Skeletal-muscle phosphorylase kinase is a hexadecameric oligomer composed of equivalent amounts of four different subunits, (alpha beta gamma delta)4. The delta-subunit, which is calmodulin, functions as an integral subunit of the oligomer, and the gamma-subunit is catalytic. To learn more about intersubunit contacts within the hexadecamer and about the roles of individual subunits, we induced partial dissociation of the holoenzyme with low concentrations of urea. In the absence of Ca2+ the quaternary structure of phosphorylase kinase is very sensitive to urea over a narrow concentration range. Gel-filtration chromatography in the presence of progressively increasing concentrations of urea indicates that between 1.15 M- and 1.35 M-urea the delta-subunit dissociates, allowing extensive formation of complexes larger than the native enzyme that contain equivalent amounts of alpha-, β- and gamma-subunits. As the urea concentration is increased to 2 M and 3 M, nearly all of the enzyme aggregates to the heavy species devoid of delta-subunit. Addition of Ca2+, which is known to block dissociation of the delta-subunit [Shenolikar, Cohen, Cohen, Nairn & Perry (1979) Eur. J. Biochem. 100, 329-337], also blocks aggregation of the enzyme induced by the low concentrations of urea. These results suggest that in native phosphorylase kinase the delta-subunit, in addition to activating the catalytic subunit and conferring upon it Ca2(+)-sensitivity, may also serve a structural role in preventing aggregation of the alpha-, β- and gamma-subunits, thus limiting to four the number of alpha beta gamma delta protomers that associate under standard conditions. In gel-filtration chromatography with urea a protein peak containing equivalent amounts of alpha- and gamma-subunits is also observed, as is a peak containing only β-subunits. Increasing concentrations of urea have a biphasic effect on the activity of the holoenzyme, being stimulatory up to 1 M and then inhibitory. The concentration-dependence of urea in the inhibitory phase parallels its ability to induce dissociation of the delta-subunit.

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