The T domain of diphtheria toxin is believed to aid the low-pH -triggered translocation of the partly unfolded A chain (C domain) through cell membranes. Recent experiments have suggested the possibility that the T domain aids translocation by acting as a membrane-inserted chaperone [Ren, J., et al. (1999) Science 284, 955-957]. One prediction of this model is that the membrane-inserted T domain should be able to interact with sequences that mimic unfolded proteins. To understand the basis of interaction of the membrane-inserted T domain with unfolded polypeptides, its interaction with water-soluble peptides having different sequences was studied. The membrane-inserted T domain was able to recognize helix-forming 23-residue Ala-rich peptides. In the presence of such peptides, hydrophobic helix 9 of the T domain underwent the previously characterized conformational change from a state exhibiting shallow membrane insertion to one exhibiting deep insertion. This conformational change was more readily induced by the more hydrophobic peptides that were tested. It did not occur at all in the presence a hydrophilic peptide in which alternating Ser and Gly replaced Ala or in the presence of unfolded hydrophilic peptides derived from the A chain of the toxin. Interestingly, a peptide with a complex sequence (RKE3KE2LMEW2KM2SETLNF) also interacted with the T domain very strongly. We conclude that the membrane-inserted T domain cannot recognize every unfolded amino acid sequence. However, it does not exhibit strong sequence specificity, instead having the ability to recognize and interact with a variety of amino acid sequences having moderate hydrophobicity. This recognition was not strictly correlated with the strength of peptide binding to the lipid, suggesting that more than just hydrophobicity is involved. Although it does not prove that the T domain functions as a chaperone, T domain recognition of hydrophobic sequences is consistent with it having polypeptide recognition properties that are chaperone-like.
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