LEA (late embryogenesis abundant) proteins in both plants and animals are associated with tolerance to water stress resulting from desiccation and cold shock. However, although various functions of LEA proteins have been proposed, their precise role has not been defined. Recent bioinformatics studies suggest that LEA proteins might behave as molecular chaperones, and the current study was undertaken to test this hypothesis. Recombinant forms of AavLEA1, a group 3 LEA protein from the anhydrobiotic nematode Aphelenchus avenae, and Em, a group 1 LEA protein from wheat, have been subjected to functional analysis. Heat-stress experiments with citrate synthase, which is susceptible to aggregation at high temperatures, suggest that LEA proteins do not behave as classical molecular chaperones, but they do exhibit a protective, synergistic effect in the presence of the so-called chemical chaperone, trehalose. In contrast, both LEA proteins can independently protect citrate synthase from aggregation due to desiccation and freezing, in keeping with a role in water-stress tolerance; similar results were obtained with lactate dehydrogenase. This is the first evidence of anti-aggregation activity of LEA proteins due to water stress. Again, a synergistic effect of LEA and trehalose was observed, which is significant given that non-reducing disaccharides are known to accumulate during dehydration in plants and nematodes. A model is proposed whereby LEA proteins might act as a novel form of molecular chaperone, or ‘molecular shield’, to help prevent the formation of damaging protein aggregates during water stress.

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