Human O-phosphoethanolamine (PEA) phospho-lyase is a pyridoxal 5′-phosphate (PLP) dependent enzyme that catalyzes the degradation of PEA to acetaldehyde, phosphate and ammonia. Physiologically, the enzyme is involved in phospholipid metabolism and is expressed mainly in the brain, where its expression becomes dysregulated in the course of neuropsychiatric diseases. Mechanistically, PEA phospho-lyase shows a remarkable substrate selectivity, strongly discriminating against other amino compounds structurally similar to PEA. Herein, we studied the enzyme under steady-state and pre-steady-state conditions, analyzing its kinetic features and getting insights into the factors that contribute to its specificity. The pH dependence of the catalytic parameters and the pattern of inhibition by the product phosphate and by other anionic compounds suggest that the active site of PEA phospho-lyase is optimized to bind dianionic groups and that this is a prime determinant of the enzyme specificity towards PEA. Single- and multiple-wavelength stopped-flow studies show that upon reaction with PEA the main absorption band of PLP (λmax = 412 nm) rapidly blue-shifts to ~ 400 nm. Further experiments suggest that the newly formed and rather stable 400-nm species most probably represents a Michaelis (noncovalent) complex of PEA with the enzyme. Accumulation of such an early intermediate during turnover is unusual for PLP-dependent enzymes and appears counterproductive for absolute catalytic performance, but it can contribute to optimize substrate specificity. PEA phospho-lyase may hence represent a case of selectivity–efficiency tradeoff. In turn, the strict specificity of the enzyme seems important to prevent inactivation by other amines, structurally resembling PEA, that occur in the brain.
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