Minireview: Recent progress in hemocyanin research

Heinz Decker, Nadja Hellmann, Elmar Jaenicke, Bernhard Lieb, Ulrich Meissner, Jürgen Markl
Integrative and Comparative Biology 2007, 47 (4): 631-44
This review summarizes recent highlights of our joint work on the structure, evolution, and function of a family of highly complex proteins, the hemocyanins. They are blue-pigmented oxygen carriers, occurring freely dissolved in the hemolymph of many arthropods and molluscs. They are copper type-3 proteins and bind one dioxygen molecule between two copper atoms in a side-on coordination. They possess between 6 and 160 oxygen-binding sites, and some of them display the highest molecular cooperativity observed in nature. The functional properties of hemocyanins can be convincingly described by either the Monod-Wyman-Changeux (MWC) model or its hierarchical extension, the Nested MWC model; the latter takes into account the structural hierarchies in the oligomeric architecture. Recently, we applied these models to interpret the influence of allosteric effectors in detailed terms. Effectors shift the allosteric equilibria but have no influence on the oxygen affinities characterizing the various conformational states. We have shown that hemocyanins from species living at different environmental temperatures have a cooperativity optimum at the typical temperature of their natural habitat. Besides being oxygen carriers, some hemocyanins function as a phenoloxidase (tyrosinase/catecholoxidase) which, however, requires activation. Chelicerates such as spiders and scorpions lack a specific phenoloxidase, and in these animals activated hemocyanin might catalyse melanin synthesis in vivo. We propose a similar activation mechanism for arthropod hemocyanins, molluscan hemocyanins and tyrosinases: amino acid(s) that sterically block the access of phenolic compounds to the active site have to be removed. The catalysis mechanism itself can now be explained on the basis of the recently published crystal structure of a tyrosinase. In a series of recent publications, we presented the complete gene and primary structure of various hemocyanins from different molluscan classes. From these data, we deduced that the molluscan hemocyanin molecule evolved ca. 740 million years ago, prior to the separation of the extant molluscan classes. Our recent advances in the 3D cryo-electron microscopy of hemocyanins also allow considerable insight into the oligomeric architecture of these proteins of high molecular mass. In the case of molluscan hemocyanin, the structure of the wall and collar of the basic decamers is now rapidly becoming known in greater detail. In the case of arthropod hemocyanin, a 10-Å structure and molecular model of the Limulus 8 × 6mer shows the amino acids at the various interfaces between the eight hexamers, and reveals histidine-rich residue clusters that might be involved in transferring the conformational signals establishing cooperative oxygen binding.


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