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A Single Serine Residue Determines Selectivity to Monovalent Metal Ions in Metalloregulators of the MerR Family

Ibíáíáñez, María M., Checa, Susana K., Soncini, Fernando C.
Journal of bacteriology 2015 v.197 no.9 pp. 1606-1613
alanine, cadmium, cobalt, copper, cysteine, dimerization, genes, gold, heavy metals, hydrophobicity, lead, mercury, metal ions, mutants, serine, silver, toxicity, zinc
MerR metalloregulators alleviate toxicity caused by an excess of metal ions, such as copper, zinc, mercury, lead, cadmium, silver, or gold, by triggering the expression of specific efflux or detoxification systems upon metal detection. The sensor protein binds the inducer metal ion by using two conserved cysteine residues at the C-terminal metal-binding loop (MBL). Divalent metal ion sensors, such as MerR and ZntR, require a third cysteine residue, located at the beginning of the dimerization (α5) helix, for metal coordination, while monovalent metal ion sensors, such as CueR and GolS, have a serine residue at this position. This serine residue was proposed to provide hydrophobic and steric restrictions to privilege the binding of monovalent metal ions. Here we show that the presence of alanine at this position does not modify the activation pattern of monovalent metal sensors. In contrast, GolS or CueR mutant sensors with a substitution of cysteine for the serine residue respond to monovalent metal ions or Hg(II) with high sensitivities. Furthermore, in a mutant deleted of the Zn(II) exporter ZntA, they also trigger the expression of their target genes in response to either Zn(II), Cd(II), Pb(II), or Co(II). IMPORTANCE Specificity in a stressor's recognition is essential for mounting an appropriate response. MerR metalloregulators trigger the expression of specific resistance systems upon detection of heavy metal ions. Two groups of these metalloregulators can be distinguished, recognizing either +1 or +2 metal ions, depending on the presence of a conserved serine in the former or a cysteine in the latter. Here we demonstrate that the serine residue in monovalent metal ion sensors excludes divalent metal ion detection, as its replacement by cysteine renders a pan-metal ion sensor. Our results indicate that the spectrum of signals detected by these sensors is determined not only by the metal-binding ligand availability but also by the metal-binding cavity flexibility.