Interferon (IFN)-gamma, in common with a number of cytokines or growth factors, strongly interacts with heparan sulphate (HS). It has been shown previously that one of the C-terminal basic clusters of amino acids (a regulatory element of IFN-gamma activity) is involved in this interaction. The structural organization of the HS domain that binds to human IFN-gamma has been investigated here. IFN-gamma-affinity chromatography of HS oligosaccharides released by either enzymic or chemical cleavage showed that the binding site is not found in a domain that is resistant to either heparinase or heparitinase or exclusively N-sulphated or N-acetylated. This led us to take a ‘footprinting’ approach in which HS was depolymerized in the presence of IFN-gamma and the cytokine-protected sequences were separated from the digested fragments. Using this strategy we consistently isolated an IFN-gamma-protected domain (IPD; approx. 10 kDa) which displayed the same affinity as full-length HS for the cytokine. Treatment of IPD with either heparinase or heparitinase strongly reduced its affinity, confirming that the high-affinity binding site encompassed a mixture of HS structural domains. Patterns of depolymerization with either enzymic or chemical agents were consistent with IPD being composed of an extended internal domain (approx. 7 kDa) which is predominantly N-acetylated and GlcA-rich, flanked by small N-sulphated oligosaccharides (mainly hexa- to octasaccharides). This is the first description of an HS protein-binding sequence with this type of molecular organization. Furthermore, using a cross-linking strategy, we demonstrated that one HS molecule bound to an IFN-gamma dimer. Together these results lead us to propose a novel model for the interaction of HS with a protein, in which two sulphated terminal sequences of the binding domain interact directly with the two IFN-gamma C-termini and bridge the two cytokine monomers through an internal N-acetyl-rich sequence.

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