Ubiquitin RING E3 ligases (E3s) catalyze ubiquitin (Ub) transfer to their substrates by engaging E2∼Ub intermediates with the help of their RING domains. Different E3s have been found to contain a conserved tryptophan residue in their RING that plays an essential role in E2 binding and, hence, enzymatic activity. Many active E3s, however, lack this specific residue. We mined through the existing data to observe that the conservation of the tryptophan and quaternary organization of the RING domains are remarkably correlated. Monomeric RINGs possess the tryptophan while all well-characterized dimeric RINGs, except RNF8, contain other amino acid residues. Biochemical analyses on representative E3s and their mutants reveal that the tryptophan is essential for optimal enzymatic activity of monomeric RINGs whereas dimeric E3s with tryptophan display hyperactivity. Most critically, the introduction of the tryptophan restores the activity of inactive monomeric RNF4 mutants, an obligatory dimeric E3. Binding studies indicate that monomeric RINGs retained the tryptophan for their optimal functionality to compensate for weak Ub binding. On the other hand, tryptophan was omitted from dimeric RINGs during the course of evolution to prevent unwanted modifications and allow regulation of their activity through oligomerization.

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