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Biochemistry. 2013 Jun 11;52(23):3963-73. doi: 10.1021/bi400141u. Epub 2013 May 30.

A route from darkness to light: emergence and evolution of luciferase activity in AMP-CoA-ligases inferred from a mealworm luciferase-like enzyme.

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Graduate Program of Biotechnology and Environmental Monitoring, Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), Rodovia João Leme dos Santos, km 110, Itinga, Sorocaba, SP, Brazil.


The origin of luciferases and of bioluminescence is enigmatic. In beetles, luciferases seem to have evolved from AMP-CoA-ligases. How the new oxygenase luminogenic function originated from AMP-ligases leading to luciferases is one of the most challenging mysteries of bioluminescence. Comparison of the cloned luciferase-like enzyme from the nonluminescent Zophobas morio mealworm and beetle luciferases showed that the oxygenase activity may have emerged as a stereoselective oxidative drift with d-luciferin, a substrate that cannot be easily thioesterified to CoA as in the case of the l-isomer. While the overall kcat displayed by beetle luciferases is orders of magnitude greater than that of the luciferase-like enzyme, the respective oxidation rates and quantum yields of bioluminescence are roughly similar, suggesting that the rate constant of the AMP-ligase activity exerted on the new d-luciferin substrate in beetle protoluciferases was the main enzymatic property that suffered optimization during the evolution of luciferases. The luciferase-like enzyme and luciferases boost the rate of luciferyl-adenylate chemiluminescent oxidation by factors of 10(6) and 10(7), respectively, as compared to the substrate spontaneous oxidation in buffer. A similar enhancement of luciferyl-adenylate chemiluminescence is provided by nucleophilic aprotic solvents, implying that the peptide bonds in the luciferin binding site of beetle luciferase could provide a similar catalytically favorable environment. These data suggest that the luciferase-like enzyme and other similar AMP-ligases are potential alternative oxygenases. Site-directed mutagenesis studies of the luciferase-like enzyme and the red light-producing luciferase of Phrixotrix hirtus railroadworm confirm here a critical role for T/S345 in luciferase function. Mutations such as I327T/S in the luciferase-like enzyme, which simultaneously increases luciferase activity and promotes blue shifts in the emission spectrum, could have been critical for evolving functional bioluminescence from red-emitting protoluciferases. Through the combination of I327T/S mutations and N-terminal fusion, the luminescence activity of this enzyme was increased to visible levels, with the development of a totally new orange-emitting luciferase. These results open the possibility of engineering luciferase activity in a set of AMP-CoA-ligases.

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