Steroidogenesis depends on the delivery of cholesterol from the outer to the inner mitochondrial membrane by StAR (steroidogenic acute regulatory protein). However, the mechanism by which StAR binds to cholesterol and its importance in cholesterol transport are under debate. According to our proposed molecular model, StAR possesses a hydrophobic cavity, which can accommodate one cholesterol molecule. In the bound form, cholesterol interacts with hydrophobic side-chains located in the C-terminal α-helix 4, thereby favouring the folding of this helix. To verify this model experimentally, we have characterized the in vitro activity, overall structure, thermodynamic stability and cholesterol-binding affinity of StAR lacking the N-terminal 62 amino acid residues (termed N-62 StAR). This mature form is biologically active and has a well-defined tertiary structure. Addition of cholesterol to N-62 StAR led to an increase in the α-helical content and T° (melting temperature), indicating the formation of a stable complex. However, the mutation F267Q, which is located in the C-terminal helix interface lining the cholesterol-binding site, reduced the biological activity of StAR. Furthermore, the cholesterol-induced thermodynamic stability and the binding capacity of StAR were significantly diminished in the F267Q mutant. Titration of StAR with cholesterol yielded a 1:1 complex with an apparent KD of 3×10−8. These results support our model and indicate that StAR can readily bind to cholesterol with an apparent affinity that commensurates with monomeric cholesterol solubility in water. The proper function of the C-terminal α-helix is essential for the binding process.

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