Glutathione (GSH) has been found to form a complex with both vertebrate and invertebrate copper-metallothionein (CuMT) [Freedman, Ciriolo and Peisach (1989) J. Biol. Chem. 264, 5598-5605; Brouwer and Brouwer-Hoexum (1991) Arch. Biochem. Biophys. 290, 207-213]. In this paper we report on the interaction of GSH with CdZnMT-I and CdZnMT-II from rabbit liver and with CdMT-I from Blue crab hepatopancreas. Ultrafiltration experiments showed that all three MTs combined with GSH. The measured binding data for the three MTs could be described by a single binding isotherm. The GSH/MT stoichiometry was 1.4 +/- 0.3 and Kdiss. = 14 +/- 6 microM. Partially Zn-depleted MT does not significantly bind GSH, indicating that the GSH-binding site is located on MT's Zn-containing N-terminal domain. The putative GSH-binding site on rabbit liver MT was investigated using molecular-graphics analysis. A cleft on the MT's N-terminal domain, which has the labile Zn-2 at its base, could easily accommodate GSH. Cysteine-ligand exchange between the terminal (non-bridging) Cys-26, bound to Zn-2, and the cysteine in GSH is stereochemically possible. Based on these considerations a model of MT-GSH was built in which GSH's cysteine replaces Cys-26 as a terminal Zn-2 ligand. This complex was energy-minimized by molecular-mechanics calculations, taking into account computed partial electrostatic charges on all atoms, including Cd and Zn. These calculations showed that the MT-GSH complex was thermodynamically more stable than MT, due to favourable non-bonded, electrostatic and van der Waals interactions. Six hydrogen bonds can form between GSH and MT. The average pairwise root-mean-square deviations (RMSD) of the metals in energy-minimized MT and MT-GSH, compared with the metals in the crystal structure, were 0.0087 +/- 0.0028 nm (0.087 +/- 0.028 A) and 0.0168 +/- 0.0087 nm (0.168 +/- 0.087 A) respectively. The RMSD values for the polypeptide-backbone alpha carbons were 0.0136 +/- 0.0060 nm (0.136 +/- 0.060 A) and 0.0491 +/- 0.0380 nm (0.491 +/- 0.380 A) respectively. No other docking sites for GSH were found. The energy-minimized structure of an MT-2-mercaptoethanol complex was somewhat less stable than the native MT domain, attesting to the specificity of the MT-GSH interaction. The possible physiological significance of the MT-GSH interaction is discussed.

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