Age-related cataract is a result of crystallins, the predominant lens proteins, forming light-scattering aggregates. In the low protein turnover environment of the eye lens, the crystallins are susceptible to modifications that can reduce stability, increasing the probability of unfolding and aggregation events occurring. It is hypothesized that the α-crystallin molecular chaperone system recognizes and binds these proteins before they can form the light-scattering centres that result in cataract, thus maintaining the long-term transparency of the lens. In the present study, we investigated the unfolding and aggregation of (wild-type) human and calf βB2-crystallins and the formation of a complex between α-crystallin and βB2-crystallins under destabilizing conditions. Human and calf βB2-crystallin unfold through a structurally similar pathway, but the increased stability of the C-terminal domain of human βB2-crystallin relative to calf βB2-crystallin results in the increased population of a partially folded intermediate during unfolding. This intermediate is aggregation-prone and prevents constructive refolding of human βB2-crystallin, while calf βB2-crystallin can refold with high efficiency. α-Crystallin can effectively chaperone both human and calf βB2-crystallins from thermal aggregation, although chaperone-bound βB2-crystallins are unable to refold once returned to native conditions. Ordered secondary structure is seen to increase in α-crystallin with elevated temperatures up to 60 °C; structure is rapidly lost at temperatures of 70 °C and above. Our experimental results combined with previously reported observations of α-crystallin quaternary structure have led us to propose a structural model of how activated α-crystallin chaperones unfolded βB2-crystallin.

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