We present the first characterization of the late photo-intermediates (Meta I, Meta II and Meta III) of a vertebrate cone pigment in a lipid environment. Marked differences from the same pathway in the rod pigment were observed. The histidine-tagged human green cone pigment was functionally expressed in large-scale suspension cultures in Sf9 insect cells using recombinant baculovirus. The recombinant pigment was extensively purified in a single step by immobilized metal affinity chromatography and displays the expected spectral characteristics. The purified pigment was able to activate the rod G-protein transducin at about half the rate of the rod pigment. Following reconstitution into bovine retina lipid proteoliposomes, identification and analysis of the photo-intermediates Meta I, Meta II and Meta III was accomplished. Similar to the rod pigment, our results indicate the existence of a Meta I-Meta II equilibrium, but we find no evidence for pH dependence. Replacement of native Cl- by NO3- in the anion-binding site of the cone pigment affected the spectral position of the pigment itself and of the Meta I intermediate, but not that of Meta II and Meta III. The decay rate of the ‘active’ intermediate Meta II did not differ for the Cl- and NO3- state. However, in qualitative agreement with results reported before for chicken cone pigments, the rate of Meta II decay was significantly higher in the human cone pigment than in the rod pigment.

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