Site-directed mutagenesis of the nitrogenase MoFe protein from Azotobacter vinelandii

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

A model describing the potential amino acid ligands to the four 4Fe-4S centers (P-clusters) within the Azotobacter vinelandii nitrogenase MoFe protein is presented. Based on interspecies and intersubunit amino acid comparisons of the α- and ß-subunits of the MoFe protein, and the FeMoco biosynthetic proteins, NifE and NifN, four conserved residues (Cys62, His83, Cys88, Cys154 all proposed P-cluster ligands) within the α- subunit were targeted for site-directed mutagencsis studies. In order to define a range of acceptable substitutions, 35 specific site-mutants have been constructed, each with a different amino acid replacement at one of the four targeted positions. Previous studies indicated that these residues were important for MoFe activity, and may act as metallocenter ligands. Unusual redox and spectroscopic properties of the Fe-S centers suggest the involvement of ligands other than the four typical cysteines, though extrusion requirements indicate that some thiol ligands are likely. Surprisingly, mutants with an Asp, Gly, Thr, or Ser substituted for Cys88 are still capable of diazotrophic growth (Nif+), though whole cell and crude extract acetylene reduction activity is lowered. Several substitutions (Cys, Asp, Phe, Asn, Met, Tyr, Leu) are tolerated at the His83 position, these Nif+ mutant strains also have varying acetylene reduction rates and growth rates. All mutants with substitutions at positions 62, 154, resulted in complete loss of diazotrophic growth. The results could be interpreted by the following explanations:

  1. Our proposed model for the P-cluster ligation within the MoFe protein is incorrect.

  2. Some substitutions permit P-cluster rearrangement to a semi-functional state.

  3. Either, P-clusters are not absolutely essential for diazotrophic growth, or the enzyme can function with a reduced number of these metal centers.