Iron-sulfur clusters as biological sensors: the chemistry of reactions with molecular oxygen and nitric oxide

Jason C Crack, Jeffrey Green, Andrew J Thomson, Nick E Le Brun

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137 Citations (Scopus)


Iron-sulfur cluster proteins exhibit a range of physicochemical properties that underpin their functional diversity in biology, which includes roles in electron transfer, catalysis, and gene regulation. Transcriptional regulators that utilize iron-sulfur clusters are a growing group that exploit the redox and coordination properties of the clusters to act as sensors of environmental conditions including O2, oxidative and nitrosative stress, and metabolic nutritional status. To understand the mechanism by which a cluster detects such analytes and then generates modulation of DNA-binding affinity, we have undertaken a combined strategy of in vivo and in vitro studies of a range of regulators. In vitro studies of iron-sulfur cluster proteins are particularly challenging because of the inherent reactivity and fragility of the cluster, often necessitating strict anaerobic conditions for all manipulations. Nevertheless, and as discussed in this Account, significant progress has been made over the past decade in studies of O2-sensing by the fumarate and nitrate reduction (FNR) regulator and, more recently, nitric oxide (NO)-sensing by WhiB-like (Wbl) and FNR proteins. Escherichia coli FNR binds a [4Fe-4S] cluster under anaerobic conditions leading to a DNA-binding dimeric form. Exposure to O2 converts the cluster to a [2Fe-2S] form, leading to protein monomerization and hence loss of DNA binding ability. Spectroscopic and kinetic studies have shown that the conversion proceeds via at least two steps and involves a [3Fe-4S](1+) intermediate. The second step involves the release of two bridging sulfide ions from the cluster that, unusually, are not released into solution but rather undergo oxidation to sulfane (S(0)) subsequently forming cysteine persulfides that then coordinate the [2Fe-2S] cluster. Studies of other [4Fe-4S] cluster proteins that undergo oxidative cluster conversion indicate that persulfide formation and coordination may be more common than previously recognized. This remarkable feature suggested that the original [4Fe-4S] cluster can be restored using persulfide as the source of sulfide ion. We have demonstrated that only iron and a source of electrons are required to promote efficient conversion back from the [2Fe-2S] to the [4Fe-4S] form. We propose this as a novel in vivo repair mechanism that does not require the intervention of an iron-sulfur cluster biogenesis pathway. A number of iron-sulfur regulators have evolved to function as sensors of NO. Although it has long been known that the iron-sulfur clusters of many phylogenetically unrelated proteins are vulnerable to attack by NO, our recent studies of Wbl proteins and FNR have provided new insights into the mechanism of cluster nitrosylation, which overturn the commonly accepted view that the product is solely a mononuclear iron dinitrosyl complex (known as a DNIC). The major reaction is a rapid, multiphase process involving stepwise addition of up to eight NO molecules per [4Fe-4S] cluster. The major iron nitrosyl product is EPR silent and has optical characteristics similar to Roussin's red ester, [Fe2(NO)4(RS)2] (RRE), although a species similar to Roussin's black salt, [Fe4(NO)7(S)3](-) (RBS) cannot be ruled out. A major future challenge will be to clarify the nature of these species.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3196-205
Number of pages10
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 29 Sep 2014

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