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Functional implications of multistage copper binding to the prion protein

Hodak, Miroslav, Chisnell, Robin, Lu, Wenchang, Bernholc, J.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2009 v.106 no.28 pp. 11576-11581
binding sites, copper, energy, histidine, molecular dynamics, neurodegenerative diseases, prion diseases, prions
The prion protein (PrP) is responsible for a group of neurodegenerative diseases called the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. The normal function of PrP has not yet been discovered, but indirect evidence suggests a linkage to its ability to bind copper. In this article, low-copper-concentration bindings of Cu²⁺ to PrP are investigated by using a recently developed hybrid density functional theory (DFT)/DFT method. It is found that at the lowest copper concentrations, the binding site consists of 4 histidine residues coordinating the copper through ε imidazole nitrogens. At higher concentrations, 2 histidines are involved in the binding, one of them in the axial position. These results are in good agreement with existing experimental data. Comparison of free energies for all modes of coordination shows that when enough copper is available, the binding sites will spontaneously rearrange to accommodate more copper ions, despite the fact that binding energy per copper ion decreases with concentration. These findings support the hypothesis that PrP acts as a copper buffer in vivo, protecting other proteins from the attachment of copper ions. Using large-scale classical molecular dynamics, we also probe the structure of full-length copper-bound PrP, including its unfolded N-terminal domain. The results show that copper attachment leads to rearrangement of the structure of the Cu-bonded octarepeat region and to development of turns in areas separating copper-bound residues. These turns make the flexible N-terminal domain more rigid and thus more resistant to misfolding. The last result suggests that copper binding plays a beneficial role in the initial stages of prion diseases.