Background: Members of the subtilisin family of serine proteases usually have a conserved asparagine residue that stabilizes the oxyanion transition state of peptide-bond hydrolysis. Yeast Kex2 protease is a member of the subtilisin family that differs from the degradative subtilisin proteases in its high substrate specificity, it processes pro-alpha-factor, the precursor of the alpha-factor mating pheromone of yeast, and also removes the pro-peptide from its own precursor by an intramolecular cleavage reaction. Curiously, the mammalian protease PC2, a Kex2 homolog that is likely to be required for pro-insulin processing, has an aspartate in place of asparagine at the 'oxyanion hole'.
Results: We have tested the effect of making substitutions of the conserved oxyanion-hole asparagine (Asn 314) of the Kex2 protease. To do this, we have developed a rapid method of site-directed mutagenesis, involving homologous recombination of a polymerase chain reaction product in yeast. Using this method, we have substituted alanine or aspartate for Asn 314 in a form of Kex2 engineered for secretion. Transformants expressing the two mutant enzymes could be identified by failure either to produce mature alpha-factor or to mate. The Ala 314 enzyme was unstable but the Asp 314 enzyme accumulated to a high level, so that it could be purified and its activity towards various substrates tested in vitro. We found that, with three peptides that are good substrates of wild-type Kex2, the k(cal) of the Asp 314 enzyme was reduced approximately 4500-fold and its K(M) approximately 4-fold, relative to the wild-type enzyme. For the peptide substrate corresponding to the cleavage site of pro-alpha-factor, however, k(cat) of the Asp 314 enzyme was reduced only 125-fold, while the K(m) was increased 3-fold. Despite its reduced catalytic activity, however, processing of the mutant enzyme in vivo - by the intramolecular cleavage that removes its amino-terminal pro-domain - occurs at an unchanged rate.
Conclusions: The effects of the Asn 314-Asp substitution reveal contributions to the reaction specificity of the Kex2 protease of substrate residues amino-terminal to the pair of basic residues at the cleavage site. Aspartate at the oxyanion hole appears to confer k(caf) discrimination between substrates by raising the energy barrier for productive substrate binding: this may have implications for pro-insulin processing by the PC2 protease, which has an aspartate at the equivalent position. The rate of intramolecular cleavage of pro-Kex2 may be limited by a step other than catalysis, presumably protein folding.