The aceEF-lpd operon of Escherichia coli encodes the pyruvate dehydrogenase (E1p), dihydrolipoamide acetyltransferase (E2p) and dihydrolipoamide dehydrogenase (E3) subunits of the pyruvate dehydrogenase multienzyme complex (PDH complex). An isopropyl beta-D-thiogalactopyranoside-inducible expression system was developed for amplifying fully lipoylated wild-type and mutant PDH complexes to over 30% of soluble protein. The extent of lipoylation was related to the degree of aeration during amplification. The specific activities of the isolated PDH complexes and the E1p component were 50-75% of the values normally observed for the unamplified complex. This could be due to altered stoichiometries of the overproduced complexes (higher E3 and lower E1p contents) or inactivation of E1p. The chaperonin, GroEL, was identified as a contaminant which copurifies with the complex. Site-directed substitutions of an invariant glycine residue (G231A, G231S and G231M) in the putative thiamine pyrophosphate-binding fold of the E1p component had no effect on the production of high-molecular-mass PDH complexes but their E1p and PDH complex activities were very low or undetectable, indicating that G231 is essential for the structural or catalytic integrity of E1p. A minor correction to the nucleotide sequence, which leads to the insertion of an isoleucine residue immediately after residue 273, was made. Substitution of the conserved histidine and arginine residues (H602 and R603) in the putative active-site motif of the E2p subunit confirmed that H602 of the E. coli E2p is essential, whereas R603 could be replaced without inactivating E2p. Deletions affecting putative secondary structural elements at the boundary of the E2p catalytic domain inhibited catalytic activity without affecting the assembly of the E2p core or its ability to bind E1p, indicating that the latter functions are determined elsewhere in the domain. The results further consolidate the view that chloramphenicol acetyltransferase serves as a useful structural and functional model for the catalytic domain of the lipoate acyltransferases.

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