Glutamine synthetase (GS) catalyzes the ATP-dependent condensation of ammonia and glutamate to yield glutamine, ADP, and inorganic phosphate in the presence of divalent cations. Bacterial GS is an enzyme of 12 identical subunits, arranged in two rings of 6, with the active site between each pair of subunits in a ring. In earlier work, we have reported the locations within the funnel-shaped active site of the substrates glutamate and ATP and of the two divalent cations, but the site for ammonia (or ammonium) has remained elusive. Here we report the discovery by X-ray crystallography of a binding site on GS for monovalent cations, Tl+ and Cs+, which is probably the binding site for the substrate ammonium ion. Fourier difference maps show the following. (1) Tl+ and Cs+ bind at essentially the same site, with ligands being Glu 212, Tyr 179, Asp 50', Ser 53' of the adjacent subunit, and the substrate glutamate. From its position adjacent to the substrate glutamate and the cofactor ADP, we propose that this monovalent cation site is the substrate ammonium ion binding site. This proposal is supported by enzyme kinetics. Our kinetic measurements show that Tl+, Cs+, and NH4+ are competitive inhibitors to NH2OH in the gamma-glutamyl transfer reaction. (2) GS is a trimetallic enzyme containing two divalent cation sites (n1, n2) and one monovalent cation site per subunit. These three closely spaced ions are all at the active site: the distance between n1 and n2 is 6 A, between n1 and Tl+ is 4 A, and between n2 and Tl+ is 7 A. Glu 212 and the substrate glutamate are bridging ligands for the n1 ion and Tl+. (3) The presence of a monovalent cation in this site may enhance the structural stability of GS, because of its effect of balancing the negative charges of the substrate glutamate and its ligands and because of strengthening the "side-to-side" intersubunit interaction through the cation-protein bonding. (4) The presence of the cofactor ADP increases the Tl+ binding to GS because ADP binding induces movement of Asp 50' toward this monovalent cation site, essentially forming the site. This observation supports a two-step mechanism with ordered substrate binding: ATP first binds to GS, then Glu binds and attacks ATP to form gamma-glutamyl phosphate and ADP, which complete the ammonium binding site. The third substrate, an ammonium ion, then binds to GS, and then loses a proton to form the more active species ammonia, which attacks the gamma-glutamyl phosphate to yield Gln. (5) Because the products (Glu or Gln) of the reactions catalyzed by GS are determined by the molecule (water or ammonium) attacking the intermediate gamma-glutamyl phosphate, this negatively charged ammonium binding pocket has been designed naturally for high affinity of ammonium to GS, permitting glutamine synthesis to proceed in aqueous solution.
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