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The nuclear/hormone receptors are an extensive family of ligand-activated transcription factors that recognise DNA targets through a highly conserved, structurally autonomous DNA-binding domain. The compact structure of the DNA-binding domain is supported by two zinc ions, each of which is co-ordinated by the tetrahedral arrangement of thiol groups from four cysteine residues. Metal binding is expected to be linked with deprotonation of the co-ordinating thiol groups and folding of the polypeptide. Using a variety of biophysical approaches, we characterise these linked equilibria for the isolated DNA-binding domains (DBD) of the receptors for estrogen and glucocorticoid. Mass spectrometry and equilibrium denaturation indicate that, near neutral pH, approximately four of the eight co-ordinating thiol groups release protons with zinc uptake, in agreement with the expected pK(a) change for the -SH group in the presence of the metal. Mass spectrometry reveals that the protein charge distribution changes with the uptake of zinc and that metal binding is co-operative. The co-operativity is consistent with observations from equilibrium denaturation, which indicate that the folding event is a two-state process. A crucial residue that stabilises the equilibrium structure of the DBD fold itself is a cysteine residue situated in the hydrophobic core of all known nuclear hormone receptors (but not involved in metal binding): it appears to be conserved absolutely for its unique combination of size and hydrophobicity. Stabilisation of the DBDs could be achieved by truncating the flexible, basic termini, suggesting that like-charge clusters may have deleterious effects on protein folds. While the metal-free apo protein and the chemically denatured state have little defined secondary structure, these states were expanded only partially in comparison with the native structure, according to data from small-angle X-ray scattering. The comparatively compact shapes of the denatured and apo forms may explain, in part, the marginal stability of the native fold.

Original publication




Journal article


J Mol Biol

Publication Date





87 - 106


Amino Acid Sequence, Apoproteins, Calorimetry, Circular Dichroism, Cysteine, DNA, DNA-Binding Proteins, Hydrogen-Ion Concentration, Models, Molecular, Molecular Sequence Data, Molecular Weight, Mutation, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Biomolecular, Protein Binding, Protein Conformation, Protein Denaturation, Protein Folding, Protein Structure, Tertiary, Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear, Receptors, Estrogen, Receptors, Glucocorticoid, Spectrometry, Fluorescence, Spectrometry, Mass, Electrospray Ionization, Thermodynamics, X-Ray Diffraction, Zinc