Journal of Molecular Biology

Spontaneous proton transfer to a conserved intein residue determines on-pathway protein splicing

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The discovery of inteins, which are protein-splicing elements, has stimulated interest for various applications in chemical biology, bioseparations, drug delivery, and sensor development. However, for inteins to effectively contribute to these applications, an increased mechanistic understanding of cleavage and splicing reactions is required. While the multistep chemical reaction that leads to splicing is often explored and utilized, it is not clear how the intein navigates through the reaction space. The sequence of reaction steps must progress in concert in order to yield efficient splicing while minimizing off-pathway cleavage reactions. In this study, we demonstrate that formation of a previously identified branched intermediate is the critical step for determining splicing over cleavage products. By combining experimental assays and quantum mechanical simulations, we identify the electrostatic interactions that are important to the dynamics of the reaction steps. We illustrate, via an animated simulation trajectory, a proton transfer from the first C-terminal extein residue to a conserved aspartate, which synchronizes the multistep enzymatic reaction that is key to splicing. This work provides new insights into the complex interplay between critical active-site residues in the protein splicing mechanism, thereby facilitating biotechnological application while shedding light on multistep enzyme activity. © 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.