MUC1, a glycoprotein overexpressed by a variety of human adenocarcinomas, is a type I transmembrane protein (MUC1/TM) that soon after its synthesis undergoes proteolytic cleavage in its extracellular domain. This cleavage generates two subunits, alpha and beta, that specifically recognize each other and bind together in a strong noncovalent interaction. Proteolysis occurs within the SEA module, a 120-amino acid domain that is highly conserved in a number of heavily glycosylated mucin-like proteins. Post-translational cleavage of the SEA module occurs at a site similar to that in MUC1 in the glycoproteins IgHepta and MUC3. However, as in the case of other proteins containing the cleaved SEA module, the mechanism of MUC1 proteolysis has not been elucidated. Alternative splicing generates two transmembrane MUC1 isoforms, designated MUC1/Y and MUC1/X. We demonstrated here that MUC1/X, whose extracellular domain is comprised solely of the SEA module in addition to 30 MUC1 N-terminal amino acids, undergoes proteolytic cleavage at the same site as the MUC1/TM protein. In contrast, the MUC1/Y isoform, composed of an N-terminally truncated SEA module, is not cleaved. Cysteine or threonine mutations of the MUC1/X serine residue (Ser-63) immediately C-terminal to the cleavage site generated cleaved proteins, whereas mutation of the Ser-63 residue of MUC1/X to any other of 17 amino acids did not result in cleavage. In vitro incubation of highly purified precursor MUC1/X protein resulted in self-cleavage. Furthermore, addition of hydroxylamine, a strong nucleophile, markedly enhanced cleavage. Both these features are signature characteristics of self-cleaving proteins, and we concluded that MUC1 undergoes autoproteolysis mediated by an N --> O-acyl rearrangement at the cleavage site followed by hydrolytic resolution of the unstable ester and concomitant cleavage. It is likely that all cleaved SEA module-containing proteins follow a similar route.
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