Hints for metal-preference protein sequence determinants: Different metal binding features of the five tetrahymena thermophila metallothioneins

Anna Espart, Maribel Marín, Selene Gil-Moreno, Òscar Palacios, Francisco Amaro, Ana Martín-González, Juan C. Gutiérrez, Mercè Capdevila, Sílvia Atrian

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27 Citations (Scopus)


© 2015 Ivyspring International Publisher. The metal binding preference of metallothioneins (MTs) groups them in two extreme subsets, the Zn/Cd- and the Cu-thioneins. Ciliates harbor the largest MT gene/protein family reported so far, in-cluding 5 paralogs that exhibit relatively low sequence similarity, excepting MTT2 and MTT4. In Tet-rahymena thermophila, three MTs (MTT1, MTT3 and MTT5) were considered Cd-thioneins and two (MTT2 and MTT4) Cu-thioneins, according to gene expression inducibility and phylogenetic analysis. In this study, the metal-binding abilities of the five MTT proteins were characterized, to obtain information about the folding and stability of their cognate- and non-cognate metal complexes, and to characterize the T. thermophila MT system at protein level. Hence, the five MTTs were recombinantly synthesized as Zn<sup>2+</sup>-, Cd<sup>2+</sup>- or Cu<sup>+</sup>-complexes, which were analyzed by electrospray mass spectrometry (ESI-MS), circular dichroism (CD), and UV-vis spectrophotometry. Among the Cd-thioneins, MTT1 and MTT5 were optimal for Cd<sup>2+</sup> coordination, yielding unique Cd<inf>17-</inf> and Cd<inf>8-</inf> complexes, respectively. When binding Zn<sup>2+</sup>, they rendered a mixture of Zn-species. Only MTT5 was capable to coordinate Cu<sup>+</sup>, although yielding heteronuclear Zn-, Cu-species or highly unstable Cu-homometallic species. MTT3 exhibited poor binding abilities both for Cd<sup>2+</sup> and for Cu<sup>+</sup>, and although not optimally, it yielded the best result when coordinating Zn<sup>2+</sup>. The two Cu-thioneins, MTT2 and MTT4 isoforms formed homometallic Cu-complexes (major Cu<inf>20</inf>-MTT) upon synthesis in Cu-supplemented hosts. Contrarily, they were unable to fold into stable Cd-complexes, while Zn-MTT species were only recovered for MTT4 (major Zn<inf>10</inf>-MTT4). Thus, the metal binding preferences of the five T. thermophila MTs correlate well with their previous classification as Cd- and Cu-thioneins, and globally, they can be classified from Zn/Cd- to Cu-thioneins according to the gradation: MTT1>MTT5>MTT3>MTT4>MTT2. The main mechanisms underlying the evolution and specialization of the MTT metal binding preferences may have been in-ternal tandem duplications, presence of doublet and triplet Cys patterns in Zn/Cd-thioneins, and op-timization of site specific amino acid determinants (Lys for Zn/Cd- and Asn for Cu-coordination).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)456-471
JournalInternational Journal of Biological Sciences
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 18 Mar 2015


  • Copper
  • Functional Differentiation
  • Metal specificity
  • Metallothionein
  • Tetrahymena thermophila
  • Zinc


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