of the currently known selenoproteins are also found as Cys-containing non-selenoprotein orthologues in other organisms, wherefore any potentially unique properties of selenoproteins are yet a matter of debate. The pK(a) of free Sec (approximately 5.2) being significantly lower than that of free Cys (approximately 8.5) has often been proposed as one of the unique features of Sec. However, as discussed herein, this pK(a) difference between Sec and Cys can hardly provide an evolutionary pressure for maintenance of selenoproteins. Moreover, the typically 10- to 100-fold lower enzymatic efficiencies of Sec-to-Cys mutants of selenoprotein oxidoreductases, are also weak arguments for the overall existence of selenoproteins. Here, it is however emphasized that the inherent high nucleophilicity of Sec and thereby its higher chemical reaction rate with electrophiles, as compared to Cys, seems to be a truly unique property of Sec that cannot easily be mimicked by the basicity of Cys, even within the microenvironment of a protein. The chemical rate enhancement obtained with Sec can have other consequences than those arising from a low redox potential of some Cys-dependent proteins, typically aiming at maintaining redox equilibria. Another unique aspect of Sec compared to Cys seems to be its efficient potency to support one-electron transfer reactions, which, however, has not yet been unequivocally shown as a Sec-dependent step during the natural catalysis of any known selenoprotein enzyme.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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