The mechanisms involving iron toxicity in diabetes mellitus are not completely understood. However, the spontaneous reaction of reducing sugars with protein amino groups, known as glycation, has been shown to compromise the action of Tf (transferrin), the systemic iron transporter. In order to understand the structural alterations that impair its function, Tf was glycated in vitro and the modification sites were determined by MS. Iron binding to glycated Tf was assessed and a computational approach was conducted to study how glycation influences the iron-binding capacity of this protein. Glycated Tf samples were found to bind iron less avidly than non-modified Tf and MS results revealed 12 glycation sites, allowing the establishment of Lys534 and Lys206 as the most vulnerable residues to this modification. Their increased susceptibility to glycation was found to relate to their low side-chain pKa values. Lys534 and Lys206 participate in hydrogen bonding crucial for iron stabilization in the C- and N-lobes of the protein respectively, and their modification is bound to influence iron binding. Furthermore, the orientation of the glucose residues at these sites blocks the entrance to the iron-binding pocket. Molecular dynamics simulations also suggested that additional loss of iron binding capacity may result from the stereochemical effects induced by the glycation of lysine residues that prevent the conformational changes (from open to closed Tf forms) required for metal binding. Altogether, the results indicate that Tf is particularly vulnerable to glycation and that this modification targets spots that are particularly relevant to its function.

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