The urea cycle converts ammonia, a waste product of protein catabolism, into urea. Because fish dispose ammonia directly into water, the role of the urea cycle in fish remains unknown. Six enzymes, N-acetylglutamate synthase (NAGS), carbamylphosphate synthetase III, ornithine transcarbamylase, argininosuccinate synthase, argininosuccinate lyase and arginase 1, and two membrane transporters, ornithine transporter and aralar, comprise the urea cycle. The genes for all six enzymes and both transporters are present in the zebrafish genome. NAGS (EC 126.96.36.199) catalyzes the formation of N-acetylglutamate from glutamate and acetyl coenzyme A and in zebrafish is partially inhibited by L-arginine. NAGS and other urea cycle genes are highly expressed during the first four days of zebrafish development. Sequence alignment of NAGS proteins from six fish species revealed three regions of sequence conservation: the mitochondrial targeting signal (MTS) at the N-terminus, followed by the variable and conserved segments. Removal of the MTS yields mature zebrafish NAGS (zfNAGS-M) while removal of the variable segment from zfNAGS-M results in conserved NAGS (zfNAGS-C). Both zfNAGS-M and zfNAGS-C are tetramers in the absence of L-arginine; addition of L-arginine decreased partition coefficients of both proteins. The zfNAGS-C unfolds over a broader temperature range and has higher specific activity than zfNAGS-M. In the presence of L-arginine the apparent Vmax of zfNAGS-M and zfNAGS-C decreased, their K mapp for acetyl coenzyme A increased while the K1 mapp for glutamate remained unchanged. The expression pattern of NAGS and other urea cycle genes in developing zebrafish suggests that they may have a role in citrulline and/or arginine biosynthesis during the first day of development and in ammonia detoxification thereafter. Biophysical and biochemical properties of zebrafish NAGS suggest that the variable segment may stabilize a tetrameric state of zfNAGS-M and that under physiological conditions zebrafish NAGS catalyzes formation of N-acetylglutamate at the maximal rate.
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